A few weeks ago, there was furor over changes to “Huckleberry Finn.” In an effort to minimize harsh language, the N-word was changed to “slave.”
Film critic Roger Ebert felt that wasn’t an upgrade. He tweeted, “I’d rather be a (N-word) than a slave,” but he didn’t say N-word. He got blasted, and issued an apology.
Last Friday, comedian D.L. Hughley said the exact same thing on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” as a setup to a joke. Laughter ensued, but it sounded like silence to me. How could the same words cause an outrage directed at Ebert and no scorn towards Hughley?
This double standard is hardly a new concept:
• A few months ago, I was wearing an outfit that wasn’t the best choice in clothing. To protect all parties involved, let’s change the details and say I was dressed like a flight attendant — blue slacks and sweater vest, white-collared shirt.
I got mocked by numerous friends. Kevin, could you show us where the exits are located? Kevin, are gas masks going to descend from the ceiling? You know, standard stuff, all amusing.
That is, until somebody outside of our circle of friends joined in. “Hey guys,” I said with a chuckle, “John asked when I was bringing the snack cart up the hallway.”
My friends weren’t amused. “What a jerk.”
• Back in high school, I was in the middle group of three levels of students. I was a little too personable to be an outcast, but there wasn’t enough going for me to be part of the “in crowd” of athletes or people with nice trucks.
Somewhere in the lower third was … we’ll call him Optimus Prime, because any other name I can think of either corresponds to or sounds like a specific classmate I had.
Whenever Optimus cracked jokes, there was silence. People were afraid laughing would get them demoted.
A middle circle person would say the same thing a few minutes later, and other middle circlers would laugh and high-five him. Somebody in the upper circle said it, and it just brought the house down because everybody wanted to be in that circle.
Maybe I should feel slighted, but I don’t. I mean, I’m sure it would have been nice to be part of the “in crowd,” but whenever I go home, I notice a lot of them aren’t the “in crowd” anymore. Maybe the adulation and lower expectations they benefitted from so richly in high school ended once they graduated, and they never quite adjusted.
Bottom line, the speaker changes how we accept speech. I’m not going to say Hughley is lucky because he can say more things as a black comedian, because biases go the other way. I remember how people piled on Chris Brown for reports he abused then-girlfriend Rihanna, and justifiably so. But how many of those same people shrugged their shoulders when Charlie Sheen was accused of threatening his spouse with a knife?
It’s one of the prices of freedom. You want to be free to say anything you want? Be prepared for other people to say whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous or hypocritical it may be. Your free speech is your core defense.
I’m glad for the experiences I had, and the ones I didn’t have, because they shaped who I am today. I guess I’d rather be a Kevin than an Optimus Prime, or an “in crowd” member. I won’t be apologizing for that.