Overton’s Dictionary

To its credit, the New York Times published an op-ed by Indiana University law prof Steve Sanders. The subtitle should have sufficed, as the content was so uncontroversial as to require nothing more to be said.

Those College Students Who Used the N-Word Shouldn’t Have Been Arrested

They were guilty of vulgarity and ignorance, but “ridicule” is not a crime.

Nevertheless, more had to be written or it wouldn’t have made the cut as an op-ed, so Sanders explained.

First, the Supreme Court has long held that a law may not be so vague that it leaves an ordinary person uncertain about what it prohibits. Criminal laws, the court has said, may not create a “standardless sweep” that “allows policemen, prosecutors, and juries to pursue their personal predilections.”

Those who cheer the arrests of the University of Connecticut students might ask themselves whether they would be equally happy with a prosecutor who decided that it was criminal “ridicule” for someone to walk down the street uttering a racial slur while reciting rap lyrics. But that’s not ridicule, you say? Well, that’s the point: Who should be trusted to decide such things when fines, jail time and expulsion from college loom as possible consequences?

The problem with this argument, which is used regularly because it’s easy to make and easy to digest, is that it’s also easy to dispute. Who decides? Putting aside the true answer, which is that each of us, in our deepest, darkest hearts, believes we should because, let’s face it, we are the most reasonable person ever and know best, the easy response is that the “n-word” is universally acknowledged as being the nuclear bomb of language and is off the table.

In other words, who cares who decides on some generic, theoretical level. We can all agree that this word, this one completely unacceptable word, this word with the power to make passionate people weep and shake with outrage, can be criminalized as a stand-alone crime word. Here’s the solution:

Anyone who utters the “n-word” shall be guilty of violent felony in the first degree.

“But the First Amendment,” you smugly reply? All it would take is a Supreme Court decision holding that the word was so utterly devoid of value, so utterly offensive, that it constituted a per se fighting word. Sure, the decision would be unprincipled, but it wouldn’t be the first time SCOTUS reached a result-oriented decision that lacked rational basis.

And really, who would complain, since it was limited to just this one word?  Is there any organization that wants to come out for the right to say the “n-word,” but only the “n-word”?

Wait a second, you say. What about black people, for whom this word isn’t a racist slur but a show of fellowship? We can fix that too.

It shall be a defense to any prosecution for the utterance of the “n-word” that the defendant is  a person of African-American heritage.

Whether used for the poetry, music, literature or just hanging out on the corner, the word will still be available to those entitled by race to use it. Sure, Eminem* will have to get a day job, but no law is perfect. And you can still hum along with your favorite rap song, even if you can’t sing the words. Is that too much to ask to eradicate a word that offends people when it comes out of your mouth?

Clearly, the writer is a white person without a single shred of understanding as to the level of absolute contempt for others shown by anyone uttering the N-Word whether black people hear it or not. I am a black worman, and especially included in the aforementioned statement is any black person who uses that word.

Every single day, in the homes and workplaces of white supremacists and bigots everywhere, that lousy slur is used as a general descriptor for people of color, and most of the time there is no black person around to hear it said. Use of that word shows a lack of fellow-feeling and neighbor love. That is NOT a word suitable for satirical or metaphorical use. It is not a word that people should write into songs or shout out as some sort of playful stunt. That word, historically, has been used to demean and demoralize people, to browbeat and brutalize them, to insult them and denigrate them, to keep them down and hold them down–to put them IN THEIR PLACE. That word was uttered every single time a black person spoke up for their human rights and was met by fists and clubs for it, and it was shouted in Sundown Towns, in Jim Crow areas, and at every single lynching.

Several years ago, there was a symbolic funeral for that word. Rather than let it stay dead and buried, the rude, crude and bigoted have resurrected it. Worse yet, the illmannered and untutored sing it, and the insensitive make excuses for the cretins who foolishly shout it aloud as a game.

She’s hardly wrong as to the vileness of the word, or as to the uses to which the word was historically put. Nor is she wrong that we would be better off if the word, this one word, was completely eliminated from the lexicon, even if it meant that black people could no longer use the word either. That wouldn’t be too harsh a price to pay to rid us of the word, would it?

Then again, it’s not the only word so utterly lacking in value, so universally offensive, as to warrant elimination from the lexicon. There were other words available to racists, from jungle bunny to jiggaboo. And Italians were wops, while Jews were kikes, and gay men were fags and Germans were krauts, Hispanics were spics and Japanese were nips, while all Asians were slants because they all look alike anyway.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that none of these words, these slurs, contribute any value to discourse, and we would all be better off without them. With a little effort, the list could no doubt be crafted of all the words that no longer have a place in our language.

Rather than criminalize them as a consequence of “ridicule,” which would be too vague to pass constitutional scrutiny, we could ban them specifically, word by illegal word. Until there were no offensive words left, whereupon no one would ever be offended again.

*I’m informed that Eminem has never used the “n-word” in his lyrics. Admittedly, I have no clue, as I’ve never listened to an Eminem song, so I defer to more knowledgeable Eminem fans.

24 thoughts on “Overton’s Dictionary

  1. Dan

    “Clearly, the writer is a white person”

    When you open your response by committing the genetic fallacy, it only goes downhill from there.

    1. SHG Post author

      Identity as a foundational matter is likely to be the norm going forward. Am I, as a cis white male, even entitled to speak to such matters, other than to express unequivocal support to those higher up on the victim list (which would be everyone else)? Maybe that too belongs on the forbidden list when the righteous take over.

  2. wilbur

    “Every single day, in the homes and workplaces of white supremacists and bigots everywhere, that lousy slur is used as a general descriptor for people of color, and most of the time there is no black person around to hear it said.”

    An obvious question should be if she’s not there to hear it, how does she know this? Does she also hear trees falling in the forest if she’s not there? She has her little fantasy world populated by evil people she imagines, and nobody’s going to suggest otherwise.

  3. Richard Kopf


    You are sly devil. Overton’s Window has become a Dictionary according to your post. I am sorry but I hold out the hope that that dictionary will never come to pass.

    In that regard, and for example, does calling someone a “Crypto-Nazi” entitle the subject of that slur (assuming, for the sake of argument that it is a slur), entitle the aggrieved party to call the other party a “queer” (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it is a slur). If I ran the world, slurs would be beatified, if only to enliven debate.

    But, since I don’t run the world, I can’t dictate taste and decorum. But, as it turns out, neither can anyone else. That makes me gleeful.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      I was once told by a certain New York jurist that when I called her “judge,” I made it sound like a slur. I have a gift that way. Any word can be a slur with a little effort.

  4. Will J Richardson

    I assume that if “It shall be a defense to any prosecution for the utterance of the “n-word” that the defendant is a person of African-American heritage”, the defense would be an affirmatve action exception to the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

    1. SHG Post author

      Obviously equal protection will need some tweaking to align with the living Constitution’s recognition that some pigs are more equal than others.

    2. Jack Penry

      I know it’s a joke but I think it’s an interesting point; how do you define who is of “African-American heritage” given that some people thought Obama was too white to be called black? And how far back would you be allowed to go to qualify? 4, 16, 32, 64, 128 ect great, great, great grandparents, would one African-American be enough?

  5. Zoe

    There is no “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment. It is a myth based on Supreme Court dicta that the Supreme Court later ruled in a holding was in fact not the law. In addition, nothing gives a word more power when uttered, than banning it.

  6. Hunting Guy

    I suspect the students wouldn’t have been arrested if they had used America Sign Language instead of yelling in English.

      1. L. Phillips

        Oddly enough I know the ASL sign for complete f’ing idiot. Came in handy on occasion. (Insert rimshot here.)

  7. The Real Kurt

    “It shall be a defense to any prosecution for the utterance of the “n-word” that the defendant is a person of African-American heritage.”

    We’re all of African descent, if we go back far enough…

    The Real Kurt

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