‘Niggers all work on de Mississippi –
Niggers all work while de white man play . . .’
Every time there’s a new production of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, there has to be a production meeting about whether those lines (the originals) should be sung, or whether they should be changed (I’ve heard ‘niggers’ change to ‘darkies’ – surely not much difference? – and ‘poor folk’!) The answer is a no-brainer: of course the original text should be kept – the show is a classic and shouldn’t be messed about with. Neither should there be any offence – the ‘n’-word (as everyone now has to call it) was common parlance in southern states of America in the early 20th century, and nobody at the time of the play would have used any word. There should be no hesitation in printing or saying it if one’s using it properly; using it as an insult is another matter. It’s a question of usage.
The current scandal in Australia is about the Professor of Poetry at the university, who in an email to a close friend used a number of highly offensive terms referring to women and aborigines. He claims that they were used in a ‘playful’ way, and that he and his friend had a long-running competition as to who could be most offensive. I have to say the email didn’t read that way; it seems rather to reveal the inner sensibilities of a man one wouldn’t really want to know. But that’s perhaps beside the point, which is: shouldn't everyone have the right to write things in private without the risk of someone making the words public? I dare say almost everyone has at some time said or written words which they would not like to be generally repeated – an opinion about a friend, for instance. I keep a journal: I certainly wouldn’t like some passages in it to be printed and publicised without my permission. Clearly there must be exceptions: if someone had captured a letter from Napoleon revealing his plans for a battle, one would expect them to have been made known; if someone had actually managed to get hold of a letter from Himmler detailing his plans for the Final Solution, it would have been criminal not to publish it. But in general, surely everyone has a right to withhold their words, their private opinions, from the public without the fear that some sly interloper will publish them?
It’s never going to be possible for anyone to be completely private again, it seems. Broadcasters are told never to say anything in a studio, even with the microphone turned off, which they wouldn’t say with it turned on. To be completely safe, we will have to take the same view of an email. Won’t we?