Friday, April 6, 2018

DePaul law school ‘N-word’ flap: ‘Intent makes a word hateful’

"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.


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18 comments:

  1. Not to suggest anything about Prof. Hermann, but I question the assertion "if he were a raving bigot, it would have come out by now". Too many recent scandals have shown otherwise.

    I can get behind "Intent makes a word hateful". Now assuming the professor is not ignorant of his class, the society he and they share, and the taboo power of that word, what *his* intent? I cannot imagine either the word or the provocation of using it is essential to his instruction of the law.

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    1. Have you looked up the incident? Opinions will vary, I suppose, but in the context and with the manner in which he said it, I feel it was appropriate.

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    2. Defensible - yes; appropriate - no. As originally reported in Crain's in February, using that word in a classroom puts an unfair burden on the African American students. Why is it that "they" have to be the ones who have to put up with being the example in this hypothetical situation?

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  2. with the proliferation of use of the n word in popular culture it has by design been robbed of its former derogatory meaning by the people who were once dehumanized by its use as an epithet . these same people have claimed ownership of this word and ascribed a variety of subtly different meanings to it most of which are endearing when used by a person of color. if white people insist on using a word that is overwhelmingly seen as off limits to them they should understand there could be consequences to that decision and that their use may not be seen as endearing.

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  3. I was delighted at the analogy Neil chose to head his column concerning the verboten "nigger." My brother was involved in American Legion activities for many years and at one time was a post commander and an area commander. At the time when burning the flag was a favorite ploy in protests against the Iraq war, he mentioned to me that worn flags were routinely disposed of by burning them, which was considered more respectful than stuffing them into the trash or like many so-called patriots do, letting them flap in the wind, rain or shine, until they disintegrate. But he was a liberal Republican, an extinct beast these days. I understand that he also made it clear when he was in charge that careless or invidious use of ethnic/racial slurs would not be tolerated, even from those who were much older than he. Use of "offensive language" not designed to offend should be taken in context and the objections thereto are very like objecting to the American Legion burning flags. Silly.

    john

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    1. I wish I had had the presence of mind (and the space) to come full circle, and point out, that while I scorn flag burners, and feel their are manifesting a profound lack of awareness (burning the flag of the country that allows them to burn the flag) that I would never dream of impinging their right to do so. That is a sign of strength, the strength that those condemning, ahem, "the n-word," not have, and the reason I have sympathy rather than scorn for them.

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    2. Some wave the flag while trying to silent dissent or suppress the vote. "Love it or Leave it" "My Country Right or Wrong". These ideas, their intent is the insult to what the flag stands for and is often why it is burned in legitamate protest. The flag is just a piece of fabric. "It's the Idea Stupid" No insult meant, just another bumper sticker, like "Burn Baby, Burn"

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  4. The professor was describing a situation (hypothetical) where a white supremacist used the word. In a way, the word itself was the topic. Doesn't seem like hateful intent to me.

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    1. Do you have a link? I tried Googling it but could only find links to Neil's column.

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    2. Scribe, I found it on the Sun-Times site by putting DePaul in the search.

      It is really a rather sad story, these kids are supposed to be the intelligent, level headed ones. Law School!! If they can't handle a hypothetical question like that, they will be lost in the real world. Imagine one of them in an actual court case and that word comes up as a quote or something. Would they plug their ears and run from the room? It's just too silly.

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    3. Thanks. I found it.

      This is indeed stupid. But let's not go overboard. The professor was not suspended or even reprimanded, at least not yet. All that's happened so far is that some students complained. They have a right to do that, just as others have a right to consider their complaints poorly thought-out.

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  5. Oh dear. The notion of people claiming ownership of a word is itself somewhat offensive. That said, Neal is correct in saying intent makes all the difference. Sure, hurtful words shouldn't be used in common discourse, but teaching how the law governs speech isn't common discourse. I'm with Neal. And the professor.

    Tom

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    1. whats offensive is people claiming ownership of other people. we all remember that this it what this word was used to describe for centuries? human bondage. context is everything, yes. then lets use the entire context

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  6. That's what happens when society goes pc crazy.

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  7. Of course there wasn’t any hateful intent. You’d think that a law school is precisely that type of place where folks can discern nuance. Worse, each of the students who complained had at least four years of college which, one might think, provided them an understanding of what an educational moment was, as opposed to a vile slur. Worse still is the craven action by the dean. Disappointing in the extreme.

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    1. spoiled college kids, these days

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  8. I have been posting on private "message-boards" for almost two decades now, and yes, a few small hold-out boards still exist in these days of texting and tweeting. Places where complete sentences are still used and grammar and style still matter.

    Seven years ago, a board that had existed since at least 2004 was having a lively discussion about the merits of Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." It's pretty hard to do that without at least one or two uses of the n-word. The boards sole black member complained and wanted the offensive words totally scrubbed from the board. Not just on the Huck Finn thread, but EVERYWHERE, which was the equivalent of removing a few fish from Lake Michigan with a kitchen strainer.

    Naturally, it didn't happen, so he complained to a higher authority. Within 48 hours, the plug was pulled. A quarter-million posts and nearly three hundred members went POOF into non-being and nothingness, never to be heard or seen again.

    It's a touchy, touchy world we are living in, boys and girls, and "that word" is among the touchiest, a can of worms best left untouched, for the most part. We shrugged, moved on after the disaster, and rebuilt the board from scratch, but it was never the same.

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