I recently came across an article written for Quillette by Heather Mac Donald which uses a research paper of mine published in American Speech in 2015 to defend a frankly stupid position. The article was shared by Stephen Pinker, which means increased visibility, so naturally I want to make sure the record is straight as far as concerns my research. The position she uses my work to justify is a position I disagree with not on political grounds, but on empirical grounds. I'm going to contextualize all of this for those unfamiliar with the players involved, before adding my response. [Note, this post uses a racial slur, a sex/gender slur, and some colorful Quebecois in citation form.]
Quillette is a for-profit 'safe space' from 'political correctness' and 'leftist bias' created by a grad school dropout (one who, in interviews, claims explicitly that she is "actually trained as a psychologist" despite not, you know, actually having finished her training). You may have come across it recently when they published an article written by an undergrad that purported to challenge Ta-Nehisi Coates' work (among others).
This article serves as a pretty good explanation of what Quillette is, and what it's trying to be. (Highlights include: "Quillette makes tired alt-right talking points sound erudite", and "Instead of writing off the academic left — and, generally speaking, women and people of color — as crybabies or social justice warriors, Quillette’s writers use the classical liberal tradition of 'mature debate' to dismiss marginalized voices".)
Heather Mac Donald
The author of this particular piece, Heather Mac Donald, is most notable for authoring such works as The War on Cops, The Illegal Alien Crime Wave, In Defense of Fascism and The Diversity Delusion. (Ok, one of those is fake, but the other three are real). I think her works speak for themselves.
Steven Pinker is a well-known cognitive psychologist who does some work in linguistics, and who has been relatively influential. He also has gone off the rails on Twitter lately, so, for instance, in tweeting the link to this Quillette article, he complains about "PC/SJW." That is, Political Correctness (which is, more or less, trying not to intentionally say mean, hurtful, or offensive things by thinking about your choice of words before speaking) and Social Justice Warriors. I'm not 100% clear on what's wrong with social justice, but it's clear from use that SJW is intended as derisive, and directed toward people who --- I don't know. Want equality? Anyway, the point is Pinker is well known and is amplifying Quillette's signal, using in-group signals for the alt-right (whether intentionally or not). In this case, it's the writings of a woman who believes that "phantom police racism" is a cover to keep people from discussing the "uncomfortable problem" of "black on black crime". One who then cites my research out of context, evidently to defend her desire to say nigger (no, really, this is not an embellishment; see below).
The Quillette Article
I will reiterate that Quillette is for profit, so keep that in mind when deciding to click through. The article in question can be found here, if you, dear reader, wish to read it for yourself (perhaps use an ad blocker?).
The article is ostensibly a defense of the poet Anders Carlson-Wee, who was the subject of a minor online tiff last week, after The Nation published a poem of his written in an approximation of African American English. John McWhorter, with whom I do not always agree, wrote an excellent, thoughtful piece in defense of Carlson-Wee, which can be found here.
Heather Mac Donald, however, has taken the controversy as a jumping-off point to dive into her feelings. In this case, her feelings about censorship. My goal here is not to catalogue all the things wrong with her article, as I simply don't have the time to do so, and others have done so better (especially with regards to her bizarre reading of Plato). I do want to touch, however, on a few points.
First, she refers to African American English as "black street dialect". I object to this not on "SJW" grounds (that is, that it is clearly offensive dogwhistle: what is the function of "street" in this description? It's not location; it's judgment. Is whatever Heather speaks only spoken indoors?), but rather I object to it on scientific grounds. There is a wealth of literature on the speech of African Americans going back at least 60 years, and that is simply not the term used by anyone who knows even the slightest bit about the subject. You may have feelings about AAE versus AAL versus AAVE, but if you're discussing a language variety it would behoove you to use really any of the actual names for it. It would be like me discussing "Iranian town dialect" instead of Persian/Farsi. I just look dumb and unecessarily prejudiced.
Second, she argues strongly that there is some boogeyman mob that will ruin your life if you ever mention a taboo word, in citation form or otherwise. As a linguist who researches and says taboo words, this is total nonsense. People are generally extremely good at, well, context. I am a cis/het white man, and part of my job is to discuss taboo words publicly. And you know what? No ill has come of it yet, because I do so in (1) appropriate contexts, (2) with academic rigor, and (3) with respect for both the communities that hold those taboos and respect for the people described by those words (when those words describe people).
It's the third point that's going to take a little work. The paragraph that cites my work, is, well, absurd. In that paragraph, Mac Donald writes a lot of garbage:
"The elaborate rituals around the ‘n-word’ evince the same double standard regarding authorial intention. According to existing conventions, whites may never use the full word without elision, even if they are doing so not to refer to anyone but as reported speech. Its mere presence in the mouth of a white person launches a nuclear bomb against blacks; the transgressor will be punished accordingly, as the founder of Papa John’s pizza discovered after using the full word as an embedded quote from chicken impresario Colonel Sanders. Blacks, however, can use the word in toto to refer to actual people, because their intentions matter and it is assumed that blacks are incapable of racist intent. Black Twitter users used the n-word 6.2 million times in one month, according to a 2015 study; it is ubiquitous in urban vernacular and in rap music, with black entertainers like Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West tossing it off with impunity."
Let's unpack this.
- "According to existing conventions..." --- What conventions? In what contexts? This has the appearance of social science without any of the social science.
- "whites may never use the full word without elision, even if they are doing so not to refer to anyone but as reported speech." --- This is untrue, but as I've written elsewhere, not a bad rule of thumb if you want to avoid pissing people off.
- "Its mere presence in the mouth of a white person launches a nuclear bomb against blacks; the transgressor will be punished accordingly, as the founder of Papa John’s pizza discovered after using the full word as an embedded quote from chicken impresario Colonel Sanders" --- This is patently, obviously untrue, and just wildly hyperbolic. A nuclear bomb? As I've written elsewhere, there's context for when it is possible to say the n-word (and that's a separate question from whether you should say it). ALSO, it's important to note that while the founder of Papa John's did use "nigger" in citation form, he did so while complaining about how he can't say it, but someone else got away with it! That's like getting mad that people call you misogynist when you complain that 'feminazis' are preventing you from calling women 'bitch'. It's just a sneaky way of trying to say it anyway. It's like me saying "Why can't I tell everyone that 'Heather Mac Donald is an idiot.'?" Just because it's embedded doesn't mean it loses its force, right Heather? (this was actually the subject of an academic talk at this year's Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America).
- "Blacks," --- really? Listen. You can call people that, but I'm pretty sure it pisses of black people to be called "blacks" just as much as it pisses off white people to be called "whites". In general, taking an adjective and then using it as a noun for a group of people you think it describes is not well received. This is basic stuff here.
- "Blacks, however, can use the word in toto to refer to actual people, because their intentions matter and it is assumed that blacks are incapable of racist intent. " --- Justify this statement. According to whom? Under what circumstances? This is the sentence before citing my work, and the implication is that my work in some way justifies this stupid statement. If you want to draw on arguments that prejudice and racism are different and that black people can be prejudiced, but not systemically racist against white people, then make that explicit and attribute the argument. This is weak writing that I wouldn't tolerate from undergrads (but then again, we know where Quillette stands on publishing academically lazy, poorly written articles by undergrads).
- Black Twitter users used the n-word 6.2 million times in one month, according to a 2015 study" --- This is a bait-and-switch using my work to justify something other than it says. As Christopher S. Hall and I have written extensively about: there is not just one n-word in African American English. (note: NOT Christopher J. Hall, although I assume he's lovely). Mac Donald, here, is attempting to justify using a racist slur in one dialect by saying a similar word exists in another dialect. It's like saying tabernak is not a swear word in Quebec French because "tabernacle" is totally mundane word in Quebec English. They're not pronounced the same, they refer to different things, and they're not used in the same linguistic or social contexts.
- "it is ubiquitous in urban vernacular and in rap music, with black entertainers like Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West tossing it off with impunity." --- Define "urban vernacular". More importantly, again, you're comparing apples to slurs. Also, Beyoncé? When?
You've cherry picked a line from my research that isn't actually applicable to your argument in the hopes that my academic reputation will somehow add a veneer of respectability to your weak reasoning.
More broadly, the point is reasonable people generally don't have a problem with other reasonable people discussing a slur when it's clear that they are doing so with rigor and from a place of respect. When you disingenuously demand to know why "blacks" get to say "the n-word" but you don't, it's clear you just want to say offensive shit. Then people (correctly) call you an asshole and tell you to stop. When they do things like protest your speaking engagements, or say mean things to you on Twitter, THAT'S NOT CENSORSHIP. That's other people also exercising their freedom of speech, and is a natural result of your exercise of your freedom of speech. You are playing the victim in an attempt to silence other people's free speech, because evidently you want to say "nigger" at people without repercussions.
You can say "the n-word" and nobody can stop you. However, there will be social ramifications. That's how pretty much all of language works. The real question is why do you want to say it so badly, Heather?
©Taylor Jones 2018