It’s Not the Words

Now that Don Imus has managed to get himself fired from the CBS radio network and a simulcast of his radio show on MSNBC, a post mortem is probably in order. Imus’s mortal sin was to refer to the Rutgers woman’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos,” efficiently combining racial and misogynistic slurs in only three words. No one defends his statement, however, it has brought attention to the use of similar language daily in hip-hop music. If it was so wrong for Imus, why is such language somehow acceptable for hip hop artists?

Hip-hop artist Russell Simmons plausibly argues that context is everything. Imus’s remarks appear deliberately harmful and hateful. The argument by the hip-hop community is that the use of words like “hos” authentically represent some elements of the black experience in America. While it is not possible to determine with certainty the motives of others, from the outside, the pervasiveness of such language in hip-hop music undermines the self esteem of young black woman and coarsens the overall culture.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that context is critical in determining the appropriateness of language. Just because the argument about context is used to defend the language of hip-hop music does not mean that context is not important.
Every year groups try to remove Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from high school curricula because of its use of the “n”-word. In contemporary America, the use of this work is almost universally considered deliberately hurtful and mean-spirited. However, Twain’s masterpiece remains indictment of slavery and the use of religion to support the institution.

Words are like guns. They are not inherently harmful. It depends on how and when they are used.

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