Winfrey Harris' Law: Stop Comparing Things To "The N Word"
Oct. 21, 2010
Anyone who has spent time debating politics on the Internet is aware of the corollary toGodwin's Law that says once a comparison to Nazis or Hitler is made, a discussion is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically "lost." Allow me to propose another precept: once a comparison to "the N word" is made, a discussion is finished and whoever mentioned the comparison has "lost." Call it Winfrey Harris' Law. There must be a way to describe the real negative impact of a slur without resorting to lazy analogies that rank one oppression against another and diminish the unique histories of all involved.
In last week's California gubernatorial debate between candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, moderator Tom Brokaw asked Brown about the controversy sparked when one of the former governor's aides called Whitman a "whore." Said Brokaw, "To many women [it's] the same as calling an African American 'the N word.'"
First, say it with me, Tom: all black people are not men and all women are not white. Some people are, astonishingly, both women and African American. Instead of standing outside of both groups, pontificating about the impact of these slurs from a position of privilege, one could actually ask someone who is a recipient of both racism and sexism.
For the record, and in my experience, the impact of these words is not equal. My life has been far more influenced by racism than sexism. But, frankly, that is neither here nor there. The case against any "ism" can be made without ranking oppressions. As well, the case against sexist language can be made strongly enough without invoking "the N word."
The use of "whore" as a slur against women is mired in the gender bias that says the worst thing a woman (but not a man) can be is sexually promiscuous. Its use is a way of dehumanizing and dehumanization is at the foundation of a history of violence against women. There is no use in saying, as Salon's Joan Walsh does, that "whore" has "become gender neutral." It is true that the word is now often used to describe any person, regardless of gender, who trades decency and values for money. (We could have a discussion about the dehumanization of sex workers here, too.) But words have histories that can affect their meaning. In a still sexist society, "whore" is not gender neutral. (It is worth noting that when searching for an image to accompany this post, nearly every image tagged "whore" was of a woman.)
See there. I just discussed what's wrong with "the W word" without ever invoking "the N word."
I would love to see the mainstream media have a real discussion about sexist language and how it contributes to the marginalization of women. Sexist language is bad, not because it is just like racist language, but because it is damaging to girls and women in its own unique way. Injecting "the N word" into the discussion does not further this dialog. Instead, it seems to diminish the ugly effects of both sexist and racist language, bringing us no closer to solving any issues of social equality.
And so, we all lose.