Speechphobia

Academics are now being fired for using the n-word in an entirely educational way.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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It’s no longer surprising but still has the capacity to shock: an attorney for a state university in Texas lost her job because she quoted a verboten word during a discussion of free speech. In a doomed effort to explain that language widely considered hateful is constitutionally protected, she said: ‘It’s impossible to talk about the First Amendment without saying horrible things. “You’re just a dumb nigger and I hate you.” That alone, that’s protected speech.’

She was out of a job in less than 24 hours, despite immediately offering an abject apology: ‘I just want to sincerely apologise. I did not mean by any means [to] offend anyone. I wish I had censored that word, it came out without thought. I sincerely apologise. I literally have never said that word in a public setting before… I did not mean to, I was trying to be real.’

Still the university president condemned her language and the student government association president demanded her resignation as a demonstration of the school’s commitment to anti-racism.

But refusing to distinguish between using an epithet and merely quoting one, especially during a discussion of free speech, is not anti-racism – it’s anti-reason, denoting a gross failure of critical thinking. Discussing racist speech is simply not the equivalent of trafficking in it. That used to be obvious, even to left-wing critical-race theorists who helped initiate the current crusade against free speech some 30 years ago. Back in 1993, law professor Mari Matsuda, who advocated banning bigoted speech, suggested making exceptions for people who quoted it for purposes other than ‘hate-mongering’, like ‘news reporters who repeat racist speech in reporting the news of its utterance [or] law professors who repeat racist words in hypotheticals for class discussion of the First Amendment’.

That was then. Today, language phobias abound, making the mere sound of certain words presumptively traumatic, regardless of meaning or context. Is this assertion of extreme emotional fragility sincere or simply a power pose – a tactic framing censorship as an act of virtue, not a self-serving assault on individual rights? Perhaps it’s both. I suspect that many have been convinced by woke culture of the damage done by the mere utterance of certain syllables, but that they also recognise the power of their presumptive fragility. From the always aggrieved Donald Trump to the denizens of woke culture, the self-proclaimed harassed and oppressed effectively employ the political uses of victimhood.

So, today, people who quote verboten words, in any context and for any purpose, instead of referencing them by their initials, are routinely vilified. Five years ago I was accused of committing an act of racial violence for quoting the racist language of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn during an academic discussion of free speech, literature and law. I was also condemned for quoting the word ‘cunt’ instead of referencing ‘the c-word’, (which, from my perspective, is ‘censorship’). I exacerbated my sin by defending it, instead of apologising.

But if we’re not allowed ever to utter words deemed racist, sexist or homophobic, even to condemn their use or explain free-speech law, why should we be able to say ‘c-word’ or ‘n-word’, calling the unspoken words to the minds of our listeners, effectively asking them to traumatise themselves? Soon, progressive censors may condemn and cancel us for making any coded references to verboten words. Given their speech phobias, and the power those phobias confer, why shouldn’t they?

Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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