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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Comments

Dan Under

17th November 2019 at 9:17 pm

A wonderful Dickensian word describes the current irrational, obsessive and brittle fragility of the virtue signalling NPC conformist collective, the Offendodrons, on the one hand, and on the other, the devotees of Alinsky, ‘control the language you control the people’, those Slogan Mongers, …
Pecksniffian [pek-snif-ee-uh n ].
adjective (often lowercase)
hypocritically and unctuously affecting benevolence or high moral principles.
WORDS RELATED TO PECKSNIFFIAN
affected, artificial, assuming, bland, canting, captious, deceptive, double, double-dealing, duplicitous, faithless, fishy, fraudulent, glib, hollow, insincere, left-handed, lying, oily, pharisaic

Christopher Tyson

14th November 2019 at 10:55 pm

Nice to see a more uncompromising piece from Wendy Kaminer. Free speech is of course a big part of the problem, but the issue is wider than this, it is about the state and politics. It’s about controlling the agenda, or the public discourse or the limits of what can or can’t be said. There are many ways to silence or exclude people. What we have is the dictatorship of the liberal middle class. These are people convinced of the own virtue and rectitude. They wouldn’t recognise that they are defending a class interest, they are Indeed not so different from a universal class. With the absence of a coherent ideological working class, the middle class experiences any criticism or attacks as hostile, unwarranted, barbaric even. Ironically if you are censored it means that someone, somewhere heard you or recognised you as a threat. But there is level of exclusion where certain people or views simply do not register in the media, which is the arena of public discourse. I think that people like Richard Dawkins or Fukuyama are not celebrated because they are great writers, but because their conclusions resonate with the educated middle classes. To have your views taken seriously by them, you have to attend their institutions and obtain qualifications dispensed by them. The end of history thesis is very convenient for those in the ascendency at that moment. The current dominant intellectual outlook cannot be challenged or reformed, an alternative intellectual movement is required and that starts here.

Jerry Owen

14th November 2019 at 10:39 pm

And yes … Wendy manages to get a dig in at Trump… How tedious !

antoni orgill

14th November 2019 at 4:09 pm

I agree. It ought to have been clear to the minutiae-sniffing Zealots how the use-age of the forbidden word provided a pretext to discussing racism in an historical context. They must _ somehow _ be put to the test on this. Their fetish for words is really the disgrace here. It’s also an attempt (so often successful) to monopolise moral outrage and have their own particular version of truth wipe out any other essays into countering racism. It saves money as well doesn’t it?

Genghis Kant

14th November 2019 at 9:55 am

If you give words magical powers, then you give those words power over you, and you no longer have power over them.

Chose not to be horrified or outraged by those dread words and you no longer have to cower in fear from them.

Gerard Barry

14th November 2019 at 8:55 am

To lose one’s job over something one says is a fucking disgrace. It’s high time students started boycotting universities that behave like this. Why pay thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, in tuition every year to an institution that won’t even allow you or your professors to express yourself however you wish?

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