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.