Are Some Words Forbidden No Matter What?

Posted on September 6, 2008 at 8:00 am

Should some words be banned entirely? In a debate reminiscent of the battles over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a coalition of disability rights groups called for a boycott of Tropic Thunder over the use of the term “retard.” The Washington Post published an opinion piece criticizing “Tropic Thunder,” written by the mother of a developmentally disabled child that began with an anecdote about a cruel passer-by who used that term to insult her child.
She failed to understand that the movie used the term exactly the way she did — to demonstrate that the speaker is a misguided and ignorant person.
In discussing this issue on BDK’s radio show, I mentioned that when I reviewed First Sunday, the newspaper that printed the review used N**** instead of spelling out the first word in the name of Ice Cube’s rap group. But that story did not make it on the air. The radio station did not broadcast the word, even though the word was not being used as an epithet but a word chosen by a group of men about themselves as a way of removing the pejorative and diminishing aspects of the term and giving it power instead. I might not agree with that use of the word but I respect the right of people to determine for themselves what they want to be called and to determine whether they want anyone who is not a part of the group to use it.
And I oppose any effort to ban any word. It makes it impossible to have a conversation about the meaning of the word and it gives the word too much power.
Oh, and the very first protests of “Huckleberry Finn,” which began as soon as the book was published, also focused on language that was considered inappropriate and shocking. The objections were not to the n-word but to the use of terms like “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” And yet, like the music of NWA, it is the language Huck and Twain use that is central to the appeal and authenticity of the works.
towelhead1.jpgNow there is a protest over the title of a new film called, as was the book it was based on, “Towelhead.” This is one of several cruel and insulting terms that the main character, the daughter of an American mother and a Lebanese father, is called by racists. The author of the book, Alicia Erian, and the director of the movie, Alan Ball (of “Six Feet Under” and “American Beauty”) have issued very thoughtful and compelling statements about the title and the term that are well worth reading, supported by the studio and by a group of scholars. Here are the statements in full:

Author ALICIA ERIAN — In addition to Towelhead, Erian wrote a book of short stories called The Brutal Language of Love. She is currently working on a memoir.

As an Arab-American woman, I am of course aware that the title of my book is an ethnic slur. Indeed, I selected the title to highlight one of the novel’s major themes: racism. In the tradition of Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger, the Jewish magazine Heeb, or the feminist magazine Bitch, the title is rude and shocking, but it is not gratuitous. Besides the fact that the main character must endure taunting about her ethnicity (including being called a towelhead), so much of the novel’s plot is fueled by the characters’ attitudes toward race.
I was not contacted by any organization or group when my novel was released in 2005. I don’t know if this was because no one had heard about my book, or because they didn’t feel it would have as much of an impact as a film. Having lived in a world in which my book has existed without protest for the past three years, however, I feel I have at least some view onto what to expect from the public in terms of a response. The bottom line is, never once have I encountered anyone who didn’t understand the seriousness of the word “towelhead” and all its implications.
This is not to say that I don’t find these concerns legitimate — I absolutely do. We live in a racist society, one in which people continue to use ethnic slurs to delineate those who are different than they are. Realistically speaking, though, these people are neither the audience for my book, nor for the film. They will continue to use whatever language they wish whether or not a movie called “Towelhead” is released. For this reason, I am pleased that Warner Bros. is standing by the title.
Towelhead, like its many cousins — nigger, spic, gook, etc. — is an ugly word. The job of the artist, however, has been, and always will be, to highlight that which is ugly in the hopes of finding something beautiful. This charge, by necessity, will at times put the artist at odds with admirable groups such as CAIR. The solution, it seems to me, is not to force the artist to alter his or her work, but instead to use the occasion of that work as an entry point for meaningful debate and discussion.
Writer-Director ALAN BALL — Academy Award-winning writer of “American Beauty, ” and creator of “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.”
As a gay man, I know how it feels to be called hateful names simply because of who I am. Therefore, I felt it was important to retain the title of Alicia Erian’s novel, in which she so effectively dramatizes the pain inflicted by such language, something many people of non-minority descent never have to face. I believe one of the unintended consequences of forbidding such words to be spoken is imbuing those words with more power than they should ever have, and helping create the illusion that the bigotry and racism expressed by such cruel epithets is less prevalent than it actually is, which we all know is sadly not the case.
One of the ideas conveyed in the film is that we all make assumptions about each other, without knowing, based on racial stereotypes. It was our goal in releasing “Towelhead” to help make this point.
Some of our past releases, like “Paradise Now, ” were extremely controversial and elicited demands that the film not be released; “Good Night, and Good Luck.” drew criticism from some as well. Warner Bros. supported the release of these films then, as they do now of “Towelhead,” as a medium to create dialogue and support the expression of ideas, as controversial or as unpopular as they may be. We apologize for any offense that is caused by this title but support Alan Ball and Alicia Erian in this effort.
Statement of: Dr. William Blizek, Founding Editor, Journal of Religion and Film; Professor of Philosophy and Religion, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Dr. Amir Hussain, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God (2006)
Dr. John Lyden, Professor and Chair of Religion, Dana College; Chair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion; Author of Film as Religion: Myth, Morals, Rituals (2003)

Dr. Rubina Ramji, Film Editor, Journal of Religion and Film; Professor of Religious Studies (Islam and media), Cape Breton University

Rev. Danny Fisher, Doctoral Candidate, University of the West
The concept of cinema can be described as ‘the cultural transmission of symbolic forms’ which include actions, utterances, images and texts and are embedded in structured social contexts which involve relations of power. These forms are produced by subjects and are recognized as meaningful constructs. As a form of entertainment, it also plays ‘a leading role in shaping attitudes and ideas, including political ideas’. In-depth studies of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films over the past eighty years have found that out of the nine hundred films examined, only five percent of all the movies (approximately fifty movies) debunked the barbaric image of Islam.
There are very few films that show Islam in a positive light. Dr. Rubina Ramji, Film Editor for the Journal of Religion and Film, is one the scholars who has researched the images of Islam in Hollywood films. Dr. Ramji screened Towelhead at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and found that this film is indeed one of those few that promote different faiths and the challenges faced by these groups in America, while offering a much more balanced representation. Using the derogatory term “towelhead” as the film’s title, in the context of this film, provides a different meaning to the term, one that encourages viewers to observe these challenges first-hand and to better understand how Muslim characters have been stereotypically displayed in previous films.
By bringing forth the racist attitudes which have arisen about Muslims living in America, Towelhead openly reveals projected fears about difference and offers a constructive, yet difficult, approach to bring forth understanding. We, the undersigned scholars, have spent years researching and understanding the impact that cinema has had and continues to have on various religious groups in American culture. We hope that the true intentions of the semi-autobiographical novel, written by Alicia Erian, who has encountered such racism as an Arab-American, will continue to be accurately reflected in the film Towelhead, by leaving the title as is – a thought-provoking and difficult term that needs to be deconstructed.

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2 Replies to “Are Some Words Forbidden No Matter What?”

  1. How could you do a piece like this without George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” (bonus points for getting all 7 in order) or Lenny Bruce and his many riffs on unacceptable words.
    For the most part offensive words result from laziness in a lack of creativity. I find great appeal in Mark Twain’s comments on swearing and cussin’. The more creative the better! Anyone who can wax poetic and weave invective in such a way that even the subject of the comments is impressed – well, they are doing it right! Otherwise words like these (listed in the article above) are meant as a form of abusive, a verbal slap, from someone who has no other idea about how to relieve their pent anger. When these words are used the person who said them intentionally is usually trying to provoke something. They are requiring attention. People who use them without thinking are simply lazy or quite literally stupid (as in living as if asleep and unaware, in a stupor). They require education and a jolt of awareness.
    I think the author used the word intentionally and wants someone to notice, to be offended, and to demand some sensitivity and care. I agree with her. In a world where people are either working overtime to be mean or contorting reality to be nice, it is good to get a cold wash of reality. I look forward to seeing the movie – or if all else fails and our cineplex does not carry it, reading the book.

  2. I saw “Tropic Thunder” yesterday, and would see it again before it comes out on DVD. Yes, like “Borat” it is crude and tasteless. It is also (IMO) incredibly hilarious. I was laughing so loud in the theater that I would have been embarrassed except lots of others were laughing just as much.
    The “Don’t go ‘full retard'” exchange between Ben Stiller and Robert Downey, Jr. was the best part of the film. Downey’s character mentioned Sean Penn’s blatant Oscar-bid with “I Am Sam,” but he might also have reminded viewers from an earlier generation of Cliff Robertson’s self-promotion campaign after he played a retarded man in “Charly.” Or the so-called “comedy” of Jerry Lewis and Adam Sandler.

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