A remake of the film The Dam Busters is being written and this has led to an issue regarding the Dam Busters' mascot: a dog that was called "Nigger". Should the remake of the movie remain true to historical accuracy or should a less emotive name be used instead considering that historical accuracy has never been an overriding feature in most historical films?
The screenwriter, Stephen Fry, has decided to rename the dog commenting:
"It's no good saying that it is the Latin word for black or that it didn't have the meaning that it does now - you just can't go back, which is unfortunate,"
in justifying the dog's name change from "Nigger" to "Digger" in the new version.
What this is really about is making a value judgement regarding the use of a word that is accepted as highly offensive today but which may not have been back in the 1940s (perhaps because racism was acceptable back then?)
Some aspects to think about
- Is the word "Nigger" really offensive?
This word is one of the most, if not the most, offensive word in the English language (ref). Its usage hasn't just been perceived as offensive; it has been used with the purpose of being deliberately derogatory and offensive. It is the sort of word that is only used at all these days by racist bigots.
- Can the word be used non-offensively?
It can be argued that the word is really only offensive if it is used to offend. Black people can use it to refer to each other, and often do, and it could be argued that if it is used in a historical context (as with this movie) it should be seen as how it was used then and not how it is perceived today. However, the lack of offensive intent does not justify the use of such language. It is the perception of offence that is the real issue. For example, you may refer to an obese person as being "anorexically challenged" because you think it's funny. You may not mean to offend, but your intent has no bearing on the perception of the person on the receiving end of your comment.
- Is the use of the word necessary?
This is an important point. The name of the dog has no real bearing on the story. If it did, then the use of the word could be justified by the need for historical accuracy or to make sure the story developed properly; but as the name of the dog is incidental to the story, is the use of such an offensive term justified?
These issues don't have right or wrong answers as they are basically value judgements. However, that doesn't mean that we can't reason about them and justify our position or opinion.
I'm with Stephen Fry. The film is being made for a 21st century audience, and although it is about another time where people held different values, the inclusion of such an offensive word cannot be justified on the grounds of historical accuracy - simply because it is not a necessary component of the story.