They’d been sitting in the waiting room for four years now.
At least, that’s what it felt like to Benjamin. In reality, it had been about half an hour. The eight-year-old stared down the Sorcery Center’s winding hallway, watching workers scurry to and fro. They moved like bees, each with their own purpose, keeping North America’s largest magical office running like clockwork.
The entire subterranean complex was hidden beneath an ordinary blue postbox on an ordinary gray street in Manhattan. Up above, millions of sorcer-nots went about their day, unaware of the magical community’s political goings-on just below their feet.
Benjamin sat to the right of his older brother, Jonathon, a handsome blonde fifteen-year-old in his fourth year at Wimbletotts. On Jonathon’s other side sat their mother, with little Lucas on her lap, and tears in her eyes.
“Lucas Biggley,” called a voice from the hallway. “Proceed to trial.”
Mrs. Biggley picked the boy up and began walking, motioning toward her older two sons to follow. Jonathon grabbed Benjamin’s hand, and the four of them headed into quite possibly the largest room Benjamin had ever seen.
There was a round, wooden platform in the center of the room, with towering pedestals surrounding it. The Three Head Sorcerers—a man and two women dressed in ridiculous robes—sat like vultures at the highest points of the room, staring down at their new prey. Jonathon guided his brother to the small side area, normally used for jurors, while Mrs. Biggley and Lucas treaded to the center platform.
The Center Sorcerer spoke.
“Lucas Biggley,” he called in a booming voice, “you have been summoned here for the crime of Level 5 Sorcerous Squandery. Our Mystic Monitors detected an instance of the Most Evil Utterance originating from your mouth last Tuesday the 5th at 3:36 in the afternoon. How do you plead?”
The toddler didn’t look at anything in particular.
“What a little piece of shit,” the Secondmost Sorcerer cackled. “The little fucko won’t even answer your question!”
“He’s only a child! He doesn’t know what’s going on, he can barely even talk!” begged Mrs. Biggley, tears running down her cheeks.
“Bahaha, that’s not what we heard, ya dumb bitch! Get that sack of garbage to pipe up now or—”
The Center Sorcerer interjected.
“—actually, Marissa, uh… er, I apologize for cutting you off. But, in cases where the accused is too young to understand the ramifications of his actions, it is standard practice to—”
“—are you fucking defending him? Whether he ‘understands the ramifications’ of his actions or not is bullshit. The little twat is accountable either way.”
Mrs. Biggley glared at the Secondmost Sorcerer. “He pleads innocent, and he is innocent. My son has done nothing wrong.”
The Secondmost Sorcerer glared right back. “If you’re defending his actions, you’re just as bad as he is, and you deserve to be locked up with him! The Most Evil Utterance is literally the most harmful spell in all of sorcery, that’s the whole point of why we fucking call it the Most Evil Utterance.”
“You know full well he has no idea of its power! He didn’t hurt anyone!”
“Tell that to the millions upon millions of innocent victims who have had to live with its curse their entire lives, you fucking garbage human.”
Jonathon squeezed Benjamin’s hand. “Don’t worry, Benjy,” he whispered. “They won’t get away with this.”
The Center Sorcerer looked back and forth between the two boys, retreating from Mrs. Biggley and the Second Sorcerer’s heated conversation. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. God, let’s just get it over with…
Benjamin stared at the nervous man.
Lucas continued to not do much of anything.
“Alright, uh, well then,” the Center Sorcerer began. “This seems like a pretty open and shut case. It’s illegal to say the Most Evil Utterance, the kid said it, so, here we go, Lucas Biggley, I hereby pronounce you—”
“—wait a second.”
All eyes in the room turned to Benjamin Biggley. The boy dropped his brother’s hand.
“What’s so bad about saying ‘nigger’?”
Silence drenched the room.
Sweat drenched the Center Sorcerer.
The Secondmost Sorcerer fumed. “SECURITY!!!! HAVE THIS BOY ARRESTED AND TAKEN INTO SOLITARY CONFI—”
“Hold on a second, Marissa.”
The Thirdmost Sorcerer finally spoke.
“In this sacred room, all conversation is protected. For us to fully uphold the Laws That Guide Us, we must allow our defendants to feel safe in expressing ideas that would otherwise be prohibited. This enables us to explore their minds and have a better idea of what we’re up against, which makes it easier to dismantle the logic they’ve built up that they use to rationalize their actions.”
“Fuck you,” the Secondmost Sorcerer replied.
“Little boy,” asked the Thirdmost Sorcerer, “what is your name?”
The woman looked at him with a stern kindness in her eyes. “Surely you understand why the Most Evil Utterance is forbidden.”
“Well, uh… not really. I mean, I get that our society has deemed it to be something we shouldn’t say, but from a consequentialist perspective, I don’t understand what literal harm is done by saying it. It’s not like the Spell of Stabbing or the Burning Bolero where people get actually hurt in real life by their invocation. At worst it makes certain people feel a little uncomfortable for a minute, but you could say the same thing about every other word that comes out of the Second Sorcerer’s mouth, and our younger generations have apparently decided that people who are hurt by those words need to just suck it up. So… isn’t kind of arbitrary that we’ve given power to the Most Evil Utterance and allowed it to continue to be this thing that we’re going to pretend is hurting us when it’s not really doing anything?”
The Secondmost Sorcerer shook with suppressed rage.
“Well, Benjamin,” the Thirdmost Sorcerer began, “it’s very easy for you to say that it only ‘makes people a little uncomfortable’ as a white boy. It’s much more harmful than that, though. The Most Evil Utterance carries with it the power of centuries of torture and slavery—by invoking it, you’re calling to attention this dark history and, at best, hand-waving it away, or at worst, endorsing it to hurt someone. While other people might be offended by certain aspects of the Second Sorcerer’s vocabulary, none of those words carry the power that the Most Evil Utterance does—those ones really are arbitrary. But when it comes to the Most Evil Utterance, you can’t just wash away its horrifying connotations.”
“Okay, sure, you say that, but I don’t think that’s actually true. I mean, what if I’m not ‘invoking centuries of torture’ by saying it? Doesn’t the power lie in the intention of the speech rather than the actual noises formed by our vocal chords? I have a black friend at school who I sing super vulgar hip hop songs with all the time, and we use that word a dozen times a day, and it doesn’t make him uncomfortable. Doesn’t the existence of at least one black person who isn’t offended by innocent usage of that word imply that the act of using one’s tongue to alter air pressure in such a way that human ears perceive it as the n-word isn’t objectively evil? Especially when in reality there are probably millions of black people who aren’t offended by it? And, look, I know that saying ‘I have a black friend’ is the most cliché argument in the world for this stuff, but when we’re talking about purely circumstantial evidence then mine is just as valid as yours.”
“Benjamin, please stop…” Mrs. Biggley sobbed.
“It’s fine, Mrs. Biggley, this conversation is healthy,” said the Thirdmost Sorcerer. “Benjamin, it’s awfully presumptuous of you to say that there are millions of black people who aren’t offended by the Most Evil Utterance.”
“Well, has anyone ever taken a poll? It seems like the only people I ever see complain about it are white Huffington Post bloggers. Like, if I was a black hip hop artist and I wrote a song that had the n-word in it, I’d be pretty pissed off if there were a bunch of self-righteous censors going around telling white people they couldn’t sing it in the club.”
“There you go again though, presuming how you would feel if you were black. But you’re not. You and I can’t even imagine the pain that African Americans associate with that word.”
Benjamin thought. “Uh, okay, but see, this is the problem. I fully admit that I’m not capable of internalizing how bad the n-word—er, the Most Evil Utterance—actually is. So I just have to kind of take a detached stance on it. And you’d agree that I should base that stance on what black people have to say about it, right? But whenever we’re Supposed To Listen To Marginalized People, you guys always pick and choose which marginalized people to listen to. You ignore the women who disagree with #YesAllWomen because you think they’ve been brainwashed by society, which is way more sexist than assuming that their opinions matter just as much as the ones you agree with even when their opinions are already super sexist. Aren’t people who aren’t offended by the Most Evil Utterance just as important as the ones who are?”
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. So let’s make a deal: hypothetically, if we were to poll every black person in the country and ask if they were offended by the Most Evil Utterance, you would admit that it’s a terrible thing to say if greater than 50% of them are offended, and otherwise I’d admit that there’s no harm in saying it. Fair?”
“Uh… kind of. I mean, that’s progress. But I still can’t get behind the idea that just because someone is sensitive to something, we should ban that thing. That’s the problem with utilitarianism, if I can train myself to feel intense sadness at you not giving me your cookies, then I can blackmail you into giving me your cookies because you don’t want to have to feel bad for me. And before you tell me ‘it’s awfully presumptuous of me to say that black people have trained themselves to be offended by the Most Evil Utterance,’ yes, I know that a lot of what marginalized people face truly is horrible no matter how thick their skin is, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of the dialogue we have about what we should and shouldn’t say is training people who already have hard lives to feel even more like victims than they would if we encouraged them to not allow idiots make them feel bad just by saying arbitrary words.”
“Is it really so hard for you to not say the Most Evil Utterance that you want to change the minds of everyone who’s hurt by it rather than just put in a small amount of self-control and not say it? Is that really the hill you want to die on?”
Benjamin looked at the Thirdmost Sorcerer. The kindness in her eyes had gone, with sadness taking its place.
“Um. Not really. But… I still get worried when someone says it accidentally, or as a poorly-thought-out joke, or as part of a song, and we decide that they’re automatically a horrible racist person just for saying it and they deserve to be crucified. My brother’s two years old. He doesn’t know any better.”
Moments passed before the Thirdmost Sorcerer spoke next.
“Lucas Biggley, I hereby pronounce you innocent.”
“What the fuck!? She can’t do that!!”
“Brianna, you’re out of line—”
“—we will talk about this later,” the Thirdmost Sorcerer interrupted. “I take full responsibility. Mrs. Biggley, you and your sons are free to go.”
Jonathon thrust his fist into the air in victory and dragged his younger brother by the hand. The two boys reached their mother, and the family embraced.
The Thirdmost Sorcerer spoke one last time.
The boy turned.
“You’re a very intelligent young man. You probably think of yourself as some sort of contrarian. A pessimist who enjoys pointing out what’s wrong with societal norms. You think that you’ll face obstacles for this, and you will, but you’re wrong about their root—you’re no pessimist, Benjamin Biggley, you’re an optimist. You have a wonderful family who has raised you well, and you don’t understand just how cruel this world can be.
The Most Evil Utterance is forbidden for a reason. There exist people in this world who invoke its power to commit unspeakable evil. You are lucky that you will never encounter them.
There is another kind of evil in this world as well. Its power lies in its ability to disguise itself as good. You believe that those who would send your brother to prison have the best intentions, but I can assure you, they don’t.
These are the people you will fear.”
With a glance back, the Biggley family exited the auditorium, leaving the three Head Sorcerers in silence.
The Secondmost Sorcerer glared.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”