Sharpton's Law

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New York Congresswoman and possible Senate candidate Carolyn Maloney made news this week by uttering "the N-word."  Too bad Lenny Bruce wasn't around to hear her.  He used racial and ethnic slurs purposefully, repeatedly, to deprive them of their power.  As free speech stalwart Nat Hentoff recalled in a 2000 interview, Bruce "used to come into the Vanguard Stage, and at this time, that was probably the most integrated audience of all kinds, sexual preference, color, religion, no religion. He'd come up and look around and say, "Any kikes here tonight? Any niggers? And spicks?" The place would freeze.  What dybbuk got into this guy? Then he'd say, "All right, now, why do you get paralyzed by words? Why don't you try to figure out why those words have that effect?"
   
Fifty years later, we're still paralyzed, terrified, and fascinated by words, at least officially.  In 2007, the New York city council passed a symbolic moratorium on the "N-word," to the delight of The Daily Show, which boldly went where Bruce had gone before.   In 2008, Brandeis University Professor Donald Hindley was found guilty of racial harassment (after a secret investigation) for uttering the word "wetback" while explaining its use.   As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported: "In his Fall 2007 course on Latin American politics, Hindley allegedly used terms that at least one student found objectionable. Despite his repeated demands to Brandeis administrators to disclose in writing precisely what offended some students in his class, they have refused to tell him. According to Hindley, he explained to his class that Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks' "
  
Hindley, a tenured faculty member did not back down, but naturally Congresswoman Maloney is already groveling, the New York Daily News reports:  "I apologize for having repeated a word I find disgusting.  It's no excuse but I was so caught up in relaying the story exactly as it was told to me that, in doing so, I repeated a word that should never be repeated."  Naturally, Al Sharpton is already blustering: "If in fact this quote is accurate, Congresswoman Maloney should issue a public apology for allowing that kind of dialogue to go un-challenged by her and for repeating it," he pronounced (according to the Daily News.)  "Congresswoman Maloney should reveal the person that she was talking about so we know that in fact this conversation did occur and the way in which it occurred."
   
Sharpton laid down the law: "No public official even in quoting someone else should loosely use such an offensive term and should certainly challenge someone using the term to him or her."  It's worth stressing that Sharpton's law is generally obeyed by the press as well as politicians.  Neither politico.com nor the New York Daily News dared spell out the word "nigger."  When the FCC punishes use of even "fleeting expletives," (with the Supreme Court's approval,) media moguls often have little moral standing to complain.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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