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.

This image is all over Twitter this morning:



Below a photo of Chapel Hill murderer Craig Hicks, a caption reads “Neighbors: Hicks Known For Rescuing Dogs From Puppy Mills.” Underneath that, smaller text reads “Newest info paints possible hate crime in unlikely light.” There’s a CNN logo to the left of the text, and a crawl and time graphic further down.

The image appears to be, and has been posted as, a CNN television screenshot, but it’s clearly a fake. Here’s why:

First, the font for the caption is wrong, as is the size of the text. Real CNN captions — as can be seen in a Google search for “CNN screenshot” — are shorter, and thus bigger. The second caption in particular is far smaller than seen in actual screenshots, and there’s no reason for it to be — because the text is so much shorter than that of the main caption, it could have been made larger without cutting it off.

Second, I can find no reference to Hicks as a dog rescuer in any media coverage of the case, including CNN’s own. The time graphic reads “2:57 PM PT,” and as I write this it’s eight o’clock in the morning on the West Coast, so the screenshot would have to be at least seventeen hours old. Even if the puppy news was breaking when it was shown on-screen it would have made it into online coverage by now, and even if the story had been withdrawn for some reason a trace of it would remain.

Third — and thanks to Twitterer @superbranch for this one — there’s a spelling error in the second caption. “Unlikely” is spelled “unlikeley.”

There are other problems with the image, too. The blue background for the caption is a shade I don’t see in legit CNN screenshots, and it’s a flat color, not textured as the real ones I’ve seen are. The text of the main caption is longer than CNN’s tend to be, and the second caption doesn’t make much sense — why would Hicks’ supposed history of rescuing animals put the crime itself in a new light?

Nope. It’s a fake.

Happy birthday to Frederick Douglass, who understood that some questions just aren’t worth debating:

“There may be some well-meaning people in this audience who have never attended a woman suffrage convention, never heard a woman suffrage speech, never read a woman suffrage newspaper, and they may be surprised that those who speak here do not argue the question. It may be kind to tell them that our cause has passed beyond the period of arguing. The demand of the hour is not argument, but assertion, firm and inflexible assertion, assertion which has more than the force of an argument. If there is any argument to be made, it must be made by opponents, not by the friends of woman suffrage.”

Earlier this week, down in the depths of an absurdly long thread, a new visitor to this site left a comment that blew me away. So much so, in fact, that I asked the author, Cole, if I could republish it as a post of its own.

Not much background is needed, so I’ll get out of her way.

•          •          •

I’m a newbie commenter here. I’m white, a gay woman, 25 yrs old, an organizer in my city (Boston) that has been deeply involved in lefty movements locally and nationally and I helped start a left feminist organization. I’m not a Big Name nor do I follow the Big Names (like I only vaguely knew who Freddie deBoer was until all of this). I’m not a student organizer, I got a year of community college under my belt but you know how that shit goes. I am prefacing with all this so people know that where I am coming from. So yea, couple of things:

1. It is completely bizarre to me to see all this concern about people being driven away from the left during a moment where we are seeing one of the largest and most sustained social movements in recent history. How can we have a conversation about the State of the Left without taking into context the Black Lives Matter movement? It is especially bizarre given that queer black women who helped lay the backbone for this movement embody the kind of unapolegtic radicalism that deBoer and friends take issue with. Like you all gotta understand how silly it looks to see a white dude talking about how the left is too mean and driving people away when in the middle of winter in Boston we are still having 1000+ people marches around Black Lives Matter. I frankly don’t even know how to process it.

2. Someone already spoke to this in the thread, but it also is confusing given the scale of the problem. I can’t really say anything publicly, online or in organizing spaces without risking at least threats of violence and attacks. A simple request for men to be please be more aware of talking over women can easily escalate to male leftists screaming in my face and threatening to rape me. Fuck, I have even been shoved in meetings before. And then this has escalated into other forms of violence.

Hell, it was that dynamic that led me to help start the lefty feminist organization. I mean, it was exactly that dynamic in the anti-war movement that lead to the start of the women’s liberation movement and funnily enough, a lot of these critiques of PC/callout culture are incredibly similar to those directed at feminists during that time period. Basically, we have a real serious problem of people (women, black people, trans people but especially trans women) being driven out of moments because of actual violence, but I really have yet to see these Big Names seriously address that dynamic and how it plays into callout culture. I would take a lot of these critiques way more seriously if they actual took in the larger context instead of pretending all this shit came out of nowhere.

3. The idea that PC language is inaccessible to working class people needs to die in a fire. I’m poor, but I ain’t stupid and being poor doesn’t mean I’m more cruel than the cultured academic. If someone tells me that using a certain word hurts them, I stop. I’m perfectly capable of understanding the ideology behind various types of language uses — because in case you didn’t realize this, a lot of this ideology came out of working class movements. Academics chiding each other over inaccessible language has to be one of the most patronizing and belittling things I have experienced in my own organizing.

Beyond the fact that assuming poor people can’t understand this is bullshit, it is also a way for academics to not hold themselves accountable for shitty institutions they are involved in. Like you know what barriers I as a working class organizer actually face? Its not language or callouts — believe me, my family is old school Italian, I can handle people yelling. It’s the fact that for all paid organizer positions, you need a higher degree. It’s that for my org to get money, I need to navigate a grant system that is hostile to young, grassroots organizations and that requires a certain kind of language and presentation. It’s that feeing when you show up to a coalition meeting and you are the only one not dressed in business casual. It’s that private colleges in our city suck up public money, resources, and land to the point where orgs I work with have trouble finding meeting spaces. It’s that student and academic organizers are granted a huge platform and more money and support than I could ever dream of, just by virtue of being part of the academy. So, you know, stop worrying about language so much because that is so not the issue here.

4. I don’t get this conflation of educational and political organizations. A lot of the critiques of PC/callout shit seem to make the assumption that all political organizations should have some sort of education component. I’m gonna use the feminist org I’m a part of again as an example. We are a political organization that works on long term campaigns in order to build a revolutionary women’s liberation movement. There is nothing on our website or in our materials that would suggest that we are a good group to come to learn about the basics of race, class and gender and that was deliberate on our part. If people showed up misgendering Chelsea Manning or lacking in knowledge on basic shit, yea we are going to ask them to leave. Why? Because we all volunteer our time, our budget mostly comes out of our own pockets and we just don’t see how educating random people is a good use of our time and resources. And funnily enough, we have still been able to build a base and do some significant work in our city. We’ve been able to do that by having a clear political platform and being smart with our resources (economic, emotional, etc). We’re not perfect, we’ve had plenty of conflict over tactics and analysis but we have been successful precisely because we have held that basic line.

Also, since when has educating random individuals ever been a successful strategy for the left? Like let’s use one of deBoer’s examples — say this dude shows up to a meeting and claims there are innate gender differences. Okay, so what next? I could spend time, resources and energy educating him but there is no guarantee he’ll listen or how long it will take to get him up to speed and due to past experience, I know this could likely end in violence for me. But let’s say I take this task on. I would first have to figure out the best way to teach him, I would have to research and present materials, maybe I would have to dedicate whole meetings to this project — and if we are being honest, this project could take months to years. And at the end of it, there is still no guarantee he would accept leftist views on gender or that he would then be interested in long term organizing. How exactly is that a good movement-building strategy?

Or let’s say we don’t say anything and just let him organize with us. I’ve been in groups like this and I’ll tell you what happens. Over time, women will leave. Some will leave yelling and screaming and trying to draw attention to the issue while others will leave so quietly that no one notices. And before you know it, your organization has lost membership of people already on board with your message for someone who holds shitty beliefs, all for the sake of movement-building.

And obviously its not always so black and white. But I’m trying to operate on the terms deBoer laid out. Like I can easily see him profiling the groups I’m as part of the problem without ever considering that maybe there is rhyme and reason to what we do.

5. Its pretty ironic that deBoer can act like a jerk and people can give him the benefit of the doubt and still respect his ideas, meanwhile we have a slate of hysterical articles bemoaning the fact that women, trans and queer people are asserting their politics in not-nice tones (because let’s be honest, the vast majority of these examples of angry leftists are almost all feminists and mostly black women, glbq women or trans women).

6. If we are going to talk about the stagnation of the left or start assigning blame to shit, shouldn’t we first look at who controls the resources? The feminist movement is incredibly weak right now. I guess its easy to blame twitter activists (like Michelle Goldberg did) but in reality, it’s organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL and NOW who have access to the most resources and who tend to exert the most control over the direction of the movement. And I mean, that dynamic exists across movements (gltbq rights, labor, etc). And if one has been paying attention the past few years, it’s been the work of these newer, more radicalized activists that have reinvigorated the left. Just to go full circle, we would not have the Black Lives Matter movement if it was not for the uncompromising stance black activists have taken these past few months. Hell, some of the women profiled in the Toxic Twitter Wars artcles have had direct roles in building this current movement.

And this comment turned into a fucking beast. I can be wicked wordy sometimes but hopefully all this made sense.

•          •          •

Angus again, with just a couple of quick notes on Cole’s post.

First, I asked her how she would like to be credited here, and she requested the same semi-anonymous handle she used on her original comment. She was recently targeted for doxxing, and is laying low. Second, Cole’s original comment sparked considerable discussion, including two sharp followups from Cole herself. You can find those here and here.

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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