Friday, 25 February 2011

That Word

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

-- Martin Luther King

Ignorance is a spectacular thing. My grandfather (predictably enough) used to say that it is the single-most dangerous thing of all. But I've learnt that in banal contexts—in social situations where your guard is down and your thoughts are fixed on the simplest matters—it's more than plain awful. It’s not naïve or simple-minded—it’s vulgar, it’s easy, it’s shameless…it’s arrogant.

We spent tonight in a tiny, sweaty karaoke room. I was celebrating a visiting friend’s birthday. She’s American, her boyfriend—and the setting—English. Two other English friends, as well as my guest and a good friend were there--the latter-two American. You see, my good friend’s black. This shouldn’t matter. It never should. But ignorance makes fools of us all. And damned be one's idealism: ‘it’ will always matter.

When the one English girl was out of the room, and in the middle of a certain famous R&B tune, my good black-American friend (half-jokingly) warned us not to be too casual with our words. Of course, the other English girl wasn’t in the room. And of course, what could go wrong did. And so in the middle of another R&B tune, she said it. Then she said it again. And again, and again…and in trying to excuse herself said it twice more for good measure.

My good friend ended up leaving with our guest.


At what point do we stop excusing ourselves and others for the obvious awfulness of it all? Decades have passed, and yet in every way we don’t seem to ‘get it’. We don’t get that the word is historically charged, yes; but more to the point, we don’t seem to remember the natural cacophony which probably gave rise to its vile use in the first place. Words are offensive because they have meaning, but that meaning is more visceral than intellectual. To say ‘I love you’ is to impart the meaning of love itself—the actions, reactions and consequences of saying it are all loaded in that phrase, and it’s the reason why we don’t needlessly throw it around. The meaning—the pre-loaded message—is nothing without the emotional heart of the word. We actually feel or empathise with the feeling. So the word itself conveys that phonetically—it’s a lovely, simple word.

How, then, can’t you understand that other words convey meanings too? How can you be so detached from what you’re saying, that you can’t recognise how actually—physically, sonically—awful That word is?


Tonight I made the foolish mistakes of trying to reason through a very reasonable emotional response; of almost equating one side’s embarrassment at their ignorance—stupid, arrogant ignorance—with the other’s bitter gall; of trying to make better with words what words have failed (how do you put out a fire, if not without more fire…?); and—maybe—of being so quick to give my friends the benefit of the doubt.

Because my good friend is right: In our time and at our age, and in as diverse a city as this, there really is no excuse for being so blasé. The time for education, perhaps, is over. There might no longer be chances to give, or lessons to learn. And if you can’t see why, it’s because you’ve erred on the side of ignorance.

And for one as a friend to have ignored the depth of these feelings is all the worse.

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