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You Can’t Say That!

January 5, 2012

I was exited to John Lennon Live in New York City air on the VH1 Classic channel yesterday morning so I set my VCR (yes, I still use a VCR so don’t pick on me!) to record the hour and I looked forward all day to getting home and watching the show. The concert took place in 1972 and was a benefit for children with mental challenges. The controversy over the release of the album and video is interesting by itself but I’m not going to talk about that. I leave that up to you to check out if it’s something you’re interested in. Instead . . .

I start the tape and John, backed by Elephant’s Memory, starts rocking to New York City, but something’s wrong here. There are odd little audio drops in the song, barely noticeable, and rewinding back I realize that the line, “Have a marijuana if you can” has been changed to, “Have a ____ if you can”, and that’s not all. The next line, “The Pope smokes dope every day” has been changed to “The Pope ____ every day.”

Censorship? That seems odd.

Three songs in and John begins Woman is the Nigger of the World, a song about the oppression of woman, only there’s another strange audio drop and instead of the full lyric, John is singing, “Woman is the ____ of the world”.

What the fuck? What are you doing here VH1 Classic?

I’m not going to defend the word “nigger”. I can’t do that because I don’t like the word and I don’t like the meaning. The word is hurtful, but in the context of Lennon’s song, where I don’t think he’s using it as a racial slur, I question why it had to be censored. Are we not smart enough to take the lyrics in context? Are we so blind that we’re going to infer meaning where none exists? Are we so naïve and simple-minded and incapable of rational thought that we need to have decisions as to what we can and cannot hear made for us now? I guess according to the VH1 Classic channel, when it comes to a nearly 40 year old piece of musical history, the answers to those questions are ‘yes’. Someone please tell me that isn’t so.

I said that particular word, what we now, in political correctness, call the “N” word, which is not so very different than just saying the actual word, is hurtful and I stand by that, but I wonder why the word – why any word – is hurtful. It’s just a word, sticks and stones, you know, right? But is it hurtful enough to be considered taboo? Hurtful to the point where publishers should alter classic works of fiction like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – stories written nearly 140 years ago – because they contain racially insensitive language? And is the word hurtful because the word is really bad, or because we allow the word to be hurtful and bad. And so there’s no misunderstanding, I’m not arguing that it’s not a hurtful word, and I’m not getting ready to lobby that the word enter into the vernacular. I’m told by people closer to the issue than me that the word is hurtful and I accept that. This is just stuff I think about when I think about censorship and certain stuff in the world that keeps people separate and apart and distant and fearful of each other.

Lenny Bruce, you might have heard his name or seen the Dustin Hoffman movie, was a comedian and social critic. Despite going to jail on obscenity charges Bruce refused to censor himself and I admire that. That being his commitment to his beliefs not always what he said. He probably influenced every comic who came after him which is saying a lot. Here’s a bit of Lenny Bruce talking about that word and the power of words in general. Again, I’m not defending the word or condoning its use, I just think Bruce’s commentary on the power of words is interesting.

“What did he say? “Are there any niggers here tonight?” Jesus Christ, do you have to get that low for laughs? Have I ever told you about the schwartzer? Or spoke about the moulin john’s? Are there any niggers? I know that one nigger that works here I see him back there. Oh there’s two niggers, customers. Ah but between those two niggers there’s one kike. Thank god for the kike. And two kikes. That’s two kikes and three niggers and one spic. One spic, three spics and one mick. One mick one spic one hick, thick, funky, spunky boogie. And there’s another kike. Three kikes, three kikes one guinea, one greaseball three greaseballs, two guineas. One hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick. Five more niggers. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig. If President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” to every nigger he saw, “boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,” “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything any more, then you could never make some 6 year old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”

Offensive? What do you think? Can emotion ever be totally removed from certain words? Is Bruce’s commentary valid and relevant or nothing more than a pipe dream? Does the suppression of a word give the word power or are certain words, by nature, bad?

Here’s the John Lennon song if you’re interested. And I’m always interested in your thoughts and comments.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2012 6:34 pm

    I think there is a time and place for everything. Censoring things that have already been written, or produced in some other fashion as a work of art, or a work of culturally influenced material that exhibits the shaping of our world, is ludicrous.

    I don’t like that “n word” either, but if you are going to take it out of the song, maybe the choice of song for that particular program is what really needs to be reconsidered.

    Politically correct does NOT mean that we no longer are capable of using our own voices… does it? Writers in particular SAY what we might want to, but are unable, so restricting, rewording, rewriting… just means that we are attempting to create a box for which to keep thoughts and emotions in, and calling it normal.

    Speaking of boxes… whew, I will get off of my soap box now, and let someone else have the floor!


  2. January 5, 2012 6:37 pm

    I think I hate that word because it causes pain to people to whom it is directed. So right or wrong, it’s a bad word. Other words, however, confuse me. Making love is good, getting f**ked is bad. Why? Why can I say making love anywhere and anyplace but getting effed is not acceptable and offends the listener, me included. I don’t even type it out, it offends me because…I suppose I have been taught that. Words are so very powerful and once out there, can’t be erased. Speak with love always, hurt will seldom come from your tongue.


  3. January 5, 2012 7:23 pm

    I don’t particularly LIKE the “n-word” but society’s sensitivity to it is overblown. It is occasionally used among blacks (especially but not limited to youth) familiarly and without insult. It has not always been offensive, the offensiveness has been created as Bruce was trying to imply in his dialogue—there are some words in that monologue that are just as offensive.

    When I used to teach, I had to have my kids read both “To Kill A Mockingbird” and :”Huckleberry Finn”. In both cases, when introducing the book, I covered the board with several words–nigger being one of them. This had the same effect that Bruce was telling us. That word was used in a time when it wasn’t politically incorrect to do so. Huck calling Jim a nigger was as natural as us calling him a black man.

    Years ago, I remember looking up the word nigger in the dictionary–the primary meaning after African-American was “loudmouth.” When I just checked an online dictionary here is what I got:
    Slang: Extremely Disparaging and Offensive .
    a black person.
    a member of any dark-skinned people.
    Slang: Extremely Disparaging and Offensive . a person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc.
    a victim of prejudice similar to that suffered by blacks; a person who is economically, politically, or socially disenfranchised.

    For heavens sake, the word comes from a French word, negre’ which means guess what??? BLACK!

    Talk about soap-boxes. 😀 I’ll get off mine now. I just HATE what people have done to our language, and worse, our culture.


  4. Carole Johnesse permalink
    January 5, 2012 8:28 pm

    Hi everyone–Michael I love your blog–it’s always thought-provoking and seems to hit on the high points of my belief system. I’m a 60’s child and was an avid Beatles fan as well–I don’t believe in censorship in any form (and yes–I’m probably as far to left as I can get!) except as it applies to what is appropriate for children and that should be up to the parents. I hate almost all rap-not only because I don’t like the style of “music” but also because so much of it is laced with offensive words and phrases–but should it be censored? No—I just don’t listen to it. By the way Michael–I had never heard this song from Lennon–glad you posted it! Keep up the good “blog”!! Carole


  5. January 8, 2012 11:41 am

    I don’t like censorship in any capacity. Certain words and phrases where used during a different place in our history, and true said word did not travel well into the future, but at that point (in my opinion) it needs to be taken in context and not twisted around to fit the current moment. I don’t think the emotion of a work can be taken out of the moment in which it was used and the when it held meaning. I hadn’t heard this song before but I can see why people will retreat retroactively ..


  6. January 8, 2012 5:41 pm

    I don’t know that words lose power when they are used rather than suppressed. I do think we become desensitized to their power when they are used (sometimes too) liberally.


  7. January 8, 2012 10:58 pm

    Andy can’t play “_______”.


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