For a while, Eugene Volokh has been arguing the case of using the “n-word” when accurate reading or discussing caselaw. He’s personally unapologetic about using the language accurately, it being a matter of fact rather than a political performance.
As I always do, I discussed the facts, without expurgation or euphemisms. A few weeks after the class, I learned that some students had disapproved, but I didn’t discuss it further with any students.
The question isn’t whether Eugene is right or wrong. Some contend that the word should not, cannot, be used (except by a black person) under any circumstances. Some may contend that racist epithets are free speech, so they can use it with abandon. Others, like Eugene, argue that when the word is accurate and relevant, used not to attack but as part of pedagogy, the word is just a word.
Woke students argue that the mere sound of the word causes trauma, although only when spoken by a non-black person. This might not make sense to a rational person, but since the only evidence of trauma is someone claiming to be traumatized, and when they hear the word and see the skin color of its speaker, they know it violates their secular religion and, hence, trauma must ensue. It could be worthy of debate, but there is no more room for discussion here than debating whether Jesus is the son of God to a devout Catholic. It is, and anyone who questions it is a racist because they are.
But is the sound of the word traumatic?
Greg Patton is a professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California. During a recent virtual classroom session, he was discussing public speaking patterns and the filler words that people use to space out their ideas: um, er, etc. Patton mentioned that the Chinese often use a word that is pronounced like nega.
“In China the common word is ‘that, that that that,’ so in China it might be ‘nega, nega, nega, nega,'” Patton explained to his class. “So there’s different words you’ll hear in different cultures, but they’re vocal disfluencies.”
There is a collateral argument about the transliterated spelling of “nega,” whether it’s “neiga” or “nage,” which is irrelevant to the question at hand.
There is no argument that Patton used the n-word, regardless of the fact that it was used in the course of teaching. But the sound was similar and that was close enough. USC issued a statement to address its tenured professor’s “outrage.”
“Recently, a USC faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a racial slur in English. We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language,” the statement read.
Patton “agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps.”
Another instructor is temporarily teaching the class.
To some extent, it’s reminscent of the elimnation of the word “master” as used in housemaster on campus, not because it was derived from anything having to do with slavery, but because it was the same word, even with an entirely different root and meaning. Close enough to erase it, although it remains on the diplomas of some post-graduates.
And being the sensitive place it is, USC took the further step of addressing the trauma of anyone who heard this word that sounds similar to a racist slur.
USC is now “offering supportive measures to any student, faculty, or staff member who requests assistance.” The school is “committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported, and can thrive.”
Surely, it can’t be bad to build a culture of respect and dignity, right? Who doesn’t want to “feel safe, supported and can thrive”? All because a ubiquitous Chinese word sounds similar to the n-word. Robby Soave was incredulous.
This is ridiculous. It seems clear that Patton did not mean to harm anyone, and that the point he was making was perfectly valid. The resemblance between these two words is purely coincidental, and adults should be perfectly capable of hearing the Chinese version without fainting in front of their computer screens. Anyone who is this prepared to be bothered all the time needs to turn down their outrage dial.
That this needs to be said is, in itself, ridiculous. To the extent there is a legitimate debate about whether the utterance of the actual n-word (a word I avoid using out of choice) when it’s an accurate and relevant factual aspect of teaching is bad enough. There is nothing to discuss about using words that aren’t the n-word but merely sound similar to it. That anyone should be constrained to point out that there was no intent to harm, as if there was actual harm, is absurd.
But after publishing his post, Robby received an email that ices the cake.
It was a polite email. It was certainly sent with utmost seriousness and sincerity. The sender no doubt believed that Robby made his grievous error because of his white privilege or insensitivity toward the feelings of black people. It’s was likley sent be an ally, given the way it’s expressed. And it included the official mandate, that “it’s not okay.” Dumb white Robby, not realizing how he violated the tenets of the writer’s ideology. He must be corrected because this stand. Unless, of course, he’s one of them.
On the one hand, it was a polite request, which means that the correspondent was tolerantly educating Robby that using “n-word” would have been entirely sufficient as far as acceptable white person word usage is concerned. On the other hand, the point, that whether the word is written out or uttered, whether it’s the actual n-word or merely a word that sounds similar, when not used as an epithet but for the purpose of reasoned discussion, was missed entirely.
No one was attacked by Patton’s utterance of “nega,” or Robby’s tapping out of the n-word with his white fingers on a keyboard. But that doesn’t mean that the trauma isn’t real if the woke know it’s supposed to reduce them to tears or outrage.