Last week, a figure of some authority decided to read a quote attributed to somebody else and ended up in controversy. It was not as if the Stanford University law professor did not realise what he was about to do. He paused the Zoom video recording, according to one of his students, fearing the backlash to come. Then, the professor, a widely regarded advocate of free speech, read the statement, which he said was intended to stoke racist opposition to ratification of the US constitution. The quote included the n-word. The professor, who is white, then resumed recording and turned to other topics. Within days, the university erupted into a debate over why the professor had directly quoted the racist slur. The uproar came as demonstrations against police brutality were sweeping the US in response to the death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee for several minutes on to the black man's neck.
In not dissimilar circumstances, the Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, addressing parliament last week, quoted the same racist slur and immediately apologised after he left the debating chamber, effectively applying the same reasoning as did the Stanford professor, who described his actions as a pedagogical choice made "with good will". Mr Ryan was addressing parliament on the issue of race in the aftermath of events arising out of Minneapolis, and is widely accepted to have acted with good will. That is not necessarily the issue, however, as the Greens leader knows, as did the Stanford professor who paused his Zoom video recording before using the word.
Eighteen years ago, the former Taoiseach, then Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, used the same racist slur, asking the media present not to report his remarks as he did so. At the time, this newspaper chose to report his use of the n-word. Mr Kenny came in for some criticism as a result. Mr Ryan, however, has been given a relative free pass, which is fine insofar as it goes, other than from his party political opponents who have opportunistically seized on the controversy to damage a well-regarded politician.
It is also accepted here that neither Mr Ryan, nor Mr Kenny for that matter, are in any way racist. However, the issue remains Mr Ryan's use of a racial epithet that has the unique power to wound, by bringing the whole weight of historical discrimination and violence down in two syllables. Mr Ryan used the word knowing it should not be used. He has admitted as much. He should go further, as did the Stanford professor, and declare that he will never use the word again. These things matter. A case can be made for the context in which the word is used. That argument is understood, not least by black people, many of whom have reclaimed the word through "Gangsta" rap, in comedy, film and general urban culture.
It remains the case, however, that the term was coined by white supremacists and slave masters who intended to harm the psychology and social standing of black slaves, and, as such, the word will always contain connotations of segregation, of being turned away from ballot boxes, of enforced social inferiority of black people and should never be used by anybody, certainly not a white person, and especially not by a member of parliament, however well-intentioned.