“That’s Our Word, Now”

Recently, Bill Maher used “the N-word” publicly (to refer to himself, jokingly), subsequently issued an apology, and was later “schooled” on the subject, on air, by Ice Cube.

“School” is the verb used by the Daily Beast in the article I’ve linked to, and it is a good word, carrying, as it does, not only connotations of criticism and dominance, but also the idea of education. Ice Cube not only told Maher that he was wrong, he explained why Maher was wrong, and he did it in a very caring and friendly way.

Among other things he said, “that’s our word, now, and you can’t have it back.”

Now, I could go on at some length about bad words and their use–and I may, in another post. I’ve already written about not using them. Generally, I find it personally, artistically, and politically irritating when a word for a group of people is declared unusable, even in quotes. The “N-word,” for example. Why can’t I just write the word? Simply state the word that this post is about, simply so we’re all clear about what I mean? I clearly wouldn’t be using it at anyone, and by refraining from using it I’m not really doing anything to help. Nobody is going to say “Hey, Caroline Ailanthus didn’t write the N-word in a blog post, I guess that means I shouldn’t call the cops on that black man for looking suspiciously brown. And hey, when I go into work tomorrow, I’m going to give that woman with the black-sounding name a job interview. Her resume looks really good, and I’ve been being stupid.”

And I could use the word. Perhaps in another post I will. But it feels unclean and transgressive to do so, and I’m aware that it is becoming standard not to.

Like I said, I could go on at great length about why eliminating words in this way is a bad idea, why it’s much better to reclaim those words, or claim them for the first time, as has been done with “gay” and “witch.” I may be right…but I admit that part of my irritation here is simply that I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve never used the N-word for real (as opposed to when quoting someone else or when discussing the word itself), and I probably never would have, but I’ll probably never order a beer, either, yet it would irritate me if someone told me I couldn’t (I’m a teetotaler by choice, and find the scent of beer unpleasant, anyway).

But it’s not my word. I’m white.

Ice Cube’s articulation of principle, that the N-word belongs to black people now, is simple and clear and immediately intuitive. He’s right. I’m sure that he is right, and in putting it that way he makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense to me. I had thought that the public eclipse of the N-word indicated a curious weakness, a willingness to cede the meaning of the word to those who use it as an insult, as a weapon–in contrast to the word “gay,” which was an insult and is no longer, thanks to the work of gay people to claim it for their own. But if you own a thing, that means you get to decide what to do with it. Ice Cube is asserting that he, and those like him, do own that word now, and have simply decided not to share it. There is a lot of power in that.

(I don’t assume this decision was unanimous; no group of people has only one perspective)

This whole idea, that a people can own a word and deny its use to outsiders, reminds me of another issue I’ve seen floating around, one with particular resonance for writers: cultural appropriation.

As a white writer, is it ok for me to have a black protagonist? As a gentile, is it ok for me to have a Jewish protagonist?

As a storyteller of European descent, I feel comfortable with European folklore–Baba Yaga, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, and that wonderful fool, Jack. But what about Changing Woman? Coyote? Brer Rabbit? Rainbow Serpent? Is it ok for me to tell their stories, and if it is not, why not?

On the one hand, yes of course it is ok to write about people who are unlike oneself and to learn from other people—otherwise, we’d all be engaged in nothing but the most navel-gazing of memoir. On the other hand, to write about someone else over their objections just because we can, without even trying to understand why, is obnoxious at best.

Of course, there are a couple of different issues, here, but the one I want to talk about is ownership—who can properly by said to own an item of culture?

Here is a way to think of the issue that should make sense to writers: copyright.

I own these words. I don’t own the individual words, but I do own this particular arrangement of them, the one you’re reading now. International and US copyright law says that the act of creating copyrightable material confers copyright all by itself. If I don’t register the copyright I might have a hard time defending it in court, but the underlying principle is that we own what we write because we write it.

That is a very specific approach to intellectual property, and it’s obviously not the only possible approach. The law could have been written differently, and until relatively recently, it was. The underlying philosophy could also be different–it’s easy to imagine a society where individual creative output is simply not considered ownable, or some other variation.

Definitions of property in general are culturally variable. We know this, because we argue about definitions. Can a human being be owned? What about human tissue? Does the fact that something is owned mean it can’t have rights before the law, or do animals have rights? Can land be owned? I learned in school that Native Americans sold land to European colonists because they did not imagine land could be owned the way an object can be–they thought they were selling non-exclusive use rights only. I have since learned that was at best a radical oversimplification, but it’s an interesting idea and food for thought. Actually, in modern American law, land ownership doesn’t work the same way object ownership does, which is why we can be taxed on our land every year, but only pay taxes on objects at the point of sale. There are other avenues of philosophical contention. But you get the point.

One particular form of ownership we tend to struggle to understand is the commons. The term is most familiar in reference to shared pasturage, in part because that’s what the famous park, the Boston Commons, once was–a place where city residents could all graze their cattle.

The Tragedy of the Commons” is the idea, introduced in an article of the same name by Garrett Hardin, that common ownership of land is terrible for conservation because users lack any personal stake in the health of the land as a whole. Each user has instead an economic incentive to get as much use out of the commons as possible in order to compete with other users who are doing the same, leading to degradation of the whole. But as my friend and teacher Charles Curtin has argued, that’s not what a commons is. A real commons is not land owned by nobody and used freely by many independent individuals, but rather land owned by a community. Community members don’t act as independent agents each pursuing their own self-interest. They share a sense of group identity and group responsibility, and they also are subject to a system of community-enforced rules–graze more than your fair share of cattle on the commons, and your neighbors will ensure you pay for it.

Hardin made the mistake of confusing collective ownership with no ownership at all—and most of his readers made exactly the same mistake, which is why his idea has become received wisdom in some circles. That a community might have its own cohesive identity and authority seems counterintuitive to many, possibly due to an erosion of community itself, an erosion that is at least in part deliberate. Conquest and colonization obviously seek to undo their victims’ authority and autonomy, and the same processes operate within imperial countries as well, against local-scale communities and subcultures, to create economic and political unity and preclude dissent. The basic tension between community and centralized authority has been written about extensively by Gary Snyder and other authors. Suffice it to say here that multiple forms and systems of ownership exist and that to deny the existence of someone else’s system is an effective way to rob and demoralize them simultaneously.

You don’t own this land in MY lawbooks, therefore you don’t own it at all, therefore it is mine.

Now, is it possible that the concept of “commons” can be applied to intellectual property as well? Might communities own their stories, their songs, their names, their hairstyles, and everything else, the same way they own their land?

I don’t mean “creative commons,” a legal status within copyright law, I mean the principle that communities own their own cultures simply by virtue of having created them.

We agree that stories can be owned, as can technologies, as can names—we do it through the legal mechanisms of copyright, patent, and trademark, but might there be other mechanisms not currently recognized by US law but still carrying moral weight?

By this logic, I can’t tell the stories belonging to a culture I’m not part of for the same reason I can’t appropriate stories belonging to a corporation I’m not part of. If I want to tell a Star Trek story, I have to follow the rules laid out by Paramount Pictures, which owns the copyright—and Paramount is under no obligation to allow outsiders to tell Star Trek stories at all. They own it, and that means they get to decide what to do with it. What anyone else thinks they should do is irrelevant.

As writers, we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t want to be told we can’t use certain words, names, storylines, characters, motifs, or symbols. White writers specifically, unused to being subject to the rules of communities not our own, chaff against restraint especially. Sometimes we suspect a strange double-standard might be in play; since our culture is available freely to everybody, shouldn’t all cultures be?

The thing is, no it isn’t. My novel, To Give a Rose, is an item of mainstream American culture, and if you try to pretend it’s yours, or even to make and sell copies of it without my permission, I will sue you. Some items of my culture are available freely, but not all of it is.

We’re used to respecting copyright. That means both obeying copyright law and acknowledging the copyright holders have the right to make whatever decisions they want to about their work, not arguing against or second-guessing decisions we don’t like or don’t understand. We’re used to respecting trade mark as well—I can’t use the word “Xerox” without the permission of the people who own it. They’re ok with some use (I don’t have to refer to “the X-word”), but should I use it in print, uncapitalized, as a synonym for “photocopy,” or in order to say nasty things about the brand, I might well receive a “cease and desist” letter. As writers, we’re taught to respect intellectual property both because we’d rather not be sued and because these laws benefit us as well.

The N-word is owned as common property by black people. Ice Cube, acting as a representative of that community, recently issued a cease-and-desist letter on air to Bill Maher. The stories of Brer Rabbit, and the stories of Coyote, and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are also each owned collectively by communities, and those communities have a right to decide who gets to do what with those stories under what circumstances. The German people seem willing to share freely, but that’s their choice. Whether Disney or Warner Bros. received permission to re-tell Brer Rabbit and Coyote, respectively, I do not know.

I own these words. Because I have not registered copyright for this blog, I might not win in court if my copyright were challenged, but that doesn’t change the fact that I own them, and no ethical professional writer would plagiarize me. I could also choose not to defend my copyright, granting anyone anywhere permission to copy my stuff at least under some circumstances, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I own it (legally, copyright may be sold, given away, or lost, but it cannot be abandoned. There is no legal mechanism for giving intellectual property to the public domain–my Dad, a fellow writer, checked).

That community ownership of intellectual property cannot be defended in court and that such owners sometimes share their material freely does not lessen the moral weight of ownership. We writers might not like being told what to do, but if we want our ownership respected, we had better respect other forms of ownership as well.

That means when someone says, “this is ours, you can’t have it,” don’t argue.


About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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