The battle royale between Tarantino and Lee speaks to an infuriating reality about the n-word that’s been covered ad infinitum in popular culture. The rivers of ink and pixels that have flowed over this polemic underscores the undeniable double-standard that connotes the word’s use. Our unarticulated cultural code gives some whites a free pass in using the word use, while others come in for searing opprobrium for the same offense. In other words, if you’re white with a certain amount of celebrity or cachet with blacks (yes Ms. Paltrow, I’m looking at you), then you’re given carte-blanche. This shifting standard would seem to confer upon Gwyneth Paltrow and others the “honorary black” status Lee once accused Tarantino of aspiring to — and leads to the absurd spectacle of black artists defending the individual with protected status. By that credo, shouldn’t Tarantino also be given creative license in using the n-word, especially since his movies are nearly full-employment for black actors?
Clearly, Spike Lee sees it differently (which also begs the question of why he has yet to weigh in on the Paltrow controversy). At the heart of this whole discussion lies a stark truth about the moral relativism embedded in the n-word’s use. The term’s offensiveness — to the extent that it can still be considered that — gets fuzzier with each passing year. As the profligate use of the n-word by hip-hop artists demonstrates, there’s entirely too much cultural permissiveness over the word’s use. That has created an unworkable sliding rule that sanctions certain individuals to use the n-word, but quickly ensnares others in a trap from which there’s no escape.
Lee himself said it best when, in discussing diametrically opposite treatment of an epithet against Jews, stated that “a slur is a slur.” That point is hard to quarrel with, but is almost impossible to enforce when discussing the Orwellian standards that govern the n-word.
If a word is bad for one group, then it should to be bad for all. But the fact that controversy over the n-word has raged for so long, and has been parsed endlessly by countless observers, is a sign that the debate is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.