It's A Bitch

       Inspired perhaps by the ridicule that greeted its symbolic ban on the word “nigger,” the New York City Council is now considering a similar ban on the words “ho” and “bitch,” (which the proposed ban delicately references as the “b-word.”)  Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, chief sponsor of the admittedly unenforceable ban, characterizes the words “bitch” and “ho” as “a vile attack on our womanhood” that “creates a paradigm of shame and indignity” for women.
        So far, so familiar: the emotional conviction that equality is contingent on banning “offensive” or “hateful” speech has driven censorship campaigns for the past 20 years.  But unlike many language policers who equate offensive speech with discriminatory action, Councilwoman Mealy is not coy about her intentions, declining to join the “I don’t believe in censorship, but …” crowd.  She forthrightly uses the “c word,” speaking in favor of “some censorship” in an interview with NPR.
        Perhaps Mealy has the courage of her convictions, but her willingness to espouse censorship openly may also reflect its increased respectability.  In any case, her proposal has garnered the support of her colleagues: 19 out of 51 City Councilors have reportedly endorsed it.  But this proposed ban has already evoked more unapologetic derision than the Council’s previous moratorium on the “n-word,” (which even the New York Civil Liberties Union declined to oppose.)  NPR openly mocked the proposed “b-word” ban and even allowed the word “bitch” to be uttered on air.  I doubt that any NPR show would ever use the word “nigger” jokingly, if at all.  Similarly, the New York Times prints the word “bitch” but not the word “nigger.” It remains the “n-word,” as evidenced by this excerpt from the Times’s report on Councilwoman’s Mealy’s bill: ” The New York City Council, which drew national headlines when it passed a symbolic citywide ban earlier this year on the use of the so-called n-word, has turned its linguistic (and legislative) lance toward a different slur: bitch.”

        Perhaps the willingness of the mainstream press to say or spell out “bitch” but not “nigger” will strengthen Mealy's belief in the need for laws to expunge sexist words from the vernacular.  But the lesson she should take from this disparate treatment of the words “nigger” and “bitch” is that in a relatively free society, law has less power over language than culture.  The Times doesn’t refrain from printing the word “nigger” because it fears the wrath of the City Council; what it fears (I imagine) is the wrath of readers, advertisers, and investors.  In choosing their words, people and institutions consider social disapprobation: as Imus might attest, it’s a bitch.

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