Politics & Policy

Just What Did You Mean?

Sometimes the outcome of a trial will depend on the context in which a single word is spoken. ”Go get Arnold,” Al Capone instructed a subordinate. What exactly did he mean by that? Meet Arnold’s train?  Or — put a bullet in Arnold’s brain, as indeed happened. In some judicial circumstances the case hangs on the meaning of a word as intended by the person who uttered it, and that question has tied down a jury in a courtroom in New York, with fascinating implications. What did the defendant mean when he used the N-word about the victim?

#ad#The victim is a 22-year old black man whose skull was fractured by the defendant, who avers that his use of the N-word was not invidious. It seems odd that the point is as important as it apparently is. One would think that smashing someone’s head with a baseball bat is pretty good evidence of acrimony. The defendant says he was defending himself against a robbery attempt, and that the use of the N-word carried not a trace of ill feeling.

The judge is spending considerable time on the question, with some reason. If the defendant is convicted on all the counts pending and the finding is that he was moved by racial hatred, he could face up to 25 years in jail. If the word was used as pure idiomatic description–as one might say, “He was driving a Ford”–the exposure is greatly reduced.  Defendant’s mother insists that the use of the word carried no racial or ethnic overtones whatever. Defendant’s mother was adamantly defensive on the point. “Every kid in the neighborhood uses it. It doesn’t mean the same thing any more. They all say it all day long no matter what race. They all grow up using it now.” A reporter on the scene generalized that the defense believes that “the N-word” is used “as a matter of course and that the word no longer carries the racially charged overtones it has historically.” Evidence put forward is rap music and conversation especially among young people. It is not irrelevant that although explications of this sort were argued back and forth, no one in the court actually uttered the word. 

The matter was quite properly examined directly with prospective members of the jury. One potential juror, asked what he thought about the use of the word, replied, “It depends on who’s saying it and how it’s been used.” That definition qualifies that man for service with Webster’s Usage panel. The prosecutor, Michelle Goldstein, would have none of it, the idea that the word had become innocent. It’s not like using the word “sweetheart,” she said, which means one thing when used by one’s fiancé, something very different if spoken by a stranger to a woman on the street.  

We can’t know whether the defendant intended obloquy. If the jurors regularly view the TV series The Sopranos, they might assume that no word in the English language is inherently offensive, with maybe the exception of stool pigeon. It is, however, arresting to weigh the consequences, under the law, of a word — this word — carelessly used. 

Some years ago I was a defendant in a lawsuit brought by a creepy fascistic outfit (they are now out of business), and the question before the jury was whether I and the magazine I edited were racist. The attorney had one weapon to use in making his point, namely that we had published an editorial about Adam Clayton Powell Jr. when he made a terminally wrong move in his defense against federal prosecutors. The editorial we published was titled, “The Jig Is Up for Adam Clayton Powell Jr.?” On the witness stand I argued that the word “jig” could be used other than as animadversion. The feverish lawyer grabbed a book from his table and slammed it down on the arm of my chair.  “Have you ever heard of a dictionary?” he asked scornfully, as if he had put the smoking gun in my lap. I examined the American Heritage College Dictionary and said yes, I was familiar with it. “In fact,” I was able to say, opening the book, “I wrote the introduction to this edition.” That was the high moment of my forensic life. And, of course, the dictionary establishes that the word “jig” can be used harmlessly. 

So can the N-word, though there is a presumed linkage between how the defendant intended the word to be understood, and the fact that he smashed a baseball bat on the head of his interlocutor moments later.

Well, the verdict here, and the judge’s ruling on it, will be one sweetheart of an exploration of what one can safely do these days in the language.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Origins of Progressive Agony

What has transformed the Democratic party into an anguished progressive movement that incorporates the tactics of the street, embraces maenadism, reverts to Sixties carnival barking, and is radicalized by a new young socialist movement? Even party chairman Tom Perez concedes that there are “no moderate ... Read More

How Will the Senate Races Break?

How will the Senate races break? We have less public polling to go on than in recent years, so answering that question is harder than ever. But the news is more optimistic for Republicans than it was a month ago.   Waves and Breakers Four years ago, I projected in mid September that if “historical ... Read More
PC Culture

Warren Is a Fraud

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has been telling a story for years. It’s a deeply romantic story about her parents and their young love, fraught with the familial bigotry of an earlier time. Here’s how she told it this week in a video she released in preparation for her 2020 run: My daddy always said he ... Read More

Two Minnesota Republican Candidates Assaulted

Two Republican candidates for state office in Minnesota have been physically assaulted in recent days, leading prominent Republican lawmakers to caution their Democratic colleagues against employing inflammatory rhetoric. Republican state representative Sarah Anderson was punched in the arm last week after ... Read More
Law & the Courts

A Christian Man Receives Justice

A good man’s legal ordeal is at an end. Yesterday, my friends and former colleagues at the Alliance Defending Freedom announced that former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran had reached a $1.2 million settlement, ending a case he brought after the city fired him for writing -- and distributing to a select few ... Read More