With the amount of envelope pushing that Bill Maher engages in, this situation is bound to come up every once in a while. Recently Maher used the n-word.
I have 5 reactions to this controversy starting with the fact that most people automatically know what I mean when I use the phrase “n-word” because we have come to a place in our country where “nigger” is considered profane. 1. This is non-sense in my opinion. In prohibiting the use of nigger in conversation we are putting an artificial and unnecessary block on communication. This prohibition is assumes that no one can hear “nigger” and think logically which is patently false. So there should not be any controversy in this case.
2. There is a reason the freedom of speech is in the first amendment – because it is a critical element of a free society. And while there are situations in which safety dictates certain words are not used. But a talk show with a studio audience is not one of those situations. Furthermore we usually give comedians more leeway with speech because they are stepping over the line of politeness on purpose with the aim of making an audience laugh. The studio audience for his own show is a bit of a home field advantage but it should be noticed that Maher did garner laughs when he used “nigger” in a joke. So there should not be a controversy in this case.
3. If we look at Maher’s history and style of comedy his use of the word becomes less surprising and controversial. Maher’s point of view is outside of the mainstream; his style of comedy is satirical. Maher hosted a program called Politically Incorrect for the better part of a decade. Maher compared children with low IQs to dogs; he defended the relationship between a teacher and her student that started when the student was 12; he spoke of the courage of the suicide attackers on September 11th. Of all his comments, joking that he would not do work in the field because he was a house “nigger” seems the tamest. And in light of that history it might have been expected that another statement was coming. So there should not be any controversy in this incident.
4. Unpopular Opinion Alert: Even assuming that Maher was not a comedian with the history he has, I’m willing to give him a pass on certain language. This does not mean that I am enthusiastic about his use of the word because it his grating to hear. Nevertheless Maher has a personal history in which he has outspokenly supported a black president, dated black women, and promoted causes that would positively affect black people in general. That doesn’t mean he can’t be racist, but it does make me believe he is less likely to be racist. Just as you are more likely to allow a sibling to get away with stuff that would cause a reaction when done by a stranger, different people are held to different standards. I don’t see any controversy here.
5. Ultimately this incident highlights the double standard that exists regarding the word “nigger.” Historically white people used the word as an insult and/or denotation of the lesser status of black people in the United States. But as time went on black people repurposed the word as a term of endearment. Consequently I understand and appreciate the in-group/out-group dynamic that allows “nigger” to mean one thing when said by black people about black people (situation 1) versus when it is said by white people about black people (situation 2). But things get a bit murkier in situation 3 – when it is said by white people about white people (or in this case a white person). Nevertheless even with the double standard it cannot be said that situations 2 and 3 are the same, or should be understood and treated the same. Not controversial.
Bill Maher exercised his right to say what he wants, while making a joke, using inflammatory language much like he has done in the past, displaying a higher degree of understanding of the black experience in American history than many others in this country, exposing our mixed feelings about a specific word. And as much as I wouldn’t have advised him to say it, I can’t get upset about it.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.