When it comes to language, I am less concerned with profanity than I am with speech that makes provision for injustice. I am growing concerned that people care more about avoiding the wrong words than they care about the consequences of the words they speak. George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” may be more commonly spoken in public communication today than they were in 1972 when he first listed them, but it is still socially unacceptable to say those words in “polite company.” That’s because people widely recognize that words have power. However, our preoccupation with profanity has had a side effect. It has rendered us oblivious to the harm of some profanity-free speech. Too often we minimize even the most problematic profanity-free speech as “simply words.”
According to the writer of Proverbs, “the tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov 18:21). In recognizing that power, the apostle Paul taught followers of Jesus to “only use words that are useful for building up others according to their needs” (Eph 4:29). The measure of life giving language here is its usefulness. While profanity may not be useful in most situations, it is not the measure of which words bring life and which bring death.
This wisdom from Proverbs came to mind when I recently read an interview with Samantha Bloom. Bloom is the mother of James Alex Fields, Jr., the man who was charged with second-degree murder after allegedly driving his car into a group of protesters in Charlottesville in August. She responded to questions concerning her son’s involvement with the white supremacist groups with two statements: “I don’t get involved in politics,” and “He’s not a racist. He has an African American friend.”
Such phrases can be printed without censoring, because they are read as simply words. Not one of her words is on Carlin’s list of the dirty seven, but they fail the test of building up others according to their needs. Bloom’s son needed an intervention. He needed someone to question him on the politics of the “Alternative Right” or the “Alt-Right.” He needed someone to challenge his plans to assemble with white nationalists. But Bloom’s words did not require her to challenge him. Instead, these words kept Bloom from intervening in the events that led to the death of Heather Heyer.
Bloom is not to blame for Heyer’s death; a jury will determine if her son is to blame. Neither is she solely to blame for her two statements; they are prevalent in American society.
“I don’t talk politics,” “I avoid political conversations,” or “I don’t like politics” are phrases that function similarly to “I don’t get involved in politics.” Such phrases avoid responsibility for the agency that each person has to influence the policies and institutions that govern our lives together. Whether one overtly engages in politics, or not, is a political decision. Everything is political, even avoiding politics. That’s because there is no arena of human existence that is politically irrelevant. Avoiding politics doesn’t build up anyone; it forsakes our responsibility to one another.
Bloom’s decision to avoid engaging her son in political conversations meant she couldn’t intervene, understand, and mentor her son as he sought a political identity, which he found in white nationalism.
The other phrase Bloom used in her interview — that her son couldn’t possibly be racist because he has an African-American friend — suggests that she may not have had the tools to intervene and mentor her son. That’s because equating racism with the number of Black friends one has demonstrates a failure to understand the systemic nature of racism. As we saw with Dylann Roof, and as we are learning with James Alex Fields, Jr., having Black friends does not insure that white people will avoid racist views. And this shouldn’t be news to anyone with elementary knowledge of United States history. Historically, white folks have fathered Black children, hired Black caregivers, enjoyed the work of Black artists, savored the food of Black cooks, while simultaneously denying Black people full rights under the law. It wasn’t until 1968 that a majority of white people, those with the power to change laws, agreed that racism should be outlawed in our societal structures.
I often hear white people explain that they could not be racist because, “I have a black friend,” “I have black children,” or “I dated a black person.” Racism, however, is only partially a product of individual prejudice. Racism involves discrimination, and discrimination requires power. Individual prejudice becomes racism when it is supported by systemic and structural power. And power is precisely what contemporary white nationalist movements want. In an interview with Black comedian Kamau Bell, white nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the phrase the “Alt-right,” said, “I want to bathe in white privilege.” Spencer is careful to avoid the obvious bigoted and racist phrases, but his speech is no less problematic.
Spencer is never censored on television as is common for the routines of edgy comedians. Spencer has never publicly claimed to hate Black folks or used racial epithets. He claims to want a nation that protects and serves white people. In an interview with an Israeli host, he said, “You could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that’s for us and ourselves.” That type of language will not be censored from television or the radio in spite of its blatant racism. It is racist because the United States of America is a nation that has consistently provided greater access to housing, education, health, wealth, and legal protections to white people than everyone else. Spencer’s careful avoidance of profanity and racial slurs ensures that his ideas will avoid the strongest condemnations. And in so doing, he teaches white people how to avoid being labeled racist, instead of understanding how ideas like his are racist.
And that’s the problem with statements like Bloom’s. Those words aren’t useful for teaching white people how to pursue justice. They don’t enable white folks to build up the capacity to fight anti-black racism in their communities. And they thwart white people from getting what they really need, which is the awareness that racism is not merely a heart issue, but a pervasive problem that is deeply rooted in every aspect of American life.
Instead of selfish speech that excuses apathy and ignorance, what we need are words that are just. We need words that build our political will to create more equitable and just communities. We need words that are useful for building up others according to their needs.