This article in Quillette by Matthew Small, a graduate student at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario), raises a question I hadn’t though much about: what if a word is considered offensive to some but not all members of a minority group? (Actually, that holds for “majority groups” as well: some southern whites may be offended by the term “cracker” and others may not.)
I’ve discussed many times whether words—most prominently the “n-word”—might be okay to use in a teaching situation, for example as it’s used in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. About two years ago it seemed to be okay if it came up in literature and could form the basis of a productive discussion. But now it seems it cannot be used by non-blacks at all, and I do not use it.
But what if the word offends some members of a group but not others? Many Jews, for instance, might be deeply offended by the use of the slur “kike”, and while I see it as a form of bigotry when used to denigrate Jews, I have no objection, as a secular Jew, to it being used, read or discussed in books like The Catcher in the Rye or Babbitt. Perhaps other Jews would, although “kike” hasn’t attained the taboo status of the n-word. So is it never okay to say “kike” if some Jews object to the word being uttered even when it’s not meant to denigrate Jews, but rather for a genuine educational purpose? Is a handful of objecting sufficient to make it immoral to utter the word, even in the classroom? This is the topic of Small’s essay (click on screenshot to read):
Here’s the precipitating incident at Small’s university:
Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household.
It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. [JAC: I think it’s pretty clear that’s what the phrase meant.] It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.
For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially insensitive at best, and a racist at worst. He has had to issue a public apology, along with promises to undergo additional sensitivity training, and Western’s president has established a specialized task-force aimed at combatting systemic racism on campus (of which Wenaus’ utterance apparently constitutes evidence). Meanwhile, Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” This preempts any possible appeal to the presumptively anti-racist intentions behind Wenaus’s lecture, or to the crucial distinction between the use and mention of a term.
From this recounting of events, it doesn’t seem that Wenaus is a racist. Yet he mouthed a word that could be used as racist, and therefore is by default a racist. We all know of things like this happening, and not just with words, either. “Cultural appropriation” is a related issue. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono display, in which non-Japanese were allowed to don kimonos, was the subject of protest by some Asians, but defended by others, including a group of older Japanese ladies who showed up at the Museum wearing kimonos. I suspect that most people here would defend the kimono exhibit but perhaps not the use of the n-word in non-racist contexts.
Small defines the claim that a word cannot be used if any members of the relevant group object to it—no matter what outgroup members think—as the deferential standard:
This deferential standard basically asserts that white people have no right to an opinion about what is or is not racist, and that to suggest otherwise is a mark of racial privilege. So, if a black student declares that Wenaus’s utterance was racist, then it was racist. End of discussion.
The deferential standard is self-defeating in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unable to account for the fact that there will inevitably be differences of opinion among black people about whether a given incident or statement is racist. Although several black people at Western have objected to Wenaus’s remark, I am personally acquainted with several others who find it to be unobjectionable, given the context in which it was uttered, and the intention of the speaker (which was presumptively anti-racist). They cannot all be right. But according to the deferential standard, both camps speak with equal moral authority by virtue of being black, which implies that the same incident must be at once both racist and not-racist. This is clearly absurd.
Well, this is a moral and emotional issue, not an objective decision about “racist or non-racist”. Clearly a word can be interpreted by some as racist, and by others as not. What Small is talking about here is how society in general deems the use of such words. Small continues:
If we are unwilling to accept this incoherent conclusion, we need to find some way of adjudicating which of our two disagreeing camps of black people has it right. [JAC: again, it isn’t a “right or wrong” issue; it’s an issue of what society as a whole deems to be racist versus non-racist.] The only way to do so would be to posit a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist. But by doing so, we have already abandoned the notion that we are obligated to defer to the opinions of black people, as this latter approach would be appealing to a subjective standard. And if we can agree that there exists a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist, there seems to be no good rationale for forbidding white people from participating in discussions about what those criteria are and the circumstances under which they are applicable. Thus, the deferential standard leads to a paradox, for which the only solution is to reject the deferential standard.
He adds that there are further complications because “The deferential standard. . . overlooks the fact that some black people find the standard itself to be racially patronizing.”
This is a conundrum I hadn’t thought of before. All I know is that I dare not use the n-word in any context lest I be demonized as a racist, even in discussing whether the word can be discussed in classrooms or mouthed by whites singing rap songs.
Small concludes that, by unofficially adopting the deferential standard, Western University is violating its motto of Veritas et Utilitas (“truth and utility”), because, in refusing to discuss phrases like the origin of “home butler”, Small argues that it’s become “inappropriate for us to utter certain indisputably true statements, because the value of truth is trumped by the emotional states of one or another demographic.” He then draws the overly dramatic conclusion that this form of Social Justice Warriorism is a religious faith because it requires “suspension of disbelief [in an educational purpose] out of respect to the larger narrative”. Ergo, suggests Small, Western is no longer a secular institution. But this is a digression that makes his essay seem too tendentious. Still, the philosophical issue remains.
I’m not so interested in this comparison of SJW-ism to religion, or in a conflict between truth and utility, because one can always circumvent the n-word (granted, sometimes to the detriment of education and discussion). In the end, It’s clear that the denigrated group, compared to other groups, has the sole power to label a word “offensive.” But Small’s article brings up the issue of what one does when some group members object to a word but others don’t. I don’t object to a discussion of the word “kike” or any of its companion slurs for Jews (“sheeny”, “Hebe”, “Yid”, or “Christ-killer”) IF the word is used in an academic and heuristic way, and is not intended by the speaker to denigrate anybody. But if, say, 5% of Jews do object, does the word then become taboo?
Weigh in below.