There’s a growing national movement to ban these three words. On August 7, the Rev. Al Sharpton staged “day of outrage” demonstrations in 20 U.S. cities, drawing “dozens of protestors” according to Black PR Wire. As part of his “Decency Initiative,” Sharpton, who wants to rid the music industry of bitch, ho, and the n-word, has also been championing a bill that would withdraw New York State’s employee pension funds – as much as $3 billion – from media giants like Viacom, Vivendi and Time Warner whose music perpetuates the banned words.
Determined to reverse the increased coarsening of public discourse, Sharpton told reporters, “Every record company has what they call a lyrics committee, where they screen lyrics to make sure they’re not against police, or gays, or Jews. Well how come they’re clearing lyrics against blacks and women?”
Pressure groups often try to control language, but even when their aims are honorable, their success rate has been low. The City Council resolution banning the n-word claims that “In 2003, the … NAACP successfully influenced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the dictionary definition of the ‘N’ word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans.”
But when it comes to language, protests don’t change much. Despite NAACP action, the first definition for nigger in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary still connects the word to African Americans. The dictionary maker responded to protests not by altering the definition, but by moving the warning about the word’s pejorative nature from the end of the entry to the front: “usually offensive … a black person.”
Legislating against offensive language won’t change much, either. A law against investing in offensive lyrics isn’t likely to pass a First Amendment test, and even with a City Council resolution, New York’s newsstands will continue to sell bitch magazine so long as there are readers to buy it.
bitch magazine calls itself a feminist response to pop culture
That’s because language works much like a free market, defying regulation but responding to consumer whims, and just as English dictionaries will continue to define words the way that people use them, not the way some expert thinks they should be used, the music industry will continue to peddle nigga, bitch and ho as long as the music-buying public wants to hear them.
Instead of manipulating words through laws and reference works, activists interested in changing offensive language have had more success taking negative terms and flipping them. Flipping can stop the vicious cycle whereby a taboo word is replaced by a euphemism which then itself becomes taboo.
Black in reference to African Americans was extremely pejorative before the civil rights movement flipped it in the 1960s by remaking it into a positive term for “colored person.” Colored person, now mildly taboo, survives mainly in the name of the NAACP itself. It was originally a “polite” term that had replaced the too-negative Negro. And Negro, before it became taboo, was a euphemism for the once-taboo black.
Influenced by the success of black a decade earlier, gay rights activists in the 1970s purposely began flipping gay from negative to positive, and at least some women are adapting bitch as a good thing. bitch magazine bills itself as the “feminist response to pop culture” and t shirts and books seek to rehabilitate the word as well.
Similarly, Heeb Magazine gets its title by flipping a negative word for Jew. In the early 20th century the word Jew had become so taboo that it was replaced by Hebrew. But Hebrew became taboo as well, as its current slang clipping Heeb attests.
Six-year-old Heeb Magazine describes itself as “a take-no-prisoners zine for the plugged-in and preached-out. Covering arts, culture and politics in a voice all its own, Heeb has become a multi-media magnet to the young, urban and influential.” Flipping has no guarantee of success, though, and outside of Heeb Magazine’s readers and editors, and perhaps the world of neo-Nazi skinheads, the word Heeb remains taboo.
America was ready for Seinfeld, but is it ready for Heeb?
For now, black and gay seem secure in their positive connotations, but in all likelihood, despite the protests and pending legislation, bitch, ho and nigga, like heeb, will continue to function as taboo words – hip hop music didn’t make them up, after all, but took them from current slang. And, for those who flip them, they’ll continue to serve instead as labels to be worn with pride.
This positive bitch t-shirt is available in ironic pink.