We recently discussed the protests over Anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen using the word “ni**er” in a class on offensive terms to discuss the free speech issues surrounding language. I supported his right to use such terms and questioned where the line would be drawn in university classes. Some faculty however supported the students and now Rosen has cancelled the class. It is a worrisome development for those concerned about academic freedom.
The course wasANT 212: Cultural Freedoms — Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography. Princeton Writing Program lecturer and graphic design consultant , published letters defending the students who protested.
Haupt objected to how Rosen handled the objections from a student:
As regards the N-word and other instances of hate speech, it may be the case that we cannot fully avoid or silence the performative dimension of the terms even when we are using them as Rosen did in his initial question. Again, Rosen was asking a question about a hypothetical situation in which the N-word was used performatively to humiliate another. That is, when he said “n****r,” he was describing an instance of hate speech. But his students felt the force of the term nevertheless: The term was doing something rather than just describing a linguistic act. Upon recognizing this, Rosen could have stepped back, clarified the difference between using hate speech and talking about it, and then asked his class how they felt comfortable representing the term going forward — so that the conversation could continue. But that isn’t what happened.
For these reasons, I stand with the students who walked out on Rosen.
Jawaid argued that this is a generational thing and a failure of Rosen to understand the use of such language:
It is also not fair to demand why the students did not walk out when another idea or community was denigrated. I agree that it may be because a certain issue is more alarming and obviously a matter of urgent concern. I don’t feel bad for the students who walked out. I feel strengthened by their courage. When all is said and done, I hope they can sit down and put words and arguments to their feelings, so that the older generation (sorry…) may have a window into new and interesting perspectives that have the power to change the world.
I disagree that Rosen acted inappropriately in the use of racist terms in a course on racist terms. The controversy reminds me of the ridiculous decision of Yale University Press a few years ago. Yale University Press published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (on the cartoons that led to riots and over 200 killed in protests worldwide). However, Yale removed the the 12 cartoons from the book so not to insult Muslims. Thus, you could read the book but not actually see the cartoons themselves. It was a decision by Yale University Press that is still discussed as anti-intellectual and cowardly in academic circles.
The result in this controversy was that the class itself is now cancelled.