|"The problem we all live with" by Norman Rockwell (Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts)|
This column was almost twice as long when I first finished it, and some important aspects were lost in cutting it to fit the paper. First, that the whole thing was prompted by not one but two thoughtful emails form reader Scott Zapel, a Glen Ellyn attorney. Second, that the above powerful painting by Norman Rockwell—with its subtle but unmistakable taboo word scrawled on the wall above the girl being escorted to school—ran in the Sun-Times without incident last week. "I'm not editing Norman Rockwell" an editor explained. Third, an explanation of why white people can and should comment on racial matters even though some think they can't and shouldn't. I saved the paragraphs to send to those who try to make the case for the latter.
There were more points I couldn't even begin to enter into, such as the need for law school to anneal would-be lawyers for what can be a tough, demanding profession, one that is undermined if they have to cater to their sensitivities or risk being cut off at the knees by tremulous administrators. All the DePaul students did was wound a veteran teacher, undermine the value of their own degree, and present themselves as unwilling to face the fraught world into which they must practice the profession of law.
Let’s pretend that I am passionately against flag burning. It’s disrespectful. One day I am outraged to discover there is an organization that routinely burns flags. To make matters worse, this group is not some band of anarchists, but the American Legion, which collects worn flags and burns them in solemn ceremony.
So I condemn the veterans’ group. Organize protests. Demand their suppression. And should somebody be so rude as to observe that I’m lashing out at the wrong people — you’re supposed to burn worn-out flags, it’s the respectful way to dispose of them — I reply, “Yeah, but anarchists are elusive. American Legion posts are so easy to find.”
Would you experience a warm glow of admiration for me? No? Good, because that’s how I feel when the foes of what I am obligated to call “the N-word” manifest themselves, such as recently at DePaul University College of Law, where a professor, Don Hermann, had his class taken away after students complained when he uttered the lately unprintable word in the set-up to a legal problem.
The professor didn’t hurl the word at a student, or toss it out as the punchline of a ribald joke. The offensiveness of the word was part of the issue students were to sort out.
No matter. Haters who use the word vindictively, like my flag-burning anarchists, are not easily punished. But the professor is right there.
Still, my gut impulse was to let the matter pass in silence. History is a horror show, people are hurt, and react in all sorts of curious ways. If some grasp at what they consider empowerment by conducting epistemological snipe hunts, why should I care? My copy of “Huck Finn” isn’t going to be sanitized. It isn’t as if I’m chafing to use the word. Yes, it felt silly not to be able to articulate what noun Ira Gershwin cut from “Porgy & Bess” in 1954; I can’t believe one black child would cry himself to sleep if I had.
Context is everything. I can't 100 percent support Prof. Hermann because I wasn't there. On one hand, 50 of the 80 students in his class, given the chance to transfer out, did so, which doesn't speak well to his technique. On the other, he has taught college for decades, and if he were a raving bigot, it would have come out by now.
I've taught college; it's a ballet, and if your students are rushing off to report you, then you haven't taken their measure. You should know before you leap if they're going to catch you.
Being young, they're extremists, and miss the crux, what Dan Savage, appearing on Matt Fiddler's excellent podcast "Very Bad Words" explained in five words:
"Intent makes a word hateful."
Bingo. People get confused because the word is accepted from black comics but can undermine the employment of law professors. Rather than expend mental effort to gauge each instance, they react to the race of the user.
An understandable lapse. It is a vile word, barbed with suffering from the past, present and—sorry to be the one to tell you—future. Trying to bar it from historical and artistic uses is futile, but is your right. As is mine to oppose you. Which I do because trying to ban a word is an insult to those who were lashed by it. The past is a bad place we must look at with open eyes. Were I to insist that history texts be scrubbed of photos of naked bodies of Jews being cast into pits in the Holocaust, because they're upsetting, I too would be wrong and worthy of rebuke.
On Wednesday we marked 5o years since the assassination of Dr. King with respectful solemnity. A jubilee of progress it was not, as the sickness of racism festers in Americas. Our president is an unfit white bigot whose campaign was built on hate. The internet, a continuous howl of invective. The finely-honed sensibilities of the DePaul law students are not a sign of racial progress, but of frustration. Denied general victory, they clutch at tiny symbolic triumphs, no matter how vindictive. General white indifference to the controversy is a sure sign of just how illusionary their triumph is, because you know white folk cling to their prerogatives. I object because, in my view, if you respect somebody, you tell them when they're wrong.