Harsh Ideas For Delicate Minds

WK: And by, “the c-word,” you mean the word [c-word]?

–Transcript of “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts’ in The Smith Sophian

Smith College Alumna, lawyer and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer committed an “explicit act of racial violence” from her seat on the panel. No, she took no bludgeon and struck a person with it because of their color.  She spoke a word.

She spoke a word.  She did so to make a point, that the mere utterance of the word didn’t make the heavens part, the sky fall, plague descend or life as we know it end.  Oh wait, the last did happen, which was pretty much Kaminer’s point.

The word she uttered was “nigger.” She is not the first to do so for this purpose.

The president of Smith College was subsequently attacked by social justice warriors for not immediately striking Kaminer down for her “explicit act of racial violence.”  The students cried out at his failure to silence words they found disturbing.

“As a white person, and as the president of Smith College, it is your job to be an ally to all of the students at Smith. In allyship towards students of color, and in this case particularly black students, it is your responsibility to speak up when another white person says something racist…We need to recognize our privilege, and furthermore we need to use our privilege to shut down racism that we see occurring around us. If we do not actively fight racism, we are contributing to racial oppression…”

Harvey Silverglate, FIRE co-founder and Boston civil rights lawyer, called this the killing of liberal arts.

On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech. The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic. Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can’t survive.

While FIRE focuses on the campus, where fashionable trends are taught to impressionable young minds, it hardly limited to ivy covered buildings. Cries to cleanse the internet, today’s public square, of mean words are pervasive. While desks in classrooms are being replaced with fainting couches, militant demands are made of social media to silence hurtful expression.

One might call this “crazy,” but then, that too is out of bounds.

Clarification was evidently needed, considering that another c-word was also censored from the transcript:

Kathleen McCartney: … We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?

That’s right, wild and crazy. It took my colleagues and me a moment to figure that one out (it is audible in the audio recording of the panel). Despite this word apparently being too offensive to reproduce in the transcript, it was spoken by all three of the other panelists besides Kaminer, in addition to President McCartney.

As words are taken off the table, the ability to express ideas, to challenge thought, to question, disappears with it.  And that is the theoretical wrong to be righted.  Eliminate the language of hate and prejudice, and there will no longer be hate and prejudice. It’s a sweet thought, but child-like. Hate and prejudice don’t require words to be felt.

And despite pretenses to the contrary, ability matters. As some wallow in hurt feelings, nothing gets done.  Someone has to suffer the unpleasantness of doing the work of building things, whether society or structures.  The people who do things while others whine about them create.  Those who can’t, because it’s too painful, fail to contribute. At the end of they day, there is nothing to prove they existed. But their delicate feelings haven’t been hurt.

But more important than this simplistic “my feelings matter most” approach to the perfect world is the elevation of censorship in the name of good intentions to an Orwellian tipping point.  I rarely use curses or epithets here out of choice, but my buddy Marc Randazza is curse central, not because he’s just coarse and vulgar, but because his philosophy is to throw such language in people’s faces to remind them that they’re just words. As with Kaminer, no one’s eyeballs melt from reading such harsh language.

We’ve ridiculed “trigger warnings,” yet another fashion trend to spare delicate sensibilities from the trauma of unpleasantness.  In response, deeply emotional pleas are offered to understand that people have feelings, and their feelings are really hurt by ideas and words that offend or remind of bad things.

“We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,” Ms. Loverin said in a recent interview. “People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety — even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.”

A “very real threat to their safety” is the justification that permeates these demands.  Not because there is any rational basis to believe their safety is threatened, but because that’s how they feel. Feelings.  One can’t argue against feelings; we all have them and, reasonable or not, we’re entitled to them.  But we cannot construct a society based on the most fragile teacup’s feelings without losing the thoughts and ideas of everyone else.

The discussion itself, to the extent it is a discussion, is mired in the distinction between thought and feelings.  To advocate against censorship, against silencing unhappy thoughts, against the eradication of words that are too harsh for delicate minds, evokes attack as supporting hatred and prejudice.  No, it’s not rational, but neither are those who make the attack.

Harvey warns, “Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day.” How much of a conversation has to devolve into code words and euphemisms before advocates for censorship see the damage it is doing?

Harvey’s rhetorical question has an answer. They will never see the damage, as it would require the advocates for censorship to think rather than feel.  We are watching the entitlement and self-indulgence give rise to the Age of Feeling, where unpleasant ideas are anathema and disagreement is hatred.

The only way this stops is for those who understand and appreciate the damage being done by social justice warriors, all with the best of intentions wrapped up in their feelings and visions of their Utopian society where only happiness exists, is refuse to be silenced, to be cowed by their ad hominem attacks, and reject the sensibility that the eradication of words and ideas will save us.

Trigger Warning: Graphic violence ahead

If a club comes down upon your head and bashes in your skull, you will be hurt. You will know pain. This is violence.  No, merely hearing the word “nigger” is not violence, and the discomfort you may feel from the word is not, you whimpering, entitled, self-absorbed, sheltered twinkies, the same.  The problem is that you’ve never known real pain, for no one who has could confuse it with the hurt feelings of harsh ideas.

23 thoughts on “Harsh Ideas For Delicate Minds

  1. Troutwaxer

    I agreed with you right up to the point where you wrote, “The problem is that you’ve never known real pain…” at which point I decided that maybe I’d better apply a higher level of criticism.

    The problem here is that the word “nigger” may very well have immediately preceded the real pain, as it does on a regular basis for many, many black people.

    My own take on the issue is to think in terms of a person’s “racism radar” or “sexism radar” and whether they have calibrated that radar properly for the situation they are in. A black person on the street needs to have very sensitive racism radar, whereas a black person in a classroom where free speech will be discussed needs to calibrate their racism radar very differently, as appropriate to the situation. The same, in my opinion, applies to women, Gays, and other minorities.

    1. SHG Post author

      You missed the point. Badly. Consider who and what that quote refers to, and then ask yourself, “why am I applying it to an entirely different person/situation.” It may then become clearer.

    2. Matthew I

      “…think in terms of a person’s “racism radar” or “sexism radar” and whether they have calibrated that radar properly for the situation they are in.”

      I’m too sympathetic (too much of a shmuck?) to completely dismiss the power of words like “[ableist slur]” to hurt, but I think this is important point. I just came across a HuffPo article arguing that phrases like “the economy has been crippled by dept” are ableist hate-speech, and while I sympathize with the thrust of that argument… Merriam-Webster demonstrates one usage of “crippled” with the example “an economy crippled by inflation.” I assume that once a usage becomes accepted by a dictionary, it’s too late to argue that it’s actually hurtful. Or at least, too late to do without extensive, peer-reviewed studies of actual people.

      1. SHG Post author

        Not too much of a shmuck. Too much of an intellectual cripple. It’s completely different. Next time you find yourself wringing your hands over the “power of words to hurt,” ask someone to punch you in the face to remind you what hurt means.

        1. Matthew I

          Bah, I seem to have mangled the point I wanted to make in the original comment through over-revision. When I first saw ‘[ableist slur]’ in this post, I suspected that it was some student’s subtle protest against his newspaper’s censorship policy and looked up the term. While I lack the background to know if words like “insane” and “crippled” are offensive to the mentally ill/disabled communities*, as hyperbole the words are so evocative and powerful that eliminating them would have unacceptable side-effects on the language. In the event that ones does find the term(s) offensive, I recommend they follow Troutwaxer’s advice and view them differently when used in different contexts (e.g., hyperbolic “he’s a crazy-good artist” vs. deliberate slur).

          *Also, I’m too sympathetic/schmuck-like to dismiss outright such arguments I read on the internet. A punch to the face is surely worse that most forms of speech, but to me there are words that hurt worse than a firm slap. I suspect this would change quickly should I become a lawyer.

          1. SHG Post author

            . . . but to me there are words that hurt worse than a firm slap.

            I’m sorry to hear that you are so fragile. On the bright side, you’re not alone. Colleges are filled with co-eds who share you sensitivities.

  2. Robert

    Feinting should be FAINTING, unless the couch is being used for fake attacks to distract..

    Sorry to be pedantic.

  3. The Real Peterman

    I hope the people at Smith College never see the title of Dick Gregory’s autobiography.

    Feelings are important, but unless they are partnered to a reeasoned intellect their owner is no better off than a [ableist slur].

    1. SHG Post author

      Feelings are important, but…

      Feelings are never “partnered” to intellect. By definition, they do not intersect, nor should they. I realize you’re trying to be funny, but why then gratuitously throw in something pointlessly wrong like this?

      1. The Real Peterman

        What I mean is, feelings must be tempered by rational reflection. For instance, my friend hasn’t called me in a while. Maybe he hates me and I’m a worthless person and should jump off a bridge…or he’s been busy lately, which, now that I think about it, makes a lot more sense. On the other hand, recent experiments suggest that a high-powered intellect without emotions ican easily become paralyzed when it’s time to make decisions.

        1. SHG Post author

          I think what you are trying to say is that we, as human beings, need to balance out emotional and intellectual sides so that neither becomes so predominant as to consume out ability to both feel and think, both of which are necessary for us to function properly.

          What I’m trying to say here is that we are in an age where the value of feelings has been elevated too far above reason such that we’re raising a generation of smart young people who eschew reason in favor of their irrational passion, and they are being rewarded and applauded for doing so.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    “In allyship towards students of color…”

    Who the heck writes like this? I tried to find a definition of “allyship,” but as near as I can tell, use of it is some sooper-sekret handshake that shows you’re part of the in crowd that’s too cool to use old-fashioned words like “alliance.”

    1. Andrew Roth

      Here’s a scary thought: the writer of that sentence may not have known the meaning of “alliance.”

      Some of these social justice movements end up in the hands of people who aren’t very thoughtful or intellectually probing. These tend to be low-rigor disciplines. In this intellectual milieu, a word like “ally” becomes a catch-all good thing, and although it may be used properly, it is used without any linguistic or intellectual context. The reasoning here is something like, “So, it’s good to be an ally, but then what’s the state of being an ally or being in a group of allies, and if being a friend is called friendship, yeah, it’s probably allyship, and allyship would probably be practiced, like, towards another person, not on them.”

      If it sounds dimwitted, it’s probably because it is dimwitted. These are not esoteric terms. Any halfway educated person familiar with the history of WWII should be able to use them properly without any difficulty. But I’ve noticed that students at selective universities can have some stunning gaps in their general funds of information and bizarre locution. It’s probably because they focus on academic achievement and social climbing to the exclusion of genuine learning. I had a college buddy who routinely used the phrase “inweaved in the extensive” in his term papers. (He’s a lawyer now.) I met another guy, an international studies major, who had no idea who Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai were not a month after 9/11, when both of them were in the American news on a daily basis. During a campus tour for accepted students, I encountered a girl, already admitted to my fairly selective alma mater, who used “matriculate” as a synonym for “trickle.” I was floored.

      There was an amazing quotation in a New York Times Magazine article on campus sexual assault earlier this year in which a Penn undergraduate who had been sexually assaulted while incapacitated made it clear that she didn’t really understand the meanings of sexual assault and rape. She knew that she had been taken advantage of, but she couldn’t tell even approximately where the assault fell as a criminal matter.

      I think a lot of this comes down to a society of desperate social climbers who value outward appearances of achievement at the expense of genuine learning, wisdom, and competence.

  5. David M.

    I guess it’s a pity that freedom of speech occasionally asks one’s cause to take a backseat. So many crusades to be had, who can blame passion for winning out over dowdy ol’ amendments?

    Hey, here in Europe, we abolished that whole idea years ago. We’re doing fine, we promise.

    1. SHG Post author

      And they are “dowdy ol’ amendments.” Maybe they need some sprucing up, more youthful lingo, an abbreviation or two, to recapture the attention span of the passionate.

  6. Gerald N. Unger

    “As a linguistic landmark, nigger is being renovated. Blacks use the term with novel ease to refer to other blacks, even in the presence of those who are not African American. Whites are increasingly referring to other whites as niggers, and indeed, the term both as an insult and as a sign of affection is being affixed to people of all sorts.” Professor Randall Kennedy
    For all the politically correct outrage-all without conscientious attention to the relevant facts is nothing more than an insidious disruptive form of “nonsense.”
    For those who are outraged, they need to learn that for everyone, facts about ourselves are not particularly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are,elusively insubstantial, notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

  7. lawrence kaplan

    Just recently the word “nigger”
    Was thought to be a trigger
    For racial hatred and violence
    Deemed unworthy of tolerance.
    But now before our eyes
    To everyone’s great surprise
    The taboo word’s being renovated
    In our daily use it’s been reinstated.
    They say it serves to perfection
    As both a sign of insult and affection.
    On one matter all can concur
    It’s just wild and [ableist slur].

    1. SHG Post author

      I still wouldn’t use the word carelessly, though. It is still a terrible word, when used inappropriately, carelessly or as a slur.

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