New York City May Ban Certain Words

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First came a ban on the N-word. Now the New York City Council is considering a measure that would outlaw what it's calling the B-word and the H-word, both common slurs used against women.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

New York City Council, fresh off a symbolic moratorium on the N-word, is hunting new letters every day.

BRAND: A resolution now before the council would ban the B-word - rhymes with witch - and the H-word, rhymes with - oh no?

CHADWICK: Ho, ho, ho.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Okay, Santa. Okay. A little warning, you'll hear those words in their full glory later in this report. From the gentility capital of the world here is our own Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: The New York City Council, in banning the word (bleep) - oh, come on - they introduced a resolution which - and I quote - seeks to join a national conversation about the appropriateness of the pejorative use of terms like...

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

PESCA: ...and...

(Soundbite of sound effects)

PESCA: Hey, how can I report on...

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

PESCA: ...if I can't say...

(Soundbite of sound effects)

PESCA: Oh. Son of a...

(Soundbite of sound effects)

PESCA: Darlene Mealy is the councilwoman who introduced this symbolic moratorium. She doesn't use the actual word in favor of the letter B.

Ms. DARLENE MEALY (Councilwoman, Brooklyn, New York City): The same as the N-word, it degrades women calling them B's, and if we don't subject that to at least some censorship, we lost.

PESCA: But there are literally thousands of racist and sexist slurs uttered every day in New York and that's just coming from my downstairs neighbor. So where does banning specific words end? Councilmember Mealy is most offended by words that have pervaded popular culture.

Ms. MEALY: Someone did call me up, the Orthodox sect, and he said, well, some people call us kikes.

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MEALY: And I said I understand that. I said, but do they sing about it in their lyrics? Do they say it to you every day? That's why B and ho and N is a word, words that we need to take out.

PESCA: The resolution itself specifically cites rap music. And in a first in municipal history, quotes Queen Latifah - every time I hear a brother.

(Soundbite of song "U.N.I.T.Y.")

Ms. Queen Latifah (Rapper): (Rapping) Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho...

PESCA: Queen Latifah's efforts were belittled in the resolution. So I wondered what council member Mealy would make of the Meredith Brooks song, which sought to reclaim the modern variant of strumpet or trollop. I played her this hit, which went to number two in 1997.

(Soundbite of song, "Bitch")

Ms. MEREDITH BROOKS (Singer): (Singing) I'm a bitch, I'm a lover, I'm a child, I'm a mother, I'm a singer...

PESCA: So I don't have Meredith Brooks in the studio here with me but it seems to me like what she was saying is that she's talking about herself. It's not a man calling that woman a name. Do you object to that?

Ms. MEALY: Yes, I do. Why would we degrade ourselves? I know I'm more than a four-legged dog. And being a four-legged dog, when dogs get in heat, they hump and do whatever they want to do to the female B dog.

PESCA: When I did get a hold of Meredith Brooks a few hours later, she said no animals were humped in the making of this song.

Ms. BROOKS: "Bitch" for me in that particular context was my no. It was a different thing for everybody, but for me it was my no. I wasn't able to say no very well. And I kind of have to muster it all up and went - no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROOKS: So it was my strength. It's a power word.

PESCA: Brooks, by the way, has just come out with a children's album with no naughty language on it at all. One place you will find the B word happens to be at the National Organization for Women. Sonia Ossorio is the president of the New York City chapter of NOW.

Ms. SONIA OSSORIO (NOW): One of the magazines we have on our coffee table and a book that we have on our coffee table is the magazine called Bitch, and there's another one, it's the new book about career success that's call "M-Bitches."

PESCA: Ossorio thinks the conversation about the impact of words is good; having the government leave the conversation through coercion is bad.

Ms. OSSORIO: You know, if it was a real resolution, that would be very dangerous territory, to ban words in free speech. But no one's going to get arrested for - there aren't any penalties and it...

PESCA: So the best thing about the resolution is that it's toothless?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OSSORIO: Yeah. Exactly.

PESCA: Toothless and popular, at least among legislators. The resolution was introduced with 19 co-sponsors. Crunch the numbers on the 51-member council and you'll see that 26 votes assure passage. And there are 26 letters in the alphabet. So if each council member gets to ban his or her own letter, all the votes will be locked up. And once that happens, no one in New York City will ever hear an uncivil utterance again.

Mike Pesca...

(Soundbite of sound effects)

PESCA: ...PR News...

(Soundbite of sound effects)

PESCA: ...YC...

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