Saturday, January 08, 2005


one of the good guys?

I know people tend to scoff at war over words but this recent ruling by the 9th Circuit of Appeals is worth a moment of thought. They ruled that the word "pimp" should not be considered a defamatory term if the context suggests that the term is being used in a complimentary manner.

Now, no one can deny that the term "pimp," within popular culture, has become a mark of praise but I find it troubling that pimpdom has evolved to represent something favorable. Don't get me wrong - I've read Iceberg Slim poems, watched the Hughes Bros. American Pimp, blah blah blah. Yeah, sure, the pimp has played an important role in American urban lore and as a figure of masculinity he represents a certain outlaw ideal, blah blah blah.

Just to get back to basics though: pimps = men who exploit women for their sexual labor. And nowhere in the term's "rehabilitation" does that meaning ever fade. When you say, "damn man, you're such a pimp," you're implying that someone is charismatic and powerful enough compel women to do their bidding, which, in this case, means whoring themselves. Being a pimp, figuratively speaking, still carries with it that suggestion of sexual power and importantly, inequality.

Unlike other words, "pimp" has not been recouped by those who have been minimized through it and here, I'm referring not to men but women. That makes it different from a term like "queer" or "bitch" (I'll get to the n-word in a second), which, in their transformation, were taken up by the very people once degraded through it. While there are women who call themselves pimp, it's not as if the term has suddenly become a mark of empowerment for women writ large. Instead, it serves to praise men for attaining a hypermasculine ideal - powerful, charismatic, and more than a little ruthless. Frankly, if Evel Knievel doesn't want to be associated with all the loaded set of meanings that come with pimp, I think he's got a legitimate case here.

What I'm troubled by with the 9th Circuit's decision is that it reminds me of a case from 2004 where a white student was found not guilty of using "nigga" as a racial slur because the defense argued that if you spell the word with an "a," it's meant as a compliment. Yes, you heard that right. If a white person calls a black person a "nigger" but spells it with an "a," it's alright.

As you can imagine, the defense rolled out rap song after rap song to make their point.

I'm all for the evolution of language and I think it's fascinating how vocabulary shifts social meaning over time. However, when the legal process is brought in to validate certain forms of language, I think we tread into murky water. For example, I'm all for hate speech legislation because it understands the politics of language and how language can be disempowering and hurtful. In this case, the legislature is acting to protect people from the dangers of certain language. However, these two cases suggest that now, courts are ceasing to treat dangerous words as dangerous, and instead,they seek to create legal justification for validating those terms.

I want to be very clear here: it's not that I think language shouldn't be allowed to evolve, it's that I prefer to leave that process to culture to negotiate rather than the courts. If people want to rehabilitate certain words by transforming negative intent into positive, then let's do it through everyday practice but don't make a court ruling certifying it. Especially with the latter case, it seems absurd to me that the courts would decide that a single letter can transform "nigger/nigga" from hate speech to salutation. Even aside from the politics of it, it also just doesn't jibe with reality. In most places I know, if a white guy sneers at a black person by flinging the n-word at them, they're liable to get their ass kicked for being a stupid cracker. Excuse me, I meant to say, "cracka."

Elsewhere, A Tribute To Ignorance has been straight killing it of late. Good interview with DJ Ivory and more recently, Part 2 of his Forgotten Beefs series: Choice vs. NWA, the Geto Boys and Too $hort.

And act now before it's too late: your very own Beer and Rap 'zine.