One of us, Harvey Silverglate, recently got “cancelled,” in a sense, for publicly mentioning a notorious term, often used as a slur. In one of those great ironies that characterize our historical moment, the impugned utterance was contained in a lecture on the importance of free speech in academia.
The situation unfolded on April 27th at Milton Academy, a prestigious private high school in Massachusetts. A student group, the Public Issues Board, had sponsored a multi-day series of panels and lectures on subjects of the students’ choosing. Silverglate was invited to give a talk on free speech and academic freedom, a subject in which he specializes.
Approximately two-thirds of the way into the lecture, Silverglate held up before the audience two books. One was entitled The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, which Silverglate co-authored in 1998. The book focused largely on the struggles to protect free speech in higher education. The other book was authored by a Harvard Law School professor, Randall Kennedy (the co-author of this article). The title of that book is Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published in 2002 and recently updated.
As soon as Silverglate pronounced the name of Kennedy’s book, an audible murmur was heard from the audience. Silverglate tried to explain why it was essential that he pronounce the actual title of the book, rather than the frequent substitution, “the n-word.” He intended to point out that if one followed the fashionable rule that the infamous n-word could never be appropriately uttered in full under any circumstances, one would have to leave gaps in the writings and performances of, among others, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. But amidst the clamor, a substantial part of the audience walked out, although a few students did remain after the lecture to discuss or debate points with Silverglate.
Though we come from different perspectives, we have collaborated on this essay because of what the walk-out tells us about the dangers that free speech and academic freedom face even in purportedly sophisticated, broad-minded, intellectually adventurous settings. The articulation of “nigger” did not arise out of the blue. It arose in the context of a high-school program focused on freedom of expression featuring remarks by a speaker who had been invited no doubt because of his reputation as a free speech “absolutist.” If controversial opinions regarding what words and ideas may be aired are ruled out of place at a free-speech assembly at Milton Academy, we know that we have entered a perilous cultural moment in which debate is overwhelmed by unquestioning persecutions of perceived heresies.
We probably would have let this matter rest, were it not for the fact that days after Silverglate’s address, the Public Issues Board sent out an email to the entire student body, apologizing for Silverglate’s purported infraction. “As members of the Milton community,” read the email, “we know not to use the ‘n-word’ due to its repugnant history and connotation. Thus, it was shocking and uncomfortable to hear the word voiced multiple times by Mr. Silverglate.”
One student forwarded that email to Silverglate, who in turn, on May 23rd, sent an email to Milton’s head of the upper school, David Ball. Silverglate requested of Mr. Ball that he be allowed to circulate to the entire student body his response to the disapproval expressed by his hosts, and his defense of having quoted the full and accurate title of Kennedy’s book. When no response was forthcoming, Silverglate sent Mr. Ball a reminder on June 10th. It is now August, and, as of this writing, still there has been no response.
The lessons taught by this sad tale are sobering. One is that it is apparently acceptable for students to signal their disagreement with a speaker by walking out of an assembly rather than subjecting his or her ideas to the testing that vigorous dialogue allows. We know that practices from higher education have permeated the K-12 world, and that today a third of college students believe that it is sometimes or always acceptable to shout down speakers, or to try to prevent them from speaking on campus. Another 13 percent believe that is it sometimes or always acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech.
Another lesson is that the educational authorities at a storied academic institution are so afraid of offending the sensibilities of censors that they would rather discourteously ignore a guest speaker’s request to respond to a mistaken charge than permit the airing of a full debate. What happened at Milton is hardly an attractive display of diversity, inclusion, or equity.
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