Stick it to The Man!

I suspect the students who objected to Adam Habib’s referential use of “The N word” (discussed in my previous post) aren’t as delicate and easily injured as their clamour suggests. They were robust enough challenge the lecturers and directors of their degree programmes in what was clearly a confrontational manner.

After a childhood dominated by parental figures who demand absolute obedience, adolescents and young adults need to break free and establish a life of their own. Challenging and questioning authority is a necessary part of healthy psychological development. In the wild, this would be the stage at which the juvenile mammals leave their mother’s lair to find a genetically dissimilar mate, breed, rear their own young and be rejected in their turn. I work in a secondary school, and, meeting ex-students in town, it is alarming how difficult, vivacious teenagers are so rapidly transformed into careworn young mothers. 

To learn about the world is to generalise about it: “once bitten, twice shy”: boiling water is ALWAYS hot. However, the human animal seems peculiarly prone to taking this one step further, into the realm of theorising: thinking and debating not only about how the world is, but also how we ought to respond to it. So, as young people assert their independence, their rejection of their parents tends to be moralistic and self-righteous. As an older, male authority figure Adam Habib is an obvious target for rebellion. 

In this context, “the N word” becomes merely totemic or talismanic, like the McGuffin in a Hitchcock movie[1]. Used merely as a reference to racism, it has been emptied of its original meaning, but this does not matter: it has been cast as a taboo word, and refusing to say it is an expression of piety. The piety of others can be tested by assessing how unwilling they are to say it, in the manner of the Spanish Inquisition, or Blade-runners questioning suspected replicants.  

So “the N word” has become tribal, a shibboleth, a password that reveals friends from foes[2]

Being willing to challenge authority figures who use it also allows these moralists to impose their view of themselves as fearless warriors for justice engaged in a pitched battle against the forces of oppression (rather than being the thought police!) So the word also becomes a key to unlocking their own potential virtue and sense of self-worth. 

What a useful (non)word! What would they do without it?


[1] Of course, language is largely a codification of social vocalisations, as cows grazing at night will occasionally low to make sure they know where everyone is. Friends meeting in the street, no matter what words they use, are really just saying, “Friendly noise! Friendly noise!”

[2] It also reveals a touching belief in the magical power of words in themselves. Activists are very literary people. Hurray for literature!

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