We no longer speak the same language because we no longer know which language to speak. What is safe? What is acceptable? What might cause offence? What might get us “cancelled”?

Several years ago, some Hispanic friends told me of a grimly humorous and yet possibly threatening incident on the Metro in Washington DC. They were having a conversation about something innocuous in which they were discussing something or other which happened to be black in colour. The repetition of the Spanish word negro elicited aggressive looks and finally verbal threats from some African-Americans who, not speaking Spanish, had just heard the repetition of the word and had assumed that my Hispanic friends were being racist.

The important lesson to be learned from this anecdotal episode is that we will continue to misunderstand each other unless we are prepared to learn each other’s language. And this even applies to our own language. We need to know our own language in a way that enables us to accurately interpret what others are saying. If we fail to comprehend the meaning of a word which is used by our neighbours, we will fail to understand what they mean, even if we understand the other words they’re using. This is especially true because the meaning of a word can change over time.

Take, for instance, a seemingly innocuous word such as nice. How can such a nice word possibly cause offence? You’d be surprised!

The etymological root of nice is the Latin nescius, which means ignorant, of which the English word nescious is the modern equivalent. Staying true to these Latin roots, the Middle English word nice actually meant stupid. If someone had told Chaucer to have a nice day, he might have punched him on the nose! By Shakespeare’s time (Early Modern English), nice had come to mean something akin to fastidious, of which the modern word nicety is derived. If, therefore, we see the word nice being used in The Canterbury Tales or The Merchant of Venice we will be misunderstanding what’s being said, if we do not know the language being spoken, even if the language is ostensibly our own. Parallels with the episode on the Metro in DC are evident enough.

The same can be said of the n-word, which has become so offensive that its use is strictly forbidden. Those who use it are seen to be nice in the original sense of the word, i.e. ignorant and stupid, but decidedly not nice in the modern sense. There are, however, exceptions. If the word is uttered by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, we all know that it is intended offensively but if it is uttered by an African American rapper, it is not only seen as acceptable but as some form of compliment to the person to whom it refers. This same principle applies to the way that the n-word is used at different times and in different cultures. The meaning of the n-word has changed over time, much as that other n-word nice has done.

A Caucasian writer, using the n-word a century ago, is very unlikely to mean it in the sense that the KKK member means it, any more than he means it in the way that the rapper means it. The word was a noun that simply meant black when referring to a person. It was used as a variant of negro because the word black was not used as a noun but as an adjective. One could speak of a black horse, a black night, or a black person but it would have seemed odd, not to say ungrammatical, to use the word black as a stand-alone noun, unless one were speaking of the colour itself. Accusing a Victorian or Edwardian writer of being a racist for using the n-word is, therefore, as unjust as accusing my Hispanic friends of racism for using the word negro. They do not mean what we think they mean because we do not speak their language.

The tragi-comedy of the situation is that we no longer know how to talk about racial issues rationally. The whole issue is so charged that it is veiled in a shroud of euphemism. It is, for instance, no longer acceptable to speak of “coloured people”, which is seen as patronizing, but it is acceptable to speak of “people of colour” (at least the last time I checked). It is acceptable, I think, to speak of someone being black but the word negro, which means the same thing, is verboten. We no longer speak the same language because we no longer know which language to speak. What is safe? What is acceptable? What might cause offence? What might get us “cancelled”?

Lest my having the temerity to even speak of such things is seen as offensive, let me make it clear that the only answer to the problems associated with race is obedience to the commandment of Christ that we love our neighbour. As a Christian I embrace the unequivocal equality of all my neighbours, which is rooted in their inherent dignity as human persons created in the image of God. It is as anathema to discriminate against someone on the basis of their skin colour as it is to discriminate against babies on the grounds of their inconvenience.

In England, which has numerous stinging nettles, it is said to sometimes be necessary to “grasp the nettle.” We must take hold of something because it is necessary, even though it will hurt. The candid and courageous use of reason is necessary if we are to begin to speak the same language. An unwillingness to do so leads to the intolerance of the “cancel culture”, which is not by any means a new phenomenon. It begins with the banning of words and the burning of books, and ends with the banning and burning of people; it ends with dissidents being cancelled by the guillotine, the gulag or the gas chamber. The alternative is much more humane. All cultures, whether separated by time, space or skin colour, must make the necessary effort to understand each other. This requires learning how to talk to each other and, more important, how to listen to each other.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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