“Aggressive Sensitivity” in the Classroom



A few years ago, an African American student approached me after class and complained about my use of the N-word.  He wasn’t confrontational or acrimonious, mostly dismayed.  He explained that it upset him, and I nodded in agreement.

But that’s all I could give him.  I didn’t have anything else but commiseration.  You see, it wasn’t me who said the N-word, it was Frederick Douglass.  Or rather, it was Douglass quoting one of his masters.  I had assigned Douglass’ Narrative in my American literature class, as I always do.  It’s a great story with great writing and dramatic moments.  He had the orator’s genius, and there are few scenes more satisfying than the one in which young Douglass turns on the sadistic Mr. Covey.  But it has the N-word, too, and if you’re an English teacher who aims to instruct students in skillful rhetoric and high-quality prose, you have to read passages out loud, some of which contain that demeaning term.

So, all I could tell the anguished student in front of me was that, yes, it’s difficult, but we can’t drop Douglass from the syllabus and we have to stay true to what he wrote.  The student, to his credit, nodded in understanding, but I don’t think he was satisfied.  That word, for him, had no place in a 21st-century classroom, no matter what the literary or historical context.  It was too disturbing.

The exchange lasted only a minute, and the issue didn’t come up again, though I recall that we read Huck Finn later in the semester, which has the N-word in abundance.  What would I say, though, if several students came up to me after an American literature class in 2018 and objected to my usage? I like to think I would do the same thing.  But what if they proceeded to file a charge against me to the administration?

That’s what happened to an anthropology professor earlier this month at Princeton University.  He was teaching a class on hate speech and he used the N-word in one of his presentations.  That shouldn’t be a surprise.  How could he avoid doing so at some point in the semester when allegations of hate speech so often involve race hatred?

But the students got angry anyway.  Some of them marched out.  Later, they went to higher-ups and lodged a complaint.  According to the story in Inside Higher Ed, the professor wanted students to consider the power of cultural taboos and asked, “which is worse—a white man physically assaulting a black man or calling him the n-word.”  That’s how Inside Higher Ed presents it, but in fact the professor used the term n—-r.

It was clear that the usage was pedagogical, not personal.  It’s a fair question to ask, too.  After all, discussions of hate speech must distinguish between actual violence and verbal insults.  The professor isn’t inexperienced, either.  In fact, he’s a recently retired figure with a distinguished career behind him who took on the course, apparently, to help the department.  Does anybody believe that a professor of anthropology who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies doesn’t espouse all the opinions of a solid academic liberal?

That may be why the professor responded as he did.  Princeton’s leadership supported him all the way.  Nobody pressured him to apologize, as far as we can tell, and there was no investigation mounted.  The head of the anthropology department, in fact, wrote a letter in the campus newspaper defending him.

But things had changed, irremediably so in his opinion.  He quit the class.  It was cancelled.  No more of this, he said, in spite of appeals made by the administration to him to stick it out.  It didn’t matter that his superiors backed the professor.  Nor was the mission of the class—to educate the young in hate speech—strong enough to keep him at the podium.  He refused to go on.

Perhaps he felt that the atmosphere in the class had become too tense for it to remain a learning experience.  Or, perhaps, he was so disgusted with the complaining students and their anti-intellectual sensitivities that he didn’t want to face them anymore.

Let’s be clear on the situation.  When students allege hate speech, or microaggressions, or racially inappropriate language of some kind, we tend to assume that their feelings are hurt, that they have been victimized, intentionally or unintentionally.  The first thing a dean of students sees when a young complainant enters the room is a troubled visage.  Then, he hears a distressing narrative.  The emotions strike first, not the facts.  It’s easy to make a quick assumption of infliction.  Behind every hurt is a hurter, the one who made the youth feel horrible.  If student has been made to be ashamed of his blackness, there’s a racist at work somewhere.

At least that’s how a complainant expects you to think.  The professor couldn’t escape the implication, even though Princeton supported him.  “I insulted some students of color—I’m a racist.”  He knows he’s not, but he didn’t want to deal with those grieving individuals, to persuade them otherwise.  He did not respond to insidehighered’s request for comment, implying that he didn’t care to defend himself or criticize the students or discuss the case, which any sensible observer would recognize as a non-case.  He didn’t interact much with the students, either, once the controversy began.  A brief email to the enrollees informing them of the cancellation was all they got.

This may be the only way in which campus identity sensitivities and the disruptions that follow from them will finally be stopped.  If one small group of students chooses to walk out of class and charge a professor with racism, notwithstanding a wholly exonerating context, well, let’s just cancel the class for everyone.  If a group shouts down a speaker, let’s just terminate all such events.  Administrators and faculty members have shown themselves generally unwilling to punish the disruptors or even openly to chastize them.  Other students appear to be cowed by them.  Except for those boisterous activists, everyone’s afraid.  Maybe if other students find that the education they are paying for is being hampered by hypersensitive peers with groundless grievances, then they will take some responsibility for order and civility on campus.  I believe it would only take a few instances of one group of students standing up to these troublemakers for the overreactions to cease.

Conservative, classical liberal, and libertarian professors and commentators have a different role to play.  They shouldn’t go after the students who caused the ruckus.  That only enhances the victim status of the kids.  Let the other students do that.  Their job is to demonstrate an element of sensitivity that often goes unmentioned in the controversies.

I mean the aggression element.  When students take offense at a statement or opinion and try to suppress it, they try to frame the situation as one of a figure with power and privilege displaying his animosity toward them.  The actions of the complainants, then, are a reasoned and legitimate form of self-defense.  He started it!

But the truth is the reverse.  Sensitivities that run this high are belligerent, not protective.  They go on the attack: they don’t take shelter.  The students who walked out of class and pressed charges against the professor wanted to make him pay.  They sought to do damage.  They could have gone back to their rooms after class, called a buddy, and said, “My prof tossed out the N-word today and it really bothered me.”  But no, they went to the authorities and said, “Prof X used the N-word and you need to do something about it.”  They’re not the victims.  They’re vindictive.

We need to press the truth that the video of the Yale student shrieking obscenities at the professor on the lawn revealed; what the clip of Melissa Click at Missouri showed; what the rioters at Berkeley and Middlebury demonstrated . . . There is a vengeful animus out there.  Resentment runs deep.  To cast these youths (and their faculty encouragers) as innocent souls who just want fair and respectful treatment is utter sentimentality.  The current system of grievance is not merely a guarantee of equity and non-discrimination.  In many cases, it is a conduit of hostility.

To understand the angry young men and women of today, at least those on selective campuses, our best resource is not the history of racism in America.  It is not Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July; or W. E. B. Du Bois on “double-consciousness”; or Malcolm X on the white man; or anyone on intersectionality.  It is, instead, Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment, supplemented by David Horowitz’s memoir Radical Son, Tom Wolfe’s Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Shelby Steele on white guilt, and other analyses and dramatization of race-based power plays.  Students of color at Princeton are nothing like black students trying to go to public school in Little Rock in 1955.  The moral authority of those upright kids running a gauntlet of acrimony just to enter a classroom doesn’t fit the upper-upper-elite in Ivy League schools no matter what the latter’s skin color.  Their righteous indignation isn’t righteous.  It’s aggressive.

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