Using the "n-word"...or "nigger" in class.

I would like to take a few minutes to address my use of a racial epithet in yesterday’s class. It would seem on the face of it that my endorsement of the proposition “Freedom of speech must include the right to offend” seems to violate at least two principles that I have explicitly or tacitly endorsed: First, do no harm; second, and dependent on the first, use language that recognizes that might offend others’ sensibilities. However, my belief that offensive speech should be protected does not mean that I personally choose to offend others or believe that we should offend others. It means I think we should be allowed and must not have anyone that can regulate that speech.
The n-word – I needn’t repeat it – appalls us because reminds us of oppression, bigotry, hatred, murder and distrust. It would seem that in today’s world that it is out of bounds for a white, middle-class, once-Catholic male to use it. In almost all contexts, that is probably true as it relates to decency. In few cases could I claim that any racial, gendered, sexual, or religiously sectarian epithet – towel head, slut, fag, or kike – is appropriate.
But in a class about the use of words we must be free to explore words and their implications and that means reading and hearing them. Remember, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and I might add women) are created equal.” I believe the same is true of words. As human beings should all be provided with equal access to life, liberty, and property, I believe that so are words. We should be able to access them in our own minds and from one another’s mouths, no matter how offensive they might be.
I cannot agree more with Mari Matsuda: in public life, where group decorum and individual respect trumps almost all, we should not use these words for they compromise our own reputations as well as those at whom we might aim them. However, I differ greatly with Matsuda on what offensive speech is. She seems to believe that threats, libel, financial subterfuge, and harassment somehow fall under the rubric of offensive speech. I do not. We should engage the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” We should have a categorical imperative that demands that we speak with dignity and respect. We should behave ethically and treat one another as sovereign subjects and not as objects, what Martin Buber called the “I-thou” relationship.
You might ask then, “But you have said do no harm. What about clownfish? You dropped the n-bomb?” Note, first, that the person’s credibility and reputation most likely to be harmed by my use of the n-word yesterday was not any or yours. It was my own. I ran the risk of appearing as a bigot in front of two African-American students and a class of educated and culturally sensitive young adults. In this way, I believe the greatest harm done was potentially done to me. All of our ears rang to some degree because of the n-word. Second, and maybe more importantly, clownfish is my own euphemism. You may adopt it if you’d like too, but I do not make it a policy in my classroom nor would I have it become a form of politically correct newspeak. No, I am not interested in controlling others’ speech. People must volunteer or we compromise the sovereignty of their selves, something worthy of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and contemporary Iran and North Korea where the individual is turned into an implement of the state and cannot even believe that they are autonomous. In the United States and much of the “western” world we can at least carry on the illusion, if not the total reality, that we are free to think and speak as we like so long as we do not threaten or harass.
I believe that all words are created equal. They are not the same. They should not be locked into prisons and shut away. That is the way to foster quiet bigotry and make sure that taboos fester. Napoleon and Snowball, the two pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm set up a utopia over which Napoleon ends up ruling tyrannically. The utopia begins as a place where all animals are created equal. But as he gains more power, some animals become more equal than others. I, for one, will not go down that line.

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