Circumscribing speech

A black writer confronts the N-word.

Earlier this year, I had just finished with the “Snowfall” writers’ room for the season when I took a similar job on a different show at a different network. I’d been in the new room for a few weeks when I got the call from Human Resources. A pleasant-sounding young man said, “Mr. Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.”

I replied, “I am the N-word in the writers’ room.”

He said, very nicely, that I could not use that word except in a script.

I can sympathize with Mosley’s discomfort; cleansing language has the side-effects of constricting thought to pre-approved channels — pre-approved by anonymous somebodys — and, worse, protecting people who don’t deserve protection.

Recall, for instance, the ’60s political slogan “law and order.” It was coined and used for racist purposes as part of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” and served as a sort of dog-whistle for racists; it meant, “I’ll keep those darkies in their place.” But: How is a politician supposed to promise safe, not crime-ridden, streets in jurisdictions where crime is a centerpiece concern — Detroit, say? What words is he supposed to use when “law and order” is automatically construed as a racist appeal?

Ironically, the Evangelical Right has successfully flipped the formula. No demographic group in American life has more divorces and subsidiary family pathologies, and none prattles so relentlessly. emptily, or unassailably about its “family values.”

George Orwell had it right, and all of us should be on guard: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

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