Viggo Mortensen and “the N-Word”: Assigning Collective Guilt Through Informal Speech Codes

As Variety points out: “Mortensen spoke about cyclical and generational use of hate speech…. He used the N-word specifically as an example of speech that’s no longer common in conversation.” It was on a panel discussing interracial progress surrounding his work in a movie about slavery, Green Book, that Mortensen used the word. “I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context,” Mortensen’s apology read, “especially from a white man.”

He should not have apologized, nor should anybody have pressured him to. He did not use the word in a derogatory or directed way. He has nothing to apologize for. The cultural intimidation that is compelling people to self-censor when it comes to frank discussion about the history of race relations has reached alarming levels. This is the same force pushing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and Mark Twin’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn off the shelves of school libraries and excessively beeping out words in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles

Only a few years ago this word could be used the way Mortensen used it (and many other ways). What changed? The character of the civil right struggle. The struggle has shifted away from fighting racism to advancing a racial economy of identity, in which the common project to dismantle oppressive structures and systems has given group to work that reifies racial categories as essential types with exclusive entitlements (typically excluding whites on the basis of a rhetoric of power). Blacks are “taking that word back,” Ice Cube told Bill Marr on his long-running HBO show Real Time after Marr use the word in playful conversation.

In the era of identity politics, a lot of energy is expended in manufacturing sacral words that only members identified with some groups can use. Self-appointed leaders  – typically academicians and celebrities – determine the boundaries and usages. It’s a form of social control – in this case,  control based on skin color designation – by claiming racially and ethnically exclusive entitlement to words and shaming those from other groups who use those words in unapproved ways. Or at all, as we see in the Mortensen and Marr cases. White people are given permission to say “the N-word,” but not “nigger,” thus infantilizing those designated as white, a sort of payback for historic paternalism.

Where it is not about controlling people through language, it’s a problem of the accuser not grasping the difference between using a word as a slur intended to hurt a person’s feelings and using a word in a discussion about words. (We saw this in reflections of discussions in the Asian community about “yellow fever.” Whites commenting on the discussion were told that under no circumstance were they to use that term.)

This racial economy has progressed so far that it is problematic to even discuss what’s going on here – we’re not allowed to bracket for the sake of discussion. There are layers to analytical disempowerment. But racially-selective political correctness is (to a large extent probably unconsciously, I believe) a strategy to limit participation of some people in conversations about the cultural and social reality of which they are also a part (but for which they are not responsible merely) on the basis of their skin color in order to flip power rather than achieve equality. What is more, it’s a way of recruiting white people, in the absence of racist motive/action, in the project to affirm the claim that all white people are racist by default. This is why it was so important for Mortensen’s statement to read: “especially from a white man.” That confession is ritual truth is as true today as it was in medieval  times – and just as religious-like – and so Mortensen participates in the act of admitting and thereby assigning collective guilt.

The authors of this project are moral entrepreneurs within a demographic who presume to speak for all other members of that demographic, thus assigning to themselves exclusive intragroup permission to wield linguistic power in particular ways. It’s not unlike the Muslims who think they can forbid the publishing of depictions of Muhammad, forcing their aniconism on everybody else. Are they really the authorities here? To be sure, if they can bring consequences, then there’s power present. But is it legitimate power? No. It is illiberal and censorious.

Some will object that there is no law that can punish Mortensen for what he said and so my objection is overblown. Mortensen is just a sensitive and charitable guy who stepped up to be an ally. But informal social control can be as powerful as formal control, especially when careers can be made to suffer (Roseanne Barr losing the TV show she created for a Twitter comment is a case in point). It forced Mortensen to perform a rational calculation: How much will asserting my human right to think out loud cost me in the long run? Knowing the knee-jerk forces arrayed against free thought in contemporary western society, Mortensen did what a lot many celebrities do: beg forgiveness. And there is law in Europe that can bring a person before a court for using words – yes, the return of blasphemy to the realm of enlightenment – and given the flagging support for free speech in the US, as well as growing proprietary control over everything under capitalism, one wonders how long before blasphemy laws come here? 

I don’t need to be told that the word “nigger” is offensive to a lot of people. But there is a massive difference between using “nigger” as a slur intended to hurt a person’s feelings and using the word during a discussion about the history and uses of words – in a conversation about interracial progress. Indeed, being told that we cannot use that word in that context is indicative of how ineffectual identity politics has been in overcoming racism (if that’s even its goal). Instead, it has produced a generation of people who can’t tolerate adult conversation.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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