A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a local high school was renaming its fall picnic a “barbecue,” because the word “picnic” is racist. I can ordinarily guess at why some word or idea has joined the growing ranks of no-longer-acceptable expression. But “picnic” stumped me.
The person who reported the renaming explained that the word was associated with lynchings. Was it actually? No, it was not. Snopes explains that the claim is nonsense that nonetheless managed to circulate widely. Yet a school staffed with extremely smart, well-read, and intellectually curious educators cast out the word “picnic” like a blue bag of medical waste.
That an inaccurate claim arrived in many mailboxes should surprise no one. Long before the dawn of the internet age, someone (who was not Winston Churchill) said, “[a] lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.” Yet we have become extremely credulous for an era of cynicism, and we have also divested ourselves of critical judgment, deferring to people who either share our political ideology or qualify for special status due to some other trait. In this column, I will consider this deference and what it might mean.
Did You Call Me a “Jew”?
Recall the period when Roy Moore vied with Doug Jones for the US Senate seat in Alabama left open when Jeff Sessions became Attorney General. One of several scandals swirling around Moore at the time was an accusation of anti-Semitism. Moore had said that George Soros (and others who don’t believe in God’s salvation) would go to hell.
At the suggestion of anti-Semitism, Moore’s wife Kayla leapt to her husband’s defense, responding that “[o]ne of our attorneys is a Jew.” This was funny, because it sounded a little like “some of my best friends are Jewish,” but also because, well, the Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie had a Jewish lawyer too, so it counts as rather weak evidence of tolerance. At the same time, I have no idea what Roy Moore’s feelings about Jews might be. What he said of Soros was obnoxious, but I am not sure he is an anti-Semite. I suspect that most people who believe in hell also believe that people outside their religious group are headed there. If that is bigotry, then religions with hell are all bigoted, including some conceptions of Judaism.
In commenting on what Kayla Moore said of the Jewish lawyer, however, some people went beyond the tokenism and stereotyping found there. They emphasized the fact that Kayla described the lawyer who works for her and her husband as a “Jew” rather than as a “Jewish person” or a “Jewish attorney.” Some found the use of the word “Jew” to be objectionable.
On the episode of This American Life that aired around that time, Ira Glass began the program by saying that he had used the word “Jew” and was told by other people who work on the program that that word is offensive. One could say “Jewish person” but not “Jew.”
The show explored related phenomena but said little more about the word “Jew.” My view is that we should use the word. People who are uncomfortable with it may have absorbed some of the ambient anti-Semitism (which would attach stigma to the word for the hated group), but I disagree with the idea that there is anything “offensive” about the word. In fact, I think I might even be offended by the notion that referring to someone as a “Jew” is offensive (and I am only being slightly tongue in cheek here).
Finding the word offensive seems, in some sense, to amount to finding the idea of a Jew offensive. It is as though being a Jew is necessarily an embarrassing condition, and polite society has chosen to emphasize that a Jew is a person who has the condition of Jewishness but is also a moral agent who can overcome the liabilities associated with the condition.
When I first started teaching, typing the word “Jew” on WORD would get you a red line indicating an error, and this very much bothered a colleague of mine at the time. Using the word “Jew” as a verb, by contrast, is uncontroversially offensive. People have used it to mean “bargain” or “drive a hard bargain.” That is not part of what Jews do, except in the sense that when people hate members of a group and cut off most ways they have of feeding their families, the group might gravitate toward professions that remain open to them, including money-lending. To use “Jew” to refer to bargaining is to suggest that there is something inherently greedy or dishonest about Jews, and that is plainly anti-Semitic.
Why do I link “picnic” and “is a Jew”? I do so because in both cases, some number of people who did not know what they were talking about made a decision, and people around them just deferred to that decision. In both cases, rather than using critical thinking abilities and having a conversation about the matter with other people of good faith, everyone caved and did whatever was asked of them.
The false email about the word “picnic” actually contained the n-word in it (but spelled out) several times, a choice by the writer that one could criticize or question. But the writer situated himself or herself as an authority on racism, and it became correspondingly risky to criticize him or her as wrong and as trafficking in racist language. I suspect that it did not even occur to high school administrators to question the accuracy of the claim. A self-appointed expert had spoken, and everyone got into line.
On “Jew,” I wonder whether it was even a Jew who came up with the notion that the word is offensive. Anecdotally, I found some online discussions of how bigoted the word is, and the interlocutors were not themselves Jewish. That is fine, because everyone should be free to have an opinion about matters of great importance, so long as they know what they are talking about.
I categorically reject the idea that the only person qualified to speak definitively about bigotry is the object of the bigotry in question. Such a person can tell everyone what it feels like to have that identity, but he or she does not have privileged access to objective truth. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy when members of a group have no quarrel with a word that supposedly stigmatizes them, like “Jew.”
Sometimes we mean different things when we use a word. For example, you might use the word misogyny to mean violently expressed hatred of many women. I might use the word to refer to background norms in a society that nudge violent people to let their violence out on women. And a third person might use the word to refer to a system of rewards and punishments that society imposes on women to encourage them to play particular roles vis-à-vis men and children. We might need to figure out what we each mean by the use of the word before we can judge the accuracy of an assertion about it.
If people generally use a word in a particular way, however, then there is something deceptive about using the same word to apply to something very different. For instance, the word “misogynist” brings a certain set of ideas to mind. If a man yells at his female co-worker that she does not deserve to have a job and should be home having babies and taking care of the house instead, that would strike most as the words of a misogynist (or at least, as misogynist talk).
But what if a man or woman chose not to give trigger warnings in advance of a discussion about rape? I explained in an earlier column that I generally avoid trigger warnings for a variety of reasons. Some feminists might—in fact, inevitably do—disagree with my choice. Would it be appropriate for them to accuse me of misogyny?
I would suggest that it would be more than inappropriate. It would be dishonest. The reason is that they would be using a word with which most people are familiar and that most people understand to carry familiar definitions. But they would be using it to refer to my decision to do something that I have defended, something that is far less plainly wrong but which nonetheless departs from their vision of sex equality and feminism.
They may believe that anyone who deviates from the strict conduct rules that they hold dear is a misogynist, but most people reject that definition. Stated differently, they are presenting what purports to be a factual dispute with me (did I do something misogynistic?) when we actually have a normative dispute (is a failure to give trigger warnings worthy of the stigma and condemnation that attach to discriminatory hostility?). Rather than having a normative argument, however, some might prefer to label a decision with a stigmatizing word, suggesting that the person who makes the decision is a traitor to women, that they somehow hate women, or that that they identify with their oppressor.
This is hypothetical. No one has accused me of being a misogynist or of uttering misogyny. I prefer to give a hypothetical than a real example to avoid misunderstandings. If I say “X should be allowed to say Y,” some might conclude that (a) I agree with X about Y, (b) I am causing harm to people who object to the saying of Y, or (c) I am an accomplice in the larger project in which X is engaged and of which saying Y is just one part.
My view is that people should strive to speak the truth and be willing to listen to others speak the truth, even when it is unpleasant or even painful to hear. I think that if we are to discard words that we previously used, we should have a good reason for doing so, and the fact that a group of people wants us to discard the word—even a group of people that suffers oppression in our society—is not necessarily, alone, reason enough to discard it.
The language belongs to us all, and we ought to make decisions about its development together. No one acting in good faith and without animus should have to worry about using a word or expression for fear of instantly becoming a pariah. And the same should go for an idea.
When I was in law school, I had a contracts professor who was visiting from another university. His casebook (textbook) was pretty old, and he supplied us with photocopied supplemental pages that, as I recall, went on longer than the pages of the actual book. At the beginning of each chapter was a quote from literature or some other learned source with a connection to the contents of the chapter.
I remember getting to a chapter on what is called the “battle of the forms.” It has been a long time, but I believe the battle of the forms refers to the process by which people reach a legally binding agreement, a process potentially involving a lot of back and forth about the terms, in which each person might add or take away terms, with the other doing the same, and eventually winding up with a contract that does not precisely track what either party wanted. At the beginning of the chapter was the following quote: “A little still she strove, and much repented, And whispering, ‘I will ne’er consent’–consented.”
Shortly after our class had read the assignment, the Women’s Law Association (“WLA”) wrote up a petition. The petition stated that our contracts professor was a sexist, that he evidenced his sexism in a variety of ways, and that Harvard Law School should not hire him for a permanent position. The WLA distributed copies of the petition in the mailboxes of all students, administrators, and perhaps professors too. This took some legwork because there was no widely available internet.
The visiting professor wrote a letter responding to the WLA letter, which he had distributed in everyone’s mailbox as well. He spoke of feminism as modern McCarthyism and announced a meeting time during which anyone who actually had a problem with the quote could come and complain. When the meeting time arrived, students spent most of the hour asking questions about what material would appear on the exam.
About ten minutes before our time was up, I raised my hand and said that I spoke only for myself, not for the WLA, and that I knew the professor meant nothing hurtful by quoting Don Juan in his book. I explained that I nonetheless had a hard time with the analogy between the battle of the forms and what is essentially a date rape scene. I said that I found it hard to concentrate on the chapter after encountering an approving (or at least not disapproving) description of date rape by Byron and that I did not find that the date rape quote really elucidated the battle of the forms. I said this calmly and respectfully.
The professor responded by saying that no one had ever said that before and that he could not change the quote because he was not creating a new edition of the casebook. He would, however, write in the supplement to skip the quote at the beginning of the chapter. I had made no demands, just explained how I felt, and he did the best that he could.
A classmate from the WLA then raised her hand and said that she was not going to get into what was wrong with the quote. Suffice it to say, she continued, that there were real problems with how he approached things that went well beyond the quote in the book.
I thought my classmate’s contribution was counterproductive. Not getting into why she opposes him necessarily means that he can do nothing to rectify the problem. That makes sense if someone seems to be acting out of hatred or animus or in bad faith. Then you might just want to get rid of the person.
But this approach is unhelpful when someone acts in a way that you think could use improvement, and the person had no intention of hurting anyone. Why not give him a chance? Why immediately escalate and effectively shorten his visit (which was supposed to have been two years long)? It seemed as if my classmate was more interested in retribution than in improving things.
My classmate had the power to hurt the visiting professor’s chances at a permanent offer, and she used that power mercilessly, first humiliating him for the whole school and then showing no interest in engaging with him or in explaining her objections to his teaching. I bring this up because her tone and the righteousness of her retributive cause seem to have become a contemporary feature of justice causes.
Conservative groups have their own problems, of course, in addition to being wrong about virtually everything (J). They get into their echo chambers about different issues and sound completely oblivious, for example, when they talk about all abortion as baby killing. It is like they cannot even begin to fathom a moral distinction between undifferentiated cells following conception and a newborn baby many months later, such that anyone who rejects their view is endorsing murder. Some pro-choice groups can sound equally clueless when they speak of late-term abortion as if it were a simple procedure with no greater moral implications than an appendectomy.
The right has other blind spots too, of course. But the blind spots of the left are of greater concern to me because they contaminate my own environment. I want to hear from people who can, respectfully and logically, explain why they disagree with what others are saying.
I want to say what I think or even what I wonder about without worrying that some Manichean warrior will label me and forever stain everything I say. And I want the scholars around me to think out loud about their ideas without fear. There is no reason to treat bad ideas like radioactive material. Just use your mind to demonstrate how bad the ideas are. And if you cannot, then maybe, at least sometimes, the ideas you condemn are not as bad as you first thought.
By now, the reader may be frustrated at my failure to provide much detail. There are real stories in which real people suffer discipline because they used a word that became the wrong word a couple of days ago. Or because they raised a question that some people had decided had been definitively answered forevermore. I prefer not to tell anyone else’s stories, however, because that could subject them (or me) to the very fire of which I complain. Perhaps we could all take ourselves a bit less seriously. Viewpoints are not violence, disagreement is not hatred, and no one has a patent on the truth.