Read All The Words

It happened with Ilya Shapiro, when his use of the word “lesser,” used in its ordinary comparative sense of greater or lesser, was plucked out of context as if a stand-alone characterization of black female judges. It’s not that his twit was a good twit otherwise. It was not. But it also did not say what many pretended it said, which should be obvious to anyone who read all the words.

Social media is, in one sense, the great homogenizer. Smart people and stupid less smart people, sane people and crazy less sane people, all get to read what someone says and react, respond, interpret and reimagine the words in their own image. Some read the words with the same degree of thought and understanding as the writer intended. Others aren’t capable of doing so.

Many impute the hidden, secret meanings of their tribe into otherwise ordinary words to turn them into a nefarious message, perhaps a “dog whistle” so they can justify their outrage at ordinary expressions. Some lack the reading skills to understand. Some are too lazy to bother understanding. But many desperately want not to understand, but to find something to attack, something to fault, something to turn a positive into a negative, a compliment into a demonstration of racism.

That’s what happened to Columbia prof Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of the psychology department and admirer of Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech.

Lieberman replied to this, trying to express his admiration for Gatwich’s beauty. It did not go well.

Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.

There is an ungenerous way to take his twit, though it takes a great deal of effort, some contortion and a ton of disingenuousness to get there. His colleagues at Columbia were up to the task.

The chair of the Columbia University department of psychiatry was suspended on Wednesday, “effective immediately,” after referring to a dark-skinned model as possibly a “freak of nature” on Twitter.

“We condemn the racism and sexism reflected in Dr. Lieberman’s tweet and acknowledge and share the hurt, sadness, confusion, and distressing emotions you may be feeling,” Thomas Smith, the new acting director, and other leaders said in an email to staff on Wednesday afternoon.

Department leaders at Columbia called a meeting for faculty and staff on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation, and to announce that an interim chair would be named. Several hundred people attended the Zoom meeting, according to a person who attended, and the tone was serious and grave. The head of the hospital described the tweet as “outrageous,” the person said.

Notably, these were neither the usual vacuous children of twitter following the outrage-dictates of their thought leaders, but people with presumably sufficient education to be capable of reading all 15 words of Lieberman’s twit without losing focus or being distracted by something shiny. If so, then their conclusion that there was something racist in there can’t be explained any way other than to conclude that someone desperately sought to turn this into a cause.

It may not that the cause was intended to destroy Lieberman, per se. He might just be collateral damage in the search for things to be outraged about. In a world where it’s becoming increasingly hard to find new things to be outraged about, people have to dig deep and deeper. To out a racist is a badge of honor, proof of good allyhood, the highest  and most elusive award available in academia. And once someone calls out a racist, even if no one else has the magic vision to divine the racism hidden behind ordinary words, others must, must, join the pile-on. After all, silence is complicity, and any expression of doubt is fascism, a crime from which there is no appeal.

But was Lieberman’s twit offensive at all?

His swift sanctioning — accompanied by a Zoom faculty meeting that was attended by hundreds and, according to The Times’s reporting, included the head of the hospital describing the tweet as “outrageous” — appears to have been conducted according to a fantastical notion that Lieberman had called a Black woman a “freak.” But he did no such thing. He used that word in the expression “freak of nature,” and that expression — regardless of what “freak” means by itself — was intended as a compliment. If you doubt it, consider that the supposedly offending phrase was bookended by the phrases “work of art” and “beautiful sight to behold.” Lieberman thought of himself as admiring Gatwech’s beauty, and I assume that most people understand that, even if they won’t admit it.

The phrase “freak of nature” is a common one, expressing that someone is special, unique, one in a million, as nature rarely produces someone of such singular characteristics. In this case, the characteristic is beauty, which we know because Lieberman said so.

What he did not say is that Gatwech was a “freak,” even if that, too, was, at least at one time, the sort of compliment Rick James might pay. Was the phrase awkward? Perhaps to some, as the span of normality on social media is so great as to include people who will find a problem with anything, no matter how banal. You just can’t please them all.

But for Professor Lieberman, the swarm of gnats who attacked him weren’t the uneducated or the illiterate, but his academic colleagues, his peers, who made the affirmative decision to twist his expression of acknowledgement of a model’s beauty into a racist attack.

It would obviously be fair to say that Lieberman’s tweet reflected poor judgment, particularly for someone in his position. There’s no good reason for a senior university official to randomly and publicly remark on a model’s looks, however complimentary he thought he was being. But a compliment it was. He didn’t call Gatwech a “freak,” and to argue that he intended to requires a rather laborious reading of that tweet.

Why can’t a prof “randomly and publicly remark on a model’s looks”? Ironically, this, from John McWhorter, also a Columbia prof, might be another exhibit in evidence, that even in trying to undo the damage to Liebeman, he has to Gertrude his way out of his own condemnation for defending the now-conclusively-racist Lieberman, his skin color being insufficient protection from assault.

But McWhorter’s main point was that Lieberman’s twit was a compliment, and obviously so provided you read all the words. If you can. If you want to.

6 thoughts on “Read All The Words

  1. JR

    Dr Lieberman’s profile is still active on Columbia’s webpage. His bio is apropos for the masses:

    Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD, is the Lawrence C. Kolb Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Lieberman’s work has advanced the understanding of the natural history and pathophysiology of schizophrenia and the pharmacology and clinical effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs.

    It has recently come to my attention that no matter how much good work a person has done for society, all it takes is a misguided, virtue signaling mob to undo that person’s righteous deeds.

    Ilya Shapiro was invited to speak to law students at UC Hastings yesterday on the recent SCOTUS nomination. The Black Law Students Association organized a “shout down” effectively drowning out his speaking by literally shouting and pounding on their tables. It was a hideous demonstration from what one can see on UC Hasting’s 2nd year law student’s Senya Merchant twitter account.

    Link if you care to inspect

    1. SHG Post author

      It was a proud moment for students at UC Hastings, putting together all they’ve learned in law school to mount a deeply thoughtful response to Ilya. That, by the way. was what made me think of Ilya in this post.


    Is it possible that this innocuous twit and the reaction thereof, was a convenient way to get rid of the professor, who otherwise might have been “bulletproof?”

    Even a simpleton such as myself could see that the twit was meant as a compliment. But I’m just a misogynistic shitlord and my opinion doesn’t matter.

  3. Rengit

    Let’s pretend that rather than say this publicly on Twitter, Lieberman had said this same thing in person to a couple other people at a vaguely university-related social function where several other faculty members were present. Does McWhorter really believe that a more woke colleague, grad student, etc, likely would not have run to Twitter to report the horribly racist thing that Lieberman said in front of / within earshot of others? With the same results for Lieberman’s professional standing? This is where the Gertruding doesn’t help.

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