As difficult as it is to believe that someone on a contemporary university campus could be so socially tone-deaf that they would publicly utter an ethnic slur, professors do regularly find themselves the target of indignant parties they have “harmed” with their careless, often inappropriate speech.
Consider, for instance, the case of Jackie Buell, an assistant professor in Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, who made an outrageous anti-Semitic slur when she referred to “Jewing down” people in an October 18th online lecture.
“Anybody been to Mexico?” Buell said in a video leaked by a student. “You know, I mean, Jewing down is a way of the world down there, right? You want to buy a blanket and (it) has $5 on it, and you say, ‘I’ll give you $2 for it.’ They say, ‘No.’ You just start walking away. They say ‘Three dollar,’ right? They just want to get what they can out of it. But now they come to this country. We get people that come in the market all the time that want to Jew us down on the vegetables, right?” [Emphasis added.]
This may well be an example of irresponsible, unconscious anti-Semitism, especially given the fact that Professor Buell offered up a lame, almost unbelievable excuse for her utterances when she weakly apologized by saying that she had not intended “to be offensive to any particular group,” presumably meaning Jews in particular, and that, she stupefyingly contended, “I have never associated the word ‘Jew’ with any particular person or group.”
Of course, “Jewing” someone down, for Buell and others who use the phrase pejoratively or otherwise, means bargaining with someone, negotiating back and forth until a price is acceptable to the buyer, with the obvious and not too hidden reference to long-held attitudes about Jews, money, miserliness, conniving, and usurious and the shrewd manipulation of finances—an unflattering anti-Semitic trope that has followed Jews since Medieval times.
While Buell’s slurs were immediately condemned by OSU’s Hillel and Chabad, and her statements launched a further investigation by the University, noticeably absent were the paroxysms of outrage and denunciation by the campus moral scolds who usually waste no time in launching an inquisitory campaign of censure, condemnation, and shaming typical of the current cancel culture which punishes transgressors.
Groups have been skillful in protecting and promoting their identity as victims, and a professor who is careless or self-destructive enough to utter racist or ethnic slurs in classrooms is inevitably made the target of the self-righteous, woke mob.
Because Jews are currently considered to enjoy “white privilege” and are not normally included in campus victim groups, when anti-Semitic speech or behavior targets them there is regularly little blowback—and especially if such anti-Semitic speech involves a discussion of Israel and Zionism. But an errant professor who makes slurs against blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, or the LGBTQ community is likely to find him or herself embroiled in a campaign to punish and even expel them from campus.
On campuses, there is a vocabulary of oppression and certain words have become so charged that they have been rendered unspeakable, so toxic and demeaning because of their historic association that their use is essentially prohibited—even, and this is the problematic aspect of this development, when certain words are used in an academic context and for an academic purpose, and not as a slur.
At Emory University’s School of Law, for example, another faculty member found himself vilified for daring to use what is alleged to be the homophobic term “fag” when he was discussing a case in his torts class, Snyder v. Phelps, concerning the noxious Westboro Baptist Church. According to a student in his class, on September 2nd, Associate Professor of Law Alexander Volokh “. . . decided that he wanted to refer to the Westboro Baptist Church by their ideology and not by their name, so he says, ‘The God hates F-slur church. Those guys.’”
In response to the horror of a professor having used the word “fag” in reference to a case about a church that regularly demonstrates publicly with their trademark slogan “God hates fags” emblazoned on placards, more than 100 law students, administrators (including the Law School’s dean), and faculty staged a walk-out from classes to protest “against the use of slurs in our classrooms.”
But in defending his use of the term “fag.” Volokh, who not coincidentally chairs the University Senate’s Open Expression Committee, wrote in an email that the use of that word, and its attendant power, is central to understanding the legal arguments of this specific case and that sanitizing the expression, using instead “the f-word,” diminishes one of the key pedagogical points. “Expurgating downplays the offensiveness of the term,” he observed. “I think it’s appropriate to get the full force of the term in a case where the offensiveness is relevant to the legal principles being covered.”
Emory’s law school had already experienced turmoil from students when two of its professors had used the most inflammatory and sensitive word of all, “nigger,” the third rail of vocabulary and a word often expressed euphemistically as the “n-word.” In addition to Emory, law professors have used the word “nigger” at the University of Oklahoma, UC-Irvine, University of Ottawa, Stanford, and Wake Forest, among others, and have faced almost universal condemnation from their respective administrations, fellow faculty, and students—and particularly black students.
Offending professors were rebuked and sometimes reassigned, offended students were offered counseling and alternate course sections, and the moral scolds on campus joined a chorus of denunciation against those daring to utter this forbidden word.
But is this reaction to such words as “nigger” and “fag”—particularly in the context of studying legal cases where these specific terms are essential to understanding the underlying legal argument—reasonable and justified?
Why should students be able to force a set of prohibitions on what language can and cannot be used in teaching? Why should one word be deemed so morally and linguistically objectionable that it is forbidden to be used in any context—including legitimate educational ones? Why should the word “nigger”—which students are very likely to have heard in their own lives in rap music, comedy routines, on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, even in conversations with their peers if they are themselves black—why would only this word be purged from use at universities?
The answer to that question, according to Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School, author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, is that it shouldn’t.
“’Nigger’ is a part of the lexicon of American culture about which people, especially lawyers, need to be aware . . ,” Kennedy wrote. “The more that schools validate the idea that this hurt is justified in the circumstances outlined, the more that that feeling will be embraced, and the more that there will be calls to respect that feeling of hurt by avoiding (even perhaps by dint of threatened punishment) what is said to trigger it.”
Other legal scholars concur with Professor Kennedy. “Professors certainly shouldn't use epithets, racial or otherwise, to insult people themselves,” suggested Eugene Volokh, Professor of Law at UCLA. “But when they are talking about what has been said, I think it's important that they report it as it was said. This is often called the ‘use-mention distinction.’" This means that if a slur is uttered in a way to deliberately attack an individual, almost everyone would admit that this type of use is never acceptable and should rightly be condemned when it occurs. But if one of these troublesome words is mentioned, referred to, or cited as part of an academic or legal text, and especially if the term is germane to the case being discussed, it should not be treated as a slur, nor should the speaker of it be condemned or punished for having used it.
In a culture in which elementary school students are exposed to textbooks with graphic depictions of oral sex, condom use, transgender sexuality and body changes, and explicit accounts of gay relationships, often complete with graphic illustrations, it is difficult to understand why law students have to be shielded from words that are not only relevant to their instruction but are an integral part of the case materials and public documents they read, including Supreme Court decisions. A third-grader can be taught about oral sex but a law student cannot hear the word “fag” or read the word “nigger,” a word that appears in legal cases, incidentally, more than 10,000 times?
We force children to confront adult topics in the name of tolerance but infantilize older students to protect them from “harmful” speech and words. This would be dismissed as silliness were it not for the fact that careers have been ruined, faculty suspended or fired, and individuals made into pariahs for uttering words that some, in their moral rectitude, have decided cannot be spoken.
“Anyone hurt by hearing this word mentioned (or even used, when not used to denigrate),” observed Mark Mercer, a professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University, and the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, when referring to use of the word “nigger,” “is not attuned to the academic project of trying to understand the things of the world. Those who are hurt by hearing a teacher speak a particular word need to be initiated into the world of academic endeavor; they don’t need, and shouldn’t be, mollified.”
If words, even poisonous or triggering words, are unbearable to a student, perhaps that person does not belong in an academic setting in the first place and moral busybodies should not be determining what may be said and what may not be said on university campuses.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.