On Learning From Hulk Hogan and the N-Word (Part I)

I’m interested in deconstructing the Hulk Hogan N-word controversy, in moving beyond moral outrage and considering it from a linguistic point of view. This is tricky business, because aren’t we so unforgiving of anybody who dares to utter the N-word! But it’s a fascinating study in taboo language, which is an area of interest for me as a writer and translator. I’ve had to think a lot about the way offensive language works because Vladimir Kozlov, one of the writers I translate (no relation to the wrestler by the same name, funny coincidence), is a master of Soviet and post-Soviet slang, profanity and name-calling. He himself is a polite guy, but some of his characters will make you blush with their potty mouths! I’ve had to think a lot about naughty English equivalents to artfully render the bile that some of his characters spew. For example, he and I once had to talk about how to translate an ethnic slur for Chechens used by a neo-Nazi character: черножопый, which literally means “black ass”. Imagine, we had to phrase it in such a way that it was clear this guy wasn’t actually talking about black people, because that would have been an N-word sized misunderstanding. It’s complicated, this study of taboo language – its usage hides in the shadows and evolves off the radar of the institutions that attempt to study it. It is laden with thorny implications and uncomfortable to look at directly, as though it will contaminate us with its darkness if we spend too much time in its presence.

Whether you’re more bothered by what Hogan said or by WWE’s unforgiving response to it, there is plenty to be learned here if we can set aside our emotions and come at it from an analytical perspective. But before I can really dig into the language itself, I think it’s important to talk about the context in which Hogan’s racist words emerged. I don’t think his rant was taken out of context, but I do think context is key in understanding the message Hogan was trying to convey. I’ve only read the words, not listened to them, but the strangeness of his syntax indicates that there’s more to Hogan’s message than a straightforward racist outburst. Though he states his racist intentions clearly, the larger point he’s trying to make isn’t at all clear: he seems to be at his most inarticulate as he thinks aloud in a state of agitation, choosing his words from the vocabulary of his most base anger.

Context also reminds us who wanted us to see these words and why, which is a significant part of the story. This scandal was broken by the National Inquirer and the details are a little convoluted, but their article describes the eight year old audio off a leaked sex tape in which Hogan explicitly states that “I am racist,” and tosses around several variations of the phrase “fucking nigger.” Let’s be sure to acknowledge that the source for this story is a notorious muck-raking tabloid whose journalistic intent is inciting scandal with “gotcha” stories rather than exposing injustice and speaking truth to power. It’s also important to note that the Inquirer story appears to be revenge for his lawsuit over the sex tape. Sex tape, National Inquirer, an inarticulate racist rant: Hogan’s quagmire is certainly one of his own making. But let us not fail to notice that the sources who shared it with us have their own dark intentions in the way they have sought to color (if you will) our opinion of our childhood icon.

It’s also easy to miss the nuances of Hogan’s tone here: even though I haven’t heard the audio, his tone is apparent in the way the subject of his daughter brings up his ugly choice of language. Hogan’s tone really has to do with his concern for his daughter’s ill-advised foray into the music industry and the money he has spent to fund it. We are hearing the frustration of a defensive father who loves his daughter and hates the thought of her being manipulated and abused by a notoriously exploitative industry, and also hates the thought of his multi-million dollar investment being squandered. (I’d like to update, here, to add what’s clear to me from the scandal’s second reveal, this one released on Radar Online: Hogan feels like his 2-3 million dollar generosity has been unappreciated, and that his family and their associates use him for his money.) I’m not saying any of this makes his use of the N-word excusable, but his tone doesn’t seem attached to specific words, at least as I read them. The tone is attached to his feelings about his daughter, not so much the strange tangent of racial slurs, or at least the way he speaks the slurs is heightened in its gruffness because of his fatherly agitation.

But all context aside, it is obviously unbecoming of the Hulkster to be talking this way. It doesn’t reflect well on anybody to use the N-word, but especially not our childhood role model. Even in private, even in a particularly dark moment, and a man who has traveled the world and met so many people from all walks of life should know better. This isn’t just a point of view, it’s an objective fact: in 2015, the N-word is in a special class of taboo profanity that can have a devastating effect on its speaker. Just look at the damage this word did to Hogan’s career and legacy in a single day. From a purely theoretical point of view, isn’t that interesting? This word has caused so much pain and damage to so many people for so many years that it has now been reversed upon those who dare to speak it earnest. It is a word that can literally destroy someone’s life, an example of the way words have serious power even outside the realm of discourse.

I’m offering no excuse or apology for the things Hogan said. But I do smell a rat with the National Inquirer, and I think we need to be careful not to let our emotional response to a taboo word cloud our judgement of a situation. I also question whether shunning, casting out, and marking someone with an indelible stigma (a big red “R” to wear, as it were) is a productive way to confront a systemic societal problem like racism. This doesn’t solve the problem, it simply sends the word and its sentiments back into the shadows to fester. In the words of Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds, “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of a son of a bitch or another.” Our heroes are imperfect, our elders are imperfect, our society is imperfect, and each and every one of us is imperfect. A study of those imperfections sheds more light on them than indignant condemnation, or a fearful refusal to look directly at them.

I would like to look at Hulk Hogan’s usage of the N word in more depth in Part II of this post, and contrast it with this YouTube clip in which Vince McMahon is trying to talk jive like the young people these days, or something to that effect. He says “what’s good in the hood!” and calls John Cena “my nigga”. Then Booker T overhears it and acts all shocked:

Vince’s usage of “nigga” in this vignette adds another layer of complication to Hogan’s N-word problem, “nigga” being a variant that’s not polite but not quite taboo, and is incredibly difficult for a white person to use without being misunderstood or sounding like an asshole. People on Twitter have been making a case that Vince McMahon is a hypocrite for disappearing Hulk Hogan over an N-word incident when he himself spoke the N-word junior in this vignette a few years ago. To a certain extent it’s true, McMahon is a hypocrite, and this is only one example of many that have been circulating in which WWE’s often clumsy exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes casts the attempt to erase Hulk Hogan from wrestling history as a fear-based overreaction. On the other hand, Booker T’s shoot shock casts the entire clip as satire; his willingness to play the role of offended black man is like an implicit stamp of approval, and allows us to delineate Vince McMahon the human being, at least in this particular instance, from his character, who is a bumbling old white guy who just doesn’t get it about the word “nigga”. (Though I wonder if Booker T would feel the same way about it now.) If you read it this way, the Vince McMahon “nigga” vignette can actually be seen a clever exploration of race and its difficult language.

I promise to go into more depth on this idea and Hogan’s semantics soon, and as always I welcome discussion in the comments. But let’s be cool about this, people. Talking about the N-word is a minefield, but we needn’t get our legs blown off here. If for some reason you feel really mad after reading this post, try to chill out before you write a comment. But please do comment! I’m going out on a limb and I don’t have this entirely figured out, so I appreciate any clear-headed observations you may have about N-word usage and context in this strange revelation in these strange times.

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One Comment

  1. July 27, 2015

    You hit the nail on the head in the second last paragraph when you talk about the differences in a character, like those in Vladimir Kozlov’s literature, spewing racial hatred versus an actual person saying those words. The fact that Hogan explicitly says “I am racist” should be evidence enough that he is, indeed, racist. (I just checked out his Twitter page and he’s retweeting fans’ support, saying they don’t believe he’s racist. So much for laying low before embarking on an apology tour…)
    You are also absolutely right in saying that his firing isn’t and shouldn’t be the be all and end all of this. WWE still have a ways to go in demonstrating their committment “to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”

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