Carolyn Rouse, chair of the anthropology department, pictured above. Courtesy of Princeton Alumni Weekly.
I write to provide important context to the events reported on Feb. 7 in The Daily Princetonian story “Students walk out of anthropology lecture after professor uses the word “n****r.”
The students signed up for a course about hate speech, blasphemy, and pornography, so Tuesday’s class introduced them to the topics of the course. Like every semester, at Princeton or Columbia Law, professor Lawrence Rosen started the class by breaking a number of taboos in order to get the students to recognize their emotional response to cultural symbols. By the end of the semester, Rosen hopes that his students will be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected using an argument other than “because it made me feel bad.”
Importantly, why did Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the American flag not elicit any anger, while the use of the N-word did? In a different setting — a different university for example — the student response might have been the reverse. A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot. So, whose feelings should the law protect? And why? This is a critical question now before the courts. Should a baker, for instance, be allowed to refuse service to a gay couple because he or she finds homosexuality offensive or blasphemous? For students who would like to be able to answer those questions, for students who are interested in law for example, Rosen’s course helps do just that.
In the last two years academic institutions have been caricatured as liberal bastions for snowflakes. Actually, that has never been the case. In the Department of Anthropology, for example, our entire pedagogical mission has never been about reaffirming the political points of view of the day, right or left. Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions. If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn’t do our jobs. Rosen has used the same example year after year. This is the first year he got the response he did from the students. This is diagnostic of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today. Anti-American and anti-Semitic examples did not upset the students, but an example of racism did. This did not happen when Obama was president, when the example seemed less real and seemed to have less power.
I feel bad for the students who left the class not trusting the process. Rosen was fighting battles for women, Native Americans, and African-Americans before these students were born. He grew up a Jew in anti-Semitic America, and recognizes how law has afforded him rights he would not otherwise have.
Professor of Anthropology
Chair, Department of Anthropology