Monday, September 13, 2021

On mention of the N-word in a pedagogical context

Sensible analysis, as usual, from law professor Randall Kennedy (Harvard); an excerpt:

I am skeptical of some of the claims of hurt. I suspect that some of them are the product of learned strategic ripostes. It is now well known that in certain settings, particularly those that strive to be socially enlightened (like colleges and universities), you can effectively challenge speech to which you object by claiming not only that it is socially abhorrent (racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., etc., etc.) but that it makes you feel insulted, offended, or endangered.

Why the objection to circumstances in which it is clear that the instructor was deploying the term only for pedagogical purposes? Because vocalizing the term has become, in the eyes of many objectors, a symbol of either obtuseness or defiance: a sign that the (white — more about that later) instructor is unaware that he or she ought never, ever vocalize the term, or a sign that the instructor is disobeying that injunction. I am convinced that in a substantial number of instances these fights are not really over hurt feelings. They are struggles over status and power....

But my position remains the same even in the case of the objector who genuinely experiences hurt feeling upon hearing the N-word. That is because of my view of “feelings.” Feelings are not unchangeable givens, untouched and untouchable by how their expression is received. Feelings are, at least in part, influenced by the responses of others. The more that schools validate the idea that hurt is justified in the circumstances pertinent here, the more that hurt will be expressed, and the more there will be calls to respect expressed feelings of hurt by avoiding, prohibiting, or punishing what is said to trigger them. I insist upon pushing in another direction, advancing the message that, in circumstances in which “nigger” is aired for pedagogical purposes, there is no good reason to feel hurt.

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