Words have great power. By way of how they sound, by way of the historical associations through which they evolve, and by the peculiarly individualistic reactions that they evince in us. When the overseers of all things PC campaign in shrill voices for the proscribing of certain themes and the language best suited to bear out those themes, they not only announce themselves as oily, slithering upholders of virtue and the sanctity of the public space, but they also betray a fundamental lack of appreciation of what it is that makes language so potent. A word of itself means little more than a particular enunciation of a particular sound, but when seen in the context in which it was birthed, it assumes a weight that according to these vigilantes of social propriety cannot be thrown around so lightly.
According to them, words used in certain contexts are offensive to the demographic for which they are intended, promulgate intolerance and bigotry, and hence should be banned. But, as odious and unedifying as these epithets may be, they still represent specific, orthographic views of the dynamics and the evolution of human history. “Nigger” is a window into a time, both past and, unfortunately, present, when black human beings were chattel and were treated as such. “Coolie” was a pejorative for an Indian race fallen from once-high civilization, doomed to serving their white overlords; “dothead” and “cow piss drinker” probably still are. “Jew” has come to be associated with thrift and manipulation while an “Abdul” is the braindead follower of an illiterate but shrewd 7th century Arabian merchant hopped up on drugs, said “Abdul” likely to blow himself and you and your kid up with an explosive belt. “Faggot” is a derogatory term for participants in the act of sodomy, an incarcerable offense to this day in many countries around the world.
The moral police would have these and many more relegated to the dustbin of obscurity. For them, such words, and the very real continuum of historical events that spawned them, have no place in art or general discourse. The World Fantasy Awards are petitioned to have the H.P Lovecraft statuette replaced with the bust of somebody a little less racist, all occurrences of the word “nigger” are stricken from certain new editions of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, and useless Robb Flynn rails against some core band frontman saying “faggot”. On the surface, these crusaders would seem to have the power of the undisputed right on their side; after all, unreasoning hate and intolerance have dangerous consequences, evidenced throughout history. Who in their right mind can step up to these bullies and say that they reserve the right to use the words nigger, coolie, filthy Jew or sand coon Abdul?
Freedom of speech is the wrong argument to invoke in such a case because our freedoms are circumscribed by the “majority decides” nature of the systems we inhabit. If the majority thinks you’re being improper, the vigilantes will call on mob fury to curtail your so-called freedoms. But in doing so, these tyrants would have a black curtain fall on history’s infamous progression so our innocent eyes are shielded from the tragedy and the comedy that is a part of who we are as a species. In outlawing controversy, whether used in the service of legitimate art or as hate organ, they would have us wish away the existence of that certain dark, unorthodox pocket of mind that thrives among us all. In telling us what to say and what to hear and what to read, they insult our intelligence; they can’t grasp the idea of seeing these words and these subjects as an unbiased, unfeeling, even educational, meta-narrative on the human condition, and they allocate the same lack of comprehension and critical nous to the rest of us.
Lovecraft may have been a xenophobe – though there is evidence that he became more accepting with age – but his writing evokes such awe in us precisely because of that innate aversion in his personality to the swarthy “other”. Both he and Twain were products of their time, and honest enough to represent themselves and their environments accurately in their work. The wise and mature audience can understand the reasons behind the existence of a piece of art, and realizes that it couldn’t be the same if those influences were neutered. Condemning something because it offends frail sensibilities is the recourse of cowards and fools; let the artist vomit forth his innermost sentiment, repulsive as it may be, and leave the rest to the recipient’s better judgement.