Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, recently fired his chief communications officer, Jonathan Friedland. The offense? Friedland used the so-called “n-word” several times while at work, apparently not understanding (or not caring) that doing so was highly inappropriate. The specific contexts in which Friedland used America’s most infamous slur aren’t quite clear. In any case, there is an opening at one of the world’s best-known media companies.
If you read about this firing online, you’ll see that the predominant reactions in the comment sections are predictable — depending on the publication. Not surprisingly, comments on sites whose primary audience is African-American are overwhelmingly negative toward Friedland and, to some degree, Hastings. (Many people see the latter as being too slow to fire Friedland and too tolerant of bigotry at Netflix.) In short, Black folk are upset at this behavior but are not at all surprised.
Such is generally not the case on sites whose audience is primarily white. Those readers tend to express mild (or even serious) outrage that Netflix bowed to “political correctness” in sacking Friedland. Also, there are the usual statements regarding violation of his “right to free speech,”as well as claims that such incidents are “why Donald Trump got elected.” Of course, a high percentage of these readers are beside themselves because Black people are “allowed” to use that word with impunity, whereas white people are not.
My view is that members of well-defined human subgroups should be able to use otherwise offensive words, including slurs, that relate to their particular subgroup. For example, Black folks — and only Black folks — should be able to use the “n-word.” Similarly, women (of whatever race) should feel free to use the “b-word” that refers to women. Gay men (of whatever race) should be able to use the “f-word” that refers to gay men. White people (of both genders) should be able to use the “H-word” that is a slur against white people and so on.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that all such slurs have equal impact. While I am not a competitor in the “Olympics of Oppression,” it’s fair to say that a white person calling a Black person the n-word is not “the same as” a Black person calling a white person the h-word. America has a very long and very ugly history of domestic terrorism that has accompanied white people’s use of the n-word; there is no “reverse racism” that comes at all close.
Look, it’s not as though this phenomenon doesn’t already occur within our subgroups — especially when we’re among friends. Of course, I understand that not every member of said groups avails himself or herself of such language. For example, several years ago prominent African-Americans held “funerals” for the n-word. Apparently, they didn’t understand that making an offensive word even more taboo has the effect of making it more attractive to a lot of people. (In the case of the n-word, that principle certainly applies to young people and to racists.)
Further, one has to question the mentality of white people who get upset that Black people are able to use the n-word without consequence. (By contrast, I have yet to meet men who are jealous that women use the b-word.) For me, this issue boils down to the desire of some people who want to express their “inner racist” without suffering the consequences. (Perhaps that’s why internet chat rooms were created.)
Finally, this issue has nothing to do with “free speech” in the constitutional sense; the government isn’t keeping anyone (other than its employees) from using such words. As private citizens, we have the right to say what we want, unless doing so can reasonably be seen to incite violence or other physical danger — or violate workplace standards. However, freedom of speech should not be confused with “freedom from the consequences” of said speech.If you use certain words that most people consider offensive, you are likely to receive some form of social censure in return. That’s the way it should be.