As I write this, news is buzzing across social media and celebrity gossip sites about Papa John’s Pizza founder and chairman John Schnatter’s recent resignation. I saw his name trending on Twitter today while I was having lunch with my dad at a local Italian restaurant (We were not at a Papa John’s Pizza.) Apparently he used the N-word during a conference call a few months ago, which has also led to his subsequent resignation from the University of Louisville’s board of trustees. We can only assume that the next logical step will be for a barbarian horde of sycophantic Internet trolls to drag him into the public city square for a good 90 lashings. Or maybe they’ll exile him to their own Pit of Despair, although I’m sure even that wouldn’t be enough to satiate their bloodlust.
According to The New York Post — amongst others — Schnatter officially resigned Wednesday night after it was revealed that he “used a racial slur,” although this is intentionally ambiguous on the part of the media. The truth is that, during the conference call, Schnatter was chatting with a marketing agency, and happened to mention that Colonel Harland David Sanders — the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken — referred to black people as “n***ergs.” (Which is true.) The call was reportedly designed to function as a role-playing exercise to train management and CEOs how to handle public relations disasters (sometimes known as Sensitivity Training Exercises.) Schnatter didn’t bleep himself, however. He didn’t say “the N-Word” as I have used in the title of my column here. Instead, he used the whole word — and pronounced the word in its entirety — because he was quoting Colonel Sanders.
In a sane world, this would cause people to look unfavorably on Sanders, not on Schnatter. After all, Colonel Sanders was the original source of what was said. And perhaps they do indeed look unfavorably on the departed goateed King of Fried Chicken. But, now they also hate John Schnatter and have officially labeled him a racist because he quoted a racist. Never mind that the context and intent of Schnatter’s quote were not racist in the least. Never mind that he at no time used the N-word as a slur to insult someone. Never mind that he is not even the original source of the quote or of the historical context. It’s too late. The mob has decreed that he is the Villain of the Week and must therefore be ousted from his own company. So be it.
Obviously we no longer live in a sane world.
“Context is key.” I remember hearing that phrase repeated often by my Human Communication professors in college while I was majoring in Broadcast Journalism. Things like situational framework, background, circumstance, intent, and environment are indeed critical aspects of discourse between two or more people, particularly in situations like this one. Just because someone says something that is considered to be in poor taste, and you subsequently repeat it or point out that it is in poor taste, does not mean that you necessarily agree with or support what was said. To assume such a thing is utterly asinine and is not fair to the other individual. If I were having a conversation with you about a former boss who once called you a profane name (“motherf***er, for example), and then I later repeated that story to someone else — using the full word — it does not mean that I personally think you are a “motherf***er just because I repeated the term that your boss used to insult you. Words don’t work that way. I merely repeated the story and pointed out that you were insulted.
Somehow, though, we seem to have employed a level of phraseological witchcraft in this situation — and many others before it — in order to grant the N-word mystical powers any time that it is used. We have decided that certain words can only be uttered by certain people at certain times in certain predetermined contexts. The N-word is at the top of that list. If these words are uttered by the wrong person — say, a white person, in this case — then there must be a price to pay (like the loss of a job), despite the fact that this person was merely quoting someone else. But there’s no rulebook or set of parameters outlining these words and these contexts, so everyone tiptoes around the list for fear of offending or triggering everyone who might be of a different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, hair color, freckle pattern, body shape or species. In fact, it’s not even clear who’s dictating the rules in the first place. To make things more confusing, the rules change every day. No one can keep up.
This must stop. It’s childish. It’s nonsensical. And we all know it.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that it’s acceptable for white people to use the N-word. Personally, I believe it’s a filthy word that doesn’t have a place in modern day English at all. I don’t even like hearing it in movies, TV shows, music, high school hallways amongst students or out on the streets in my city. This is why I’ve censored every use of it in this column. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a word with abhorrent historical connotations and that is why it should not be used in every day language. But, I do think it’s rather ridiculous that we’ve arrived at a place where we ascribe powers to certain words and give them total control over various aspects of our society and our lives.
Moreover, we forget that these words can still be quoted or used within proper historical contexts and settings in order to illuminate our past or to make particular points. That will always be, and should be, acceptable. Unfortunately, the insanity of the societal pitchfork mob often has the final say.