The N-Word and the Triumph of Vulgarity

Written for Acculturated

October 23rd, 2017

For the second time in the past month, a video of a group of white girls shouting the N-word made the rounds on the internet. The first was uploaded a few weeks ago, and showed a sorority at the University of New Hampshire singing along to a rather obscene rap song which included the slur in the lyrics. The second hit the news last week, and shows a group of five white high school girls saying, “F**k n*****s.” Both cases elicited disbelief from the students’ classmates, members of their communities, and countless internet users around the country. While I agree their behavior was objectively terrible, I must confess I didn’t share in the general surprise surrounding the incident. Conversation’s become pretty crude already, why would anyone be surprised that it’s getting worse?

Our social tolerance for vulgarity has increased tremendously, even just in the past decade. The F-bomb, once one of the baddest of the bad words is now tossed around carelessly in conversation, still crass in its meaning, still used in an attempt to look edgy, but now no longer actually rebellious. My generation uses it like valley girls use “like,” overusing it to the point that its shock value has run out and it has become passé. Swearing is about pushing social boundaries, but they’ve already been pushed so far that, unfortunately, there’s no place left to go except to break taboos by using the most offensive words imaginable.

The issue that caused this lexiconundrum is the same one that arises when you knock down any moral standard. You can’t just stop at getting rid of one. When you strike down a standard you set a precedent, letting people know that if they don’t like a rule they can simply disobey it. And each time a new moral standard is erected, it too eventually falls to the whims and desires of the people. In order for any moral standard to have any strength it must be unwavering and never be allowed to loosen, even if it seems arbitrary or silly. The true danger to society typically comes not from the first change, but from all the future potential changes that will continue to weaken whatever morality the initial standard sought to promote in the first place.

Take, for example, relationships. Sex outside of marriage used to be frowned upon, then that became socially acceptable. But homosexual relationships were still frowned upon, until they too gained tacit approval. Now even polyamorous relationships are gaining traction in mainstream acceptance, with Buzzfeed dedicating an entire news section to them. The line in the sand just kept getting erased and redrawn, erased and redrawn, moving further and further away from the original concept each time. And, for the same reason, that’s how we went from people gasping at the most memorable movie line of all time, to a time where a movie with a protagonist who spews profanities like a drunken frat boy grosses hundreds of millions of dollars. That line in the sand just kept on moving and is unlikely, if not impossible, to ever redraw. If you can say one obscenity, why can’t you say all of them?

Sadly, it makes sense that these young women turned to the N-word in their own quest for edginess. It is one of the only remaining unacceptable words, and its frequent use in rap music surely only further cements its status as a rebellious word in the minds of many. It is unthinkable to us now that use of such a derogatory term could ever become permissible, but it was once equally unthinkable that the F-word would enter popular vocabulary. But someone pushed, and that standard fell. The linguistic front line of defense has been wiped out and we have nothing left with which to defend standards for civil conversation (just look at Twitter). It will only get coarser from here on out. The gosh darn world is going to heck in a freaking hand basket.