The Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name

With the Senate debating university reform and academic freedom in the news, ABC Radio Adelaide asked its Tuesday afternoon listeners last week if academics are “stifling speech that doesn’t conform to an accepted progressive left view of the world”. They invited Kevin Donnelly on air to answer that question. After all, who better to ask than the outspoken author of How Political Correctness is Still Destroying Australia?

The ABC’s Drive show host Julian Schiller pulled no punches, challenging Donnelly to admit that “if that free speech is, say, seen to promote racial discrimination, or is sexist, or in some way breaches different laws, would you concede that is a step too far?” We never got to hear the answer. As Schiller explained, “we’ve just had to drop Kevin Donnelly because he’s referring to a quote in Mark Twain which is against our broadcasting ethics”. Their encounter can be heard in full via this link, the segment commencing one hour and 52 minutes into the audio clip.

Poor old Mark Twain, falling afoul of the ABC’s broadcasting ethics. His crime? In 1884 he published an anti-racist novel set in the 1840s in which characters used Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name: the “N-word”. That novel, Huckleberry Finn, is still widely assigned as a school reading in the United States (despite campaigns against it). So is another anti-racist N-word novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Even in the land of the free and the home of Black Lives Matter, it is still possible to slip the N-word into the curriculum — subject to appropriate trigger warnings. Not in Adelaide.

Of course, the N-word is a particularly nasty racial epithet with a long history of abuse. But it’s safe to say that virtually no mainstream public figure or business leader in the English-speaking world today intentionally uses the N-word as a term of abuse. The use of the N-word as a term of abuse immediately identifies its (white) user as a racist, and that’s just not what anyone wants to be called. Not even racists. The former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, is last recorded to have used the N-word in public in 1975, when he was only 25 years old. Put it down to immaturity.

The weird thing about the whole N-word controversy is that it is entirely acceptable to say “the N-word” in polite society, despite the fact that everyone knows that “the N-word” stands for, well, the N-word. Last year, Augsburg University in Minneapolis (home of the late George Floyd) suspended a professor for asking students to discuss whether it was acceptable to read passages out loud from the work of James Baldwin, the prominent twentieth-century African-American author and civil rights activist. The passages, of course, contained the N-word.

Everyone concerned agreed that the N-word could be safely read on the page in Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a book about race and religion. The professor was criticised for using the word because “hearing it, especially from a white voice, is enough to evoke black student’s traumatic experiences, making them feel unsafe because of their racial identity”. Last year another professor, this time at the New School in New York, was similarly investigated for quoting Baldwin out loud.

Hearing the N-word may be traumatic, but apparently hearing the N-word referred to repeatedly as “the N-word” is just fine. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once got a lot of credit for understanding this. In 2018, he fired his communications director for using the N-word, then using the N-word again in apologizing for his earlier use of the N-word. Hastings explained in an all-employee memo that there is “not a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word in any context”. Yet Hastings use the euphemism “N-word” six times in the memo, five times directly and once in quotation marks.

So there is a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word. Just substitute “the N-word” instead. Apparently the power to be offended (now amplified into the superpower to be traumatized) only extends to the N-word itself. Anyone traumatized by euphemisms just has to suck it up.

Political correctness may not destroy Australia, as Donnelly worries. But if the ABC has a speech code that mandates that guests “conform to an accepted progressive left view of the world”, why invite the author of How Political Correctness is Still Destroying Australia to come talk about free speech? Better to just get into your echo chamber and close the door.

Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.


17 thoughts on “The Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name

  • IainC says:

    Free speech isn’t just about the right to say something offensive, it is the right to argue WHAT is offensive in the first place.
    Poor Kevin Donnelly mistakenly thought he was having a grown-up conversation amongst consenting adults able to discuss difficult topics with context and nuance. Instead, he found himself on a program restricted to one-dimensional concepts suiting the emotional maturity of 6-year-olds, to whom nothing complex or potentially frightening should be uttered in case nightmares follow.
    Unfortunately, these days, when talking to the political left, one has to assume that one is dealing with tantrum-prone toddlers for whom only the exact answer or action that they want is acceptable, all other options eliciting hysterical overreaction.
    “hearing it, especially from a white voice, is enough to evoke black student’s traumatic experiences, making them feel unsafe because of their racial identity”.
    Every phrase in that sentence is a deliberate fabrication, specifically designed to facilitate transfer of power amongst the people concerned rather than any concern whatsoever about black sensibilities. It’s a pity more people don’t call this out for what it really is more often.

  • ianl says:

    >”Better to just get into your echo chamber and close the door”

    Julian Schiller, ABC, did just that – and then voted for a 2% payrise for a job well done.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    IainC (or whatever your real name is):
    “Unfortunately, these days, when talking to the political left, one has to assume that one is dealing with tantrum-prone toddlers for whom only the exact answer or action that they want is acceptable, all other options eliciting hysterical overreaction.”
    Would you expect that in conversation, say, with the late Christopher Hitchens (someone you may be interested to learn, I never found myself in disagreement with on anything) or with say Prof Noam Chomsky, with whom, for what it is worth, I personally have not agreed all the time.) Both widely recognised as on the Left. Or are you talking about, say, lefty fresher university students you perhaps know personally?

  • IainC says:

    Ian MacDougall, thanks for taking the time to make a response, and please don’t ask Management to remove me from this site (insert “just joshing” smiley face emoji – come on Quadrant, let’s upgrade the technology to bring us into post-2016!). I guess I wrote the para that you quoted, poorly. What I should clarify is that this overreactive response tactic applies mainly to people in public positions, in the public eye, in positions or power or authority. You and I are metaphorical ants (no disrespect intended), with no power or influence to trade, gain or lose. We could make outrageous comments or assertions, but destroying us (or rather, me, I suspect) would further no-one’s agenda, or gain no power or influence. In contrast, obliterating a public figure with the “wrong” political views makes those with the opposite view relatively numerically more powerful and influential, a valuable gain, whilst simultaneously warning those of a similar heretical bent what will await them if they try something similar. Seek out the treatment afforded to Lawrence Fox in the UK for standing up to racialist bigotry disguised as “anti-racism”, or Sam Newman here for dissing BLM martyrs (and many others globally who have been cancelled for criticizing BLM), or J K Rowling’s recent travails (proving that you cannot ever be left enough for some activist bigots). Sure, it’s not an epidemic of cancellations, but only a few high-profile sacrifices are really all that’s needed “pour décourager les autres”, as they say. Stay safe, my friend.

  • Tricone says:

    I read Huckleberry Finn, unexpurgated, to my son when he was young.

    It was a delight to me to read it as an adult, catching all the sophisticated satire, absurdism, and detailed social observation I missed when I was young..

    The only similar novel I can think of is Gogol’s Dead Souls..

    As soon as my son was old enough, he rented a video of it.
    “I didn’t realise Jim was black!” he said.


    By the time he was that age, hip-hop, rap, etc was the dominant music and the N-word filled the air .

    Everybody could hear it, nobody could know for sure who was uttering it.

    No word is inherently insulting.

    A look, or a failure to look, can be insulting to whoever would find it so in that moment.

    That was always the problem with Political Correctness.

    The most fanatically intolerant people are the most readily offended.

    By criminalising offence we give licence to fanatics.
    (I write “N-word” only to avoid leaving hostages to fortune.)

  • Tricone says:

    Ian McD, although I agree with Roger to some extent about Renew Economy ,whose newsletter arrives regularly in my inbox, I was annoyed that he chose to delete the link.

    We can make up our own minds.

  • PeterS says:

    I had my first lesson on the N word when I was posted nearly 60 years ago to Fort Benning in Georgia USA. Even at that stage I thought the N word was unacceptable only to find that the accents of most Southern states pronounced “Negro“ then still an acceptable term, with a shortened ‘e’ and the final ‘o’ as a shortened ‘a’. This pronunciation applied to both white and blacks alike. So even blacks were referring to themselves in terms that sounded like the N word

  • sirtony says:

    The obsession with particular words just goes on and on. Back in the sixties comedian Lenny Bruce (still the only comedian to go to jail in America for obscenity in his act) addressed this issue. He said “It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”.

    I understand that there were some videos of original performances on Youtube but these have been taken down; however you can still see Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 movie “Lenny” with a faithful rendition of one of his pieces:


  • gardner.peter.d says:

    I recently enquired of the Human Rights Commission how I might make a complaint about suppression of free speech at the radio station where I work – specifically in the proposed content of my forthcoming broadcast. I was told the HRC only deals with complaints against the Federal Government.
    So it would seem that there is no legal redress for suppression by the ABC or any other institution of the state apart from the Feds. or any employer or organisation, despite Australia being a signatory of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Article 19 states:
    “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
    “2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
    “3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
    “(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
    “(b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    How are anthropologists now supposed to refer to the negroid, caucasian and mongoloid racial groups? Am I showing subconscious racism by asking?

  • bomber49 says:

    I remember studying Huckleberry Finn in year 10. Dominican priest and teacher, Fr Barton, had to point out that in Twain’s time he was trying to show the humanity of the black slave Jim, which was not necessarily the case when and where slavery was legal. As kids in the 60s in a mostly suburban white society we had no concept of a human being becoming a chattel with no rights. Twains novel should have pricked the conscience of those who were supporting the Jim Crow Laws, post civil war. It was a book for its time and deserves to still be compulsory reading.

  • Stuart J. Burrows says:

    The N-word in question is “nigger”. I don’t know why the author couldn’t tell us so. It’s like he’s a censorious progressive in disguise. This extraordinary suppression of certain terms even in mention, as opposed to use, is making clear communication impossible. We are still none the wiser about the reason Kevin Donnelly’s interview was cut short. What was the event, idea, or passage he was going to tell us about? Until someone gets his point out, this counts as a victory for censorship.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    That Mr Franklin tolerates your obnoxious behaviour and contemptuous disregard for standards of common decency at all is something I’m finding increasingly difficult to understand.

    It’s bad enough that you’ve turned this forum into to place where the least combative of us are regularly insulted as shills for coal and other pejoratives, but now you are insulting the one person who, if we were given the choice, may well be the only one who would not ban you for life.

    Grow up!

  • John Bertini says:

    I guess we won’t be seeing any more re runs of Blazing Saddles. An hilarious send up of political correctness. It could never be made now. Was it Bob Hawke who when speaking about his father described him as a man who was not afraid to fart in church. It seems the left are requiring us to walk around with our bum cheeks tightly clenched.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    DT: Your opinion is noted. But your attack on me rests on the assumption that to disagree is to abuse, and that any abusive exchanges around here have historically been initiated by me. Your attack is also far too general.
    If attacked, I am not one to turn the other cheek, and tend to return in kind..
    If you wish to persist with this, then specifics please, with urls.
    Meanwhile, have a read of my post about halfway up this thread, in which I quote Franklin:
    QUOTE BEGINS At a couple of other ostensibly left-wing sites, I have had comments deleted after posting, for what can only be assumed is lack of political correctness, and Roger Franklin’s deletion of my comment at https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/doomed-planet/2020/09/a-fools-bargain-trades-gold-for-green/#comment-85184
    with the nasty addendum “COMMENT DELETED. Renew Economy, the cited source, has no credibility, except with nitwits” shows that political correctness extends across the political spectrum and includes this ‘liberal’ journal, well and truly. Under Franklin’s benighted editorship, its liberalism is a sham, and that needs pointing out; and repeatedly.
    Paraphrasing the mighty Voltaire: ‘I may not agree with a word you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ QUOTE ENDS
    In short IMHO, my sin is failure to praise the house brew highly enough.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Your sin is not that write reams of boring drivel. If that were a sin, many of us would be guilty. It’s that you treat your audience with contempt. If they dare disagree with you, you question their motives, eg they are “deniers”, “coal shills”, and have vested interests.
    When you throw a tantrum like a baby and insult Mr Franklin because, as Editor, he edited your comments you go to well beyond the pale.
    Pull your head in.

  • Stephen Isaacs says:

    To be “Woke” seems to me to be so thin skinned that you are constantly offended by just about everybody and everything! It surely must be too exhausting.

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