Don't bleep the N-word

CNN bleeped US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who is African-American, for saying that dozens of rioters on January 6 called him the n-word. Here's why CNN is wrong.

Can you try to so hard to defend civil rights that you actually undermine them?

This afternoon, CNN bleeped US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who is African-American, for saying that dozens of rioters on January 6 called him the n-word. (As the original video came from ABC, it’s possible that they were the network that censored Officer Dunn, and CNN was simply playing the original ABC clip, already bleeped.)

“I got called a n***** a couple dozen times today protecting this building. Is this America? They beat police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags. They fought us, they had Confederate flags in the U.S. Capitol.”

Should a national TV network censor an African-American — or any minority — for describing what amounts to a hate crime?

As a white man, I’ll put the moral considerations aside, and leave it to my Black readers to decide whether it is ever morally justified to quote someone using the n-word without a bleep. But as a longtime civil rights advocate, and gay man, I do know a thing or two about the marketing of equality. And you set equality back when you censor bigotry.

One of the most effective weapons we have as civil and human rights advocates are the words of our oppressors. Nothing shows people that hate truly exists like hate itself. I’ve long been a fan, for example, of quoting the homophobia of the Westboro Baptist Church — and its then-pastor Fred Phelps (may he rest in hell) — expressly because their words were so hateful, and so extreme, that they shocked the conscience, and made it impossible for any viewer to remain on the sidelines.

Here, for example, are a few photos I took of the Phelps clan outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments on Proposition 8.

The images are so profane that they make my argument for me.

This is a debate we’ve long hand on LGBT civil rights. Should we quote people using the word “fag” — and should we ever use it among ourselves, even in jest? I’ve had lots of people over the years who begged me not to give Fred Phelps any oxygen at all. I vehemently disagreed with them, explaining that Phelps was the best publicity we could ever get. Who could disagree that we were an oppressed minority, and not feel a tinge of sympathy (and even shame), after watching that level of hate?

Now back to Officer Dunn. Clearly, Officer Dunn wasn’t afraid to use the n-word during the recounting of his harrowing experience in the US Capitol building that day. And clearly, Officer Dunn felt it appropriate to quote that word in full. On a basic journalistic-ethics level, there’s a question as to whether ABC or CNN should be censoring a source for a story at all — especially, when the issue isn’t the guest’s vulgarity. This was not a case of someone using the f-word. It’s also worth noting that CNN was fine when its host Don Lemon said the words “n*****” and "fag” on the air in an appropriate context (and I laud CNN, and Lemon, for that).

If you want people to fully appreciate the sickening nature of an African-American cop being called the n-word by people carrying a Blue Lives Matter flag, then don’t sanitize the offense with a bleep, lest you minimize the impact and whitewash the crime.