Head Strong: Words can pack a punch, but let's consider context

Is Tom Burlington a "victim of political correctness run amok" or a former "employee who repeatedly uttered 'the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon' "?

That was the way U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick framed a dispute before him that had been headed for trial Tuesday, but that has been postponed pending the outcome of a related Supreme Court case.

Tom Burlington

In ruling that the local matter would proceed to trial, the judge wrote:

"We begin by addressing an issue that does not appear to have been decided by the federal courts: Can an employer be held liable under Title VII for enforcing or condoning the social norm that it is acceptable for African Americans to say 'n-' but not whites?"

At issue is a conversation in a Philadelphia television newsroom after an NAACP youth group ceremoniously buried the inflammatory racial epithet June 23, 2007. The burial participants had said the word often during the service. Their repeated use of the word posed editing challenges for reporters. At Fox29, it prompted Burlington, who was scheduled to coanchor the evening news, to ask:

"Does this mean we can finally say 'n-'?"

Burlington says he was trying to make the point that if the story was about the meaning and use of the word, the story should either say the word itself or refer to it as "a racial epithet" or "slur" instead of "the 'n' word," which he believed lessened the impact of the story. As Surrick noted, Burlington maintains that he did not use the word in its pejorative sense, but rather in an academic newsroom discussion of a news story involving the word, and that he had no intention of belittling or hurting anyone.

Nine people were in the room, three of them black. In depositions, none testified to believing Burlington acted with malice. Nonetheless, as word of the exchange spread, Burlington was summoned to HR, and when asked what had happened, he repeated the word as part of his explanation. He was then suspended and did not return to the air. His salary was paid for the duration of his contract. Today, he is working as a real estate agent.

Burlington says that he was fired because of a double standard, and that three African American employees who said or wrote the offensive word in the workplace were not disciplined. For example, he testified in his deposition, in a prior exchange concerning a criminal, a black colleague said: "Man, that's one dumb n-." He says the meeting attendees all laughed. The colleague was not disciplined.

That there is a double standard seems undeniable. I can listen to Kanye West, but I dare not sing along. I can laugh at Chris Rock, but I had better not repeat his jokes. Whether there should be a double standard is a bit more complicated.

I raised that question last week in a conversation with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons about his new book, Super Rich. Our discussion turned to rap music, and I asked him what impact the removal of the "n" word would have on his trade. He said something with relevance to the Burlington case.

"It doesn't mean anything," he said. "It's just a word. It's intention that matters, not words. It's a word. I'm not afraid of that word. The word doesn't mean anything to me. It's intention."

I asked whether it mattered who the speaker was.

"It matters the intention of the speaker."

Not what he or she looks like?

"Not to me."

Simmons then illustrated his point by explaining how he'd react if MC Serch, a Jewish American rapper and cofounder of the group 3rd Bass, who is married to a black woman, said, "Russ, my n-."

"What am I going to say?" Simmons asked me. "It's not his intention to hurt my feelings or to belittle my status as an African American."

He makes a good point. Words can pack an emotional punch. They can offend, outrage, and even incite. But before we indict people who use words we don't like, we should be mindful of another word: context.

Consider the context in which Burlington used his words. Consider the context in which Mark Twain used his. The import of any word depends upon the context in which it is uttered as well as the sensibilities of the people to whom it is uttered.

If the political fallout - for example, the finger-pointing in the aftermath of Tucson - teaches us anything, it is that listeners should resist the urge to be offended by words, but that speakers should also remember to use their words judiciously.

I don't think Burlington should have used the word. Nor do I believe he should be fired for having done so.

Contact Michael Smerconish

at www.smerconish.com.