As an anthropologist teaching in the Princeton Writing Program whose courses regularly involve offensive material, I would like to weigh in on the recent controversy surrounding Lawrence Rosen’s use of the N-word in his class. In short, I write in support of the students who walked out on Rosen.
According to reports of the incident, Rosen asked students in his course, ANT 212: Cultural Freedoms — Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography, this question on the first day of class: “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?”
After Rosen repeated the term in subsequent discussion, students were visibly uncomfortable. “So are you just going to keep using the N-word?” one asked.
“Yes, if I think it’s necessary,” Rosen replied.
My main concern here is with Rosen’s response to student discomfort and confusion, which strikes me as profoundly unproductive, because he appears to have avoided (and perhaps indefinitely postponed) an important teaching moment. What needed to be clarified at that point in the discussion was the basic difference between using language and talking about language.
There’s more than one way to conceptualize and explain this distinction, but one could, for example, draw on J. L. Austin’s “How to Do Things with Words.” According to Austin, some utterances are descriptive and hence have a truth value insofar as they describe something in a way that is more or less truthful; other utterances are performative insofar as they either accomplish something or they do not. One of Austin’s examples of a performative utterance is when someone says “I do” during a wedding ceremony. In that instance, the person speaking isn’t describing their actions but performing an action: getting married. Hate speech, in my view, is more performative than descriptive insofar as its significance lies more in humiliating a group so as to produce a hierarchy — accomplishing an action — than in describing the group — stating a more or less truthful claim.
Accordingly, I assume that Rosen’s initial question sought to open up a space for “descriptive” claims to be made about hate speech. In such a context, the referent of the discussion wasn’t another person or a group of people but instead a specific kind of speech. Rosen wasn’t producing hate speech or performing a humiliating act, but his students weren’t sure and that made them uncomfortable.
In , she suggests that there is pedagogical value in this approach: “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.”
But if there is pedagogical value in a professor breaking a taboo, wouldn’t it need to be realized before that turmoil and confusion turns into anger, resentment, and alienation? Especially when handling offensive material in the classroom, doesn’t it make sense to work all the harder to maintain our students’ trust in us as educators so that we can continue the conversation with them? Don’t we owe it to our students — especially those from under-represented groups — to challenge them in a way that doesn’t prevent them from benefiting from their Princeton experience?
In her defense Rouse went on to point to a link between the student response to Rosen and the broader racial context in the United States. In her own words, “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.”
I’m sure we can agree with Rouse on the point that students’ sensitivity to issues surrounding identity and justice is also a consequence of the current form of racism in America. But if a shifting context has influenced how students respond to certain course material, doesn’t that suggest that we as educators have the responsibility to adapt our teaching to guarantee a favorable outcome?
As regards the N-word and other instances of hate speech, it may be the case that we cannot fully avoid or silence the performative dimension of the terms even when we are using them as Rosen did in his initial question. Again, Rosen was asking a question about a hypothetical situation in which the N-word was used performatively to humiliate another. That is, when he said “n****r,” he was describing an instance of hate speech. But his students felt the force of the term nevertheless: The term was doing something rather than just describing a linguistic act. Upon recognizing this, Rosen could have stepped back, clarified the difference between using hate speech and talking about it, and then asked his class how they felt comfortable representing the term going forward — so that the conversation could continue. But that isn’t what happened.
For these reasons, I stand with the students who walked out on Rosen.
Timothy Haupt is a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program who is currently teaching WRI 198: The Social and Political Lives of Humor. The course considers humor about Sept. 11, 2001, as well as sexual violence. A number of his previous students have written research essays on humor about identity, including stand-up routines involving the N-word.