Anti-Gay Slurs: The Latest in Hilarity - New York Times:
The play raises a question that has been brought to the forefront of the cultural chatter recently in another context: Who is and is not allowed to use — and to laugh at or milk laughs from — derisive names for minorities? On a Broadway stage, Ms. White is warmly applauded for tossing out those nasty words. At a multiplex near you, Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a fictional anti-Semite, has ’em rolling in the aisles. But Michael Richards, also an entertainer, repeatedly uses a derogatory term for African-Americans in a stand-up act that queasily devolves into a fit of pique, and his offense makes headlines and cripples his career, possibly for good.
Is it all about context? Certainly Mr. Richards’s ghastly rant was not a scripted piece of entertainment, nor was it designed to provoke a discussion of slang and semantics. In savaging a heckler, he used the word the only way it was once used: as a weapon meant to demean and hurt. (Likewise, Mel Gibson got into trouble for his anti-Semitic rant because it appeared to be an expression of personal animus.) But at some point in his tirade Mr. Richards also tried to frame his attack as a political challenge. Muttering grimly in response to the audience’s obvious displeasure, he said, “You see, there’s still those words, those words.”