It's as if Juan Williams were a man in a small rain forest tribe and he called out a taboo name for a spirit. Or a lion. Or said the name of someone deceased.
In human societies, some words will be considered magical — and not just in the societies we think of as primal.
In the history of the English language, word magic was all about religion at first. One said "by Jove" to avoid mentioning God, and "Zounds" as a shortening of "by His wounds," because it was considered improper to specify whose wounds we were referring to. The pox some observe today on taking the Lord's name in vain is the legacy of what was once much more widespread in the language.
In the 1600s, the new trend was taboos on words having to do with, well, "down there" and related matters. "White meat" and "dark meat" started as a way to avoid saying "breast" or "thigh." And how much rest have you ever really gotten in a restroom? These kinds of things arose when the new taboo was on sex and excretion.
Those holdovers seem quaint now, but it doesn't mean America is past word magic. We have a new kind: It is taboo to utter words and sentences that stereotype minority groups. And I mean taboo for real — of the kind we associate with indigenous societies.
A taboo is absolute, dramatic, and thus there is no room whatsoever for a statement about being afraid of people in Muslim garb on a plane. Not even if you mention beforehand that you have written books on civil rights and say you aren't a bigot. You shall not utter the words — any more than you would toss in a word that begins with "f" and ends a little later with "k."
When it comes to our modern existences, the word "taboo" is often used with a certain irony. Yet in the anthropological sense, we do operate under a taboo, just like a taboo in a rain forest or among an outback group specifying that one not utter a certain word for a bear or a spirit. Or that one use a different vocabulary around one's mother-in-law. Yes, that taboo has really existed, among Australian groups, as do taboos on uttering the names of deceased persons.
Obviously, our reasons for our taboo are more concrete than ones concerning words for bears or how you talk to your spouse's mom. America is a morally advanced society in that it is deeply imprinted on us not to refer to minority groups as simple-minded exotics. This development, it is easy to forget, is quite a novelty as human history goes. The civil rights movement and its aftermath have been, in many ways, magic indeed.
However, where we move from an issue of manners into a full-out taboo is with cases like that of Williams, who spent a nice part of his exchange with Bill O'Reilly last week defending Muslims against blanket accusations. Williams was revealing a self-admittedly seamy corner of his psyche — rather like Jimmy Carter's comment about committing adultery in his heart — with the background assumption that his feeling was not exactly alien to a great many sensible Americans in these times.
But under the rule of a taboo — which is different from the rule of reasoned civility — such an admission could not be allowed.
William Saletan at Slate is correct that Williams' statement was taken out of context, but Saletan misses the point that under the rule of taboo, it doesn't matter. A taboo is absolute. It is not to be broken, under any circumstances. This taboo we're talking about is a very specific taboo, too. It is not a taboo about slandering just anyone on the air. If Williams had said, "I think the main impetus of the Tea Party is semi-educated white racists who can't tolerate a black man running the country," the right-wing media would be up in arms, but I highly suspect that he would still have his job at NPR. As he likely would if he claimed that conservative Christian churches play a role in making young gay people feel desperate and broken.
Even if people at NPR found these statements "over the top," would they consider it grounds for dismissal? Or — even — let's acknowledge that NPR took Williams' latest as the straw that broke the camel's back, rather than a firing offense on its own. Yet would the above two hypothetical statements have been regarded in the same way? Or if he had uttered them before, would they have been thought of as initial straws of interest?
What made NPR fire Juan Williams was not incivility, but a more specific taboo on incivility of a very particular kind. The Martian anthropologist would remark upon our especially extreme and summary response to a certain kind of impoliteness. Such a response, in being about mere utterance alone regardless of context, is very much a tribal, incantational taboo.
Those who decided to can Williams were thoroughly human organisms, acting like animists living in visceral fear of certain wraiths and particular incubi. Higher wisdom was not in evidence.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.