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I just tweeted a bunch of stuff about intra-left fights and people’s fear of being shunned because they say or believe the wrong thing. Briefly, while a lot of attacks on “PC” are actually cover for real and important political disagreements, I also recognize that some folks who honestly do want to do the right thing — by whatever definition — are scared to death of making some sort of misstep that will bring the wrath of the just down upon their heads.

I’ve written before about how getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world, and about how folks can recover if they find themselves on the receiving end of public condemnation, but right now I’d like to open up a space for people who experience those kinds of fears to talk about them, and to ask questions.

If you want to talk about this stuff, let’s talk. If you haven’t commented here before, I’ll have to manually approve your first message, but after that everything will go through automatically. I promise I’ll reply to everyone, and I promise not to be mean.

Oh, and anyone who wants to can comment anonymously, too.

A few days ago I wrote about an incident from last fall in which author and attorney Wendy Kaminer used a racial slur illustratively in the course of a panel discussion on freedom of speech on campus, and in fact encouraged the audience at the panel to call out that slur.

That incident — and the op-ed that Kaminer wrote about it last week — came up last night at a debate I participated in on whether “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus,” and I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the issues raised there in greater detail than the debate’s format allowed.

First, I’d like to address a complaint that was made on the stage. One of my opponents, Kirsten Powers of Fox News, claimed repeatedly that I misrepresented Kaminer’s actions when I described to them last night. I’m pretty confident that I didn’t, and that what I said there was consistent with both my characterization of the event in my earlier essay and with a transcript that I’ve checked against an audio recording of the Kaminer panel. Until the IQ2 video is released I can’t be 100% certain, however. When the video is available I’ll put my comments up here so that readers can judge for themselves, and in the meantime I’ll just say that the account of Kaminer’s actions that appears in my previous post is one that I stand by.

Second, there is the question of censorship. Last night I noted that Kaminer had accused her ideological opponents of “censorship” three times in her op-ed, though she did not, in my view, identify a single instance in which anyone’s speech had been censored. This was, I suggested, symptomatic of a tendency among critics of liberal-left identity politics to tar legitimate debate as “violent” or “censoring” or “silencing.”

In response to my claim, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued — and again, I’ll put up quotes when the video is available — that Kaminer had in fact been censored, because a transcript of the debate had expurgated words that the transcriber found offensive.

I find this argument unconvincing. Here’s why.

The transcriber of the panel was a recent graduate of Smith College operating on her own initiative. Hers was not an official transcript of the event, nor was she representing any public entity. She was simply a person interested in the subject who wanted to bring wider attention to what had been said. To call her a “censor” because she chose not to spell out every slur that was uttered is incorrect — the right to free speech includes the right to use asterisks or brackets in one’s work, even when quoting others.

Last night I asked Greg if he believes that it is censorship for a newspaper to maintain a policy of not printing the word “nigger.” He said he believed it was. I believe that it is not, and if, when our debate is broadcast on NPR, the slur I had to utter to ask the question is bleeped, I will have no cause to complain that my free speech rights have been violated.

There’s another issue raised by the Kaminer piece that we were only able to touch on briefly last night, and that is the fact that her charge of censorship was not limited to the transcriber discussed above. In her op-ed Kaminer recounted a litany of negative responses that she and others received. She was, she said, accused of committing “an explicit act of racist violence.” Smith College’s president subsequently expressed regret that students “were hurt” by her remarks. In a similar incident at Brown University a debate about rape culture was criticized in the student newspaper as undermining “the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors,” and the college president invited students troubled by the planned debate to attend a different event instead.

Here’s what Kaminer said at the close of this litany, in her first use of the word “censorship” in her op-ed:

“How did we get here? How did a verbal defense of free speech become tantamount to a hate crime and offensive words become the equivalent of physical assaults? You can credit — or blame — progressives for this enthusiastic embrace of censorship.”

Clearly, “censorship” in this passage is not referring to a student’s amendments to a transcript. It’s referring to critics who called Kaminer a racist and declared her speech to be violent, to a college president who characterized her words as hurtful, to a student newspaper that criticized others’ views on rape, and to a college president who invited students to attend a lecture.

None of these things are censorship. All of them are speech acts. For Kaminer — a member of the board of advisors of the civil libertarian group that Greg Lukianoff heads — to characterize such speech as censorship is wrong. It’s factually wrong, and it’s morally wrong.

Both Lukianoff and Powers expressed concern about the chilling effects of intemperate criticism last night. Powers, in particular, argued that using the term “racist” to describe speech that is not racist can silence speech. I disagree with that — if I retain the right and the capacity to speak my mind, the fact that someone else criticizes my ideas, however harshly, cannot be said to have silenced me. But if we are going to make the case that criticism from a student journalist or a mild rebuke from the president of a college with which one is not affiliated can be silencing, how much more silencing must it be to see oneself and one’s allies described as censors by a civil libertarian attorney in the pages of one of the nation’s leading liberal newspapers?

The question posed in last night’s debate was whether liberals are chilling speech on campus. By the end of the evening I think all of us agreed that free speech is under attack on many campuses, and that many of those who are doing the attacking would describe themselves as liberal. In that sense, the proposition that was put forward was accurate.

But that’s not the sense in which commentators like Wendy Kaminer or Jonathan Chait or other critics of “PC culture” would construe the claim. To them, liberal and left campus culture is distinctively hostile to freedom of speech, and the very speech that emerges from that culture — robust, aggressive, freewheeling debate about contentious social issues — is offered as proof of that hostility.

Wendy Kaminer is not censoring her critics when she accuses them of being enemies of free expression, any more than they are censoring her when they condemn her own intentionally provocative speech. But the view of campus leftists as enemies of freedom that she and others promulgate is, as I argued last night, a grossly distorted one. Moreover, it’s one that hampers our ability to engage in clear and substantive discussion around issues of great importance to our society.

And I’d like to see more of free speech’s defenders saying so.

Still trying to get embedded video set up here, but if I can’t, you’ll be able to click through to this site to watch tonight’s Intelligence Squared debate on the question of whether liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus.

The debate is at six o’clock tonight at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I’ll be paired with professor Jeremy Mayer arguing the “against” side, while Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Kirsten Powers of Fox News will be arguing “for.”

If you do watch live, I encourage you to follow along on Twitter — the hashtag is #IQ2USLive.

So I’m heading down to DC tomorrow to participate in a debate about free speech on campus. It’s for the Intelligence Squared debate series, and will be livestreamed, podcastified, and broadcast on more than two hundred NPR stations.

The proposition we’ll be debating is Liberals Are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus, and I — shockingly — will be arguing against. My teammate will be Jeremy Mayer of George Mason University, and our opponents will be FIRE president Greg Lukianoff and Kirsten Powers of Fox News.

There are still some tickets for the show available, so if you’re in DC I’d love to see you. (GWU is hosting and GWU students get a steep discount.) If the tech stuff co-operates I’ll be hosting a livestream feed here on the site, too.

It should be a humdinger, so be sure to tune in.

In an op-ed published today, attorney Wendy Kaminer complains that today’s college students have become ridiculously fastidious about speech they disagree with.

I actually sympathize with some of Kaminer’s complaints. To replace “wild and crazy” with “wild and [ableist slur]” in a transcript of a public event strikes me as a bit over the top, for instance — and I say that as someone who has largely expunged that use of “crazy” from my own vocabulary.

But if you’re going to complain about other people’s complaints about your language, you have a responsibility to describe both the language and the complaints accurately, and Kaminer … well, she doesn’t do that.

Last fall Kaminer participated in a panel discussion on free speech sponsored by Smith College, after which, she says, she was “branded a racist.” Here’s how she describes what happened:

Discussing the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn,” I questioned the use of euphemisms such as “the n-word” and, in doing so, uttered that forbidden word. I described what I thought was the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.

Seems pretty straightforward. She talked about a word that appears in a novel, and for this she was attacked as a bigot? Not cool. The use-mention distinction is a crucial one in assessing speech, and there are times when a person has to say a word in order to discuss it. I’ve quoted the slur she’s talking about before on this blog, and I stand by my decision to do so. In fact — fair warning — in the blockquote immediately following the next paragraph, I’m going to do it again.

But saying that it’s not always wrong to use a slur illustratively isn’t the same as saying it’s always right, and a transcript of the session shows that the incident Kaminer describes went down quite differently than she suggests:

Kaminer: If you’re teaching Huck Finn—


Jaime Estrada, University of Pennsylvania Press: It has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.

Kaminer: Well, let’s talk about the n-word. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, “n-word,” or when Jaime says “n-word,” what word do you all hear in your head?

Audience members: Nigger.

Kaminer: You all hear the word “nigger” in your head. See, I said that, nothing horrible happened.


Kaminer: What have you accomplished when you said “n-word”? Everybody here heard the word “nigger” in their head, so what have you accomplished?

Okay. So, as I said above, it’s clear from the transcript that Kaminer hasn’t characterized the exchange accurately. She didn’t just “utter” the word, she encouraged audience members to call it out in unison. Urging people to yell a slur is a different thing than simply referencing that slur. The former may be justified or it may not, but the two aren’t the same.

Beyond that, it’s clear that Kaminer wasn’t just using the word for the sake of clarity or precision. She was using it to demonstrate that her use of it was benign — that “nothing horrible happened” when she used it — and to tweak those who deploy euphemism to avoid voicing slurs.

Kaminer made this agenda obvious again during the Q&A portion of the discussion, when a student offered the argument that using slurs in the classroom is “the equivalent of shouting someone down” or “denying the other person’s humanity.” Pointing out that it’s not just racial slurs that can have such an effect, the student said, “I can think of a whole host of terms that work for that, and for women, in general, like using the c-word, right?”

At this moment it was surely clear to everyone in the room what word the student had in mind, and that she had made a conscious decision to allude to that word without speaking it. But how did Kaminer respond? By using the slur the student had avoided using, and demanding to know whether that was the word she was referring to. (To the student’s credit, she pushed back without rising to Kaminer’s bait, agreeing that it was but noting that if she’d wanted to say the word itself she would have.)

Kaminer wasn’t just referencing slurs in her talk, in other words, she was brandishing them. And one can stipulate that she has that right that without applauding her choice. As another panelist — Lauren Duncan, the chair of Smith’s psychology department — put it in response to Kaminer’s “what have you accomplished” question,

“The reason we say “the n-word” is [to show that we] are aware that it can hurt a large group of people. I think that, so I think that words like that should be used very carefully, especially by people who don’t belong to those groups. In a classroom setting I think there is a space for discussing words like that — you want to describe the social context, you want to describe what it’s used for, you want to describe how it might be used to stratify groups, and so on — [but] I feel very strongly that professors especially have a very big role to play in helping students learn how to engage around these particular issues … they’re trying to figure it out, trying to figure out how to argue and disagree respectfully with people, and I think we as professors, especially in class, have to model that for students and we have to teach them how to do this.”

I agree with Professor Duncan wholeheartedly. It’s not an attack on free speech to say that words have the power to harm us, and to say that we have an obligation — not a legal obligation, but a moral one — to speak in a way that reflects that.

The use-mention distinction is an important one, but it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card absolving us of any responsibility for our word choices. When you go out of your way to include slurs in your speech for effect — and solicit such slurs from others — that’s not “mention” anymore. It’s “use.” And it’s reasonable for others to respond accordingly. So no, Wendy Kaminer isn’t a free speech martyr, and she’s not a fearless truth-teller either.

It’s hardly noteworthy that people can be goaded to react when poked with a rhetorical stick, and it’s hardly clever to play the victim when your poking has the intended effect.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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