Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where, every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino, and today I’m joined by John McWhorter. John is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s written over a dozen books; I know he has more on the way. He is one of the country’s foremost experts in linguistics and is the host of the popular podcast Lexicon Valley. Last year, he authored a viral article in The Atlantic called “Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom,” and late last year he joined FIRE’s board of directors. John, welcome onto the show. It’s a pleasure to have you.
John McWhorter: Thanks for having me, Nico.
Nico: So, let’s try and transport ourselves back to last July. You wrote in The Atlantic that you had been receiving almost daily missives since then, that May, from professors living in constant fear for their careers because their opinions are incompatible with what you describe at the current “woke playbook”. What the heck was going on?
John: Well, it was something that kinda took me by surprise, how quickly that issue became important. But after the murder of George Floyd last spring, there arose an idea that America needed to engage in a racial reckoning in particular. And the people leading that idea were ones who were affected by a paradigm called critical race theory by a certain cadre of academics and writers. But really what we’re talking about is a kind of hyper woke-ism that has penetrated America’s intelligentsia, especially since about 2014, and assisted crucially by social media.
People who view the country through that lens took the racial reckoning as an opportunity to start enforcing their view of the way things are and the way things should be and what we should do about it upon the rest of us, and a certain kind of fear; a fear that has some good manifestations, in that it’s about social justice in its way, but a fear of being called a racist, that has led a great many people in power to just capitulate to this sort of view. And what this meant was that, all of a sudden, people, even ones who considered themselves on the Left, were being roasted and often either dismissed from positions or just stripped of their epaulettes, so to speak, by people claiming that they were not Left enough; that they were not sufficiently engaged in trying to dismantle differentials in power, which is the main thing here.
And how I fell into this – I’ve always had a certain critique of that way of looking at things. I think over the past few years I’ve become relatively notorious for having an interest in the free speech debate. But my issue was that another linguist, my friend Steven Pinker, was subject to an attack by a small but very articulate and vocal group of linguists who decided that he should not have the special awards that he has gotten and positions within the ranks that he has gotten within the Linguistic Society of America because he is purportedly not “woke” enough. And this was based on rather labored readings of some of his tweets and some of his positions.
I took his side. I took his side vocally on Twitter; more vocally than I usually had been until then on Twitter. And next thing I knew, not only were many people chiming in that they thought what happened to Steve was unfair, but professors from all over the country and all over the world just started writing me and Glenn Loury, who I talk to on Bloggingheads about this because we’ve talked about this, just saying that the atmosphere has really changed. And so, all of a sudden, since last summer when I had plenty of other things I was thinking about, I found that I’ve become one of a group of people who seems to be taken up as kind of a clearing house for cases like these. And what amazed me was how many of them there are.
Nico: Are you still receiving these letters, or have they died down a bit?
John: At least one a week. I’m still collecting them in a file. Actually, now that I think of it, one thing that happened was that somebody on Twitter claimed – I think it was one of these linguists actually – that I was lying and saying that people contacted me about this sort thing at all. And so, I said on Twitter, “You know, I’m not lying, and I invite people to solicit these letters,” and they started doing it. So, there was a huge flood for a couple of weeks. But now, about once a week I hear from somebody who chimes in.
Nico: Well, one of the problems is that a lot of these correspondents wanna remain anonymous so as to not threaten their careers in academia. Have you noticed anything that differentiates those who speak out, such as yourself, from those who do not? Is it tenure? Is it something else? Careerism is very strong, so I – and people have mortgages, and they have families, and they don’t wanna rock the boat too much. But at some point, you’d hope that there would be a critical mass vocal enough to speak out to end the censoriousness. But until that moment comes, you’re just gonna keep getting it.
John: I find that generally it’s the ones who are older, nearing the ends of their career, and of course tenured, who are open at all to being public about this sort of thing and/or do not append to their email to me that they’d rather stay anonymous, et cetera. And yes, the truth is that the only way we’re gonna get past this is if a critical mass of people exhibit a certain bravery. And of course, that’s gonna require decisions made by people according to their circumstances. But I think anybody who at this point thinks that we can talk to the people who are infected with this new ideology and teach them about their John Stuart Mill and teach them that there’s supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, that’s utterly hopeless.
Only the very occasional person like that is open to any kind of persuasion on this sort of issue. So, what has to happen is that we have to start standing up to that kind of person so that they lose the idea that they can get whatever they want by standing up and calling people names. But on the other hand, isn’t it easy for me to say that because I’m a 55-year-old professor and I’m not gonna lose my job and I have many lines of income? If I were an assistant professor in a department of history at some school, where I knew everybody in my department except for maybe one person down the hall from China was of this kind of ideology, I certainly wouldn’t speak out until I had tenure.
And as we’ve seen, even after you do that, you might end up being threatened. And people should know though, I don’t have tenure for administrative reasons that I wouldn’t bore people with. I got tenure at UC Berkeley. I do not have it at Columbia, and I am pretty sure I never will. But I do this because there are reasons for me to believe that I’m not gonna get fired, and even if I did, I could still eat. But that’s just me. For many people, they could not take it so lightly.
Nico: Sometimes professors or faculty members can’t see the landmines or don’t know what the landmines are before they step on them. You recently tweeted about at case at the University of Illinois at Chicago, near where I grew up, in which a law professor, who had been giving the same law exam hypothetical for many, many years, had used in the hypothetical two epithets… to describe a case of discrimination within the workplace before asking the students to analyze the law surrounding it. Those epithets were censored in the law exam, so they had the asterisks or the cross-outs over them. And now, he’s being investigated for that exam question. So, I feel like you could – there are the landmines that we know – we’re venturing into politics or the critical race theory or anything dealing with sexual or gender identity – but giving a law school exam to law students who might deal with facts within cases that involve some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature doesn’t seem or wouldn’t seem to me to be something that I’d have to worry about. But this very professor is indeed having to worry about that. How many of these cases that you’re hearing about are of that nature, of a faculty member unwittingly stepping on a landmine?
John: Ever more. And it really is disturbing, especially in a case like the one you just mentioned that seems so cut and dry. Nobody was offended about this exam question before. It’s not an accident that this happens in 2021 after what happened last spring. And yeah, you see more and more cases where some innocent person does something that nobody would have batted an eyelash at five minutes ago, and now ends up losing their job. Pardon me. Laurie Sheck is a famous writer, and she has been teaching for 20 years at The New School in New York City. She was teaching students about James Baldwin. There was a documentary that got around called I Am Not Your Negro about Baldwin.
What he actually wrote was – and I guess I’m allowed to say it for the obvious reason – he said, “I’m not your nigger.” Now, Laurie Sheck is not… black, but she used that word in describing what Baldwin said, and then was fostering a discussion as to why he put it that way, but the movie title put it another way. It was gonna be another sensitive discussion about epithets, about racism, et cetera. And not only was she disciplined for this a couple years ago, but what hasn’t gotten around is that, recently, she, for no reason that she was given at all, was dismissed from the institution. Nobody said it was because of that, but it’s very hard not to believe that it wasn’t – [inaudible] [00:09:46] –
Nico: Oh, I didn’t know that. We at FIRE were involved in that case.
John: – as a victory.
Nico: Exactly. We were very involved in that, and we worked with Laurie to try and rectify the situation, and we helped her get an exclusive in Inside Higher Ed to break the story, and then the university backed down. But I haven’t seen it go around in the news that she was recently dismissed. So, I’ll have to talk to my colleagues about that. Wow.
John: She told me about two weeks ago. And the funny thing about these cases is that, in the Sheck case, it was a kind of diligent, white student who – I think it was two who put in the complaint. And that’s common. Very often, white “woke” people are “woker” than the black people they call themselves representing. But one of the hard things about this is that, in a case like this recent one with the expurgated N-word, it requires a certain special kind of bravery because what we’re seeing – and I hate to say this about people who can’t see beyond it; it’s like a fish doesn’t know they’re wet – but – and these are people much younger than me, but there’s a certain kind of black person who is acting in cases like that.
So, one of this guy’s accusers has said that she experienced heart palpitations when she read this expurgated N-word. And you know what? No, she didn’t, or she made herself experience those because she’s trying to be part of something larger. And the truth is that that black woman, that young, probably brilliant black woman needs to be told, “Sorry. No, we’re not gonna change procedure on the basis of sensitivities fabricated and overblown such as this.” But that’s a really tough thing for some white administrator in a business suit to do when they’re afraid of what that’s gonna look like on social media. But we see cases like this.
A little while back you had black students at a business school out at USC claiming to be offended because the professor was talking about a hedging expression in Mandarin, and one of them was “Naga,” and they felt that that sounded like something else, and it upset them. That sorta thing, you have to end up telling earnest, young black people “no,” and that’s something that universities are not exactly designed for. But we do need to start making room within the fabric for that to be done because frankly, at times, you’re not respecting these students by giving them what they want; you’re treating them as if they were children.
And everybody can see it from the outside, and these black students will understand it when they’re about 10 years older. So, this is another difficult aspect of this. During a racial reckoning, is there room for being honest with some black people who are using this racial reckoning as an excuse for things that simply aren’t constructive and aren’t even real?
Nico: So, I was gonna ask you about this later in the interview, but it seems relevant to our conversation. Now, it’s a larger cultural question that I wanna ask, of course, of a linguist and someone who’s got a book coming out later this year called Nine Nasty Words. It seems as though the more that we censor words or give them power, the more dangerous they’re perceived to become. Lenny Bruce, the famous comedian, did a skit back in the ‘60s in which he just… listed off 10, 12 profanities or epithets as a way, in his words, to defang them. He said, “By saying them, you defang them of your power. When you censor them or expurgate them from society, they gain power.”
It seems to me that, over the last couple of decades, as our society has become coarser, epithets or swear words have sort of lost their power. They’ve become commonplace in society and in our culture with, of course, one notable exception that we just discussed. How does this all play out from a linguistic perspective? It seems to me that ideas are more verboten now. Ideas have always been verboten in certain context but as – if you’re looking at the track of… offensive words or swear words and the parallel track of verboten ideas, it seems like… swear words, epithets are going in one direction and verboten ideas are going in another direction, whereas verboten ideas are becoming more common, whereas verboten words are not.
John: I agree, and I would narrow it a little bit. It’s that profanity is no longer about religion and/or aspects of the body. We do have profanity but it’s about something else, and that is it’s about slurs against other people. So, it used to be that saying “damn” and “hell” was a terrible, terrible thing. Then, saying “shit” and “fuck” was a terrible, terrible thing. Now, it’s those words against groups that occasion the same response, are considered equally horrible. And this isn’t me sounding high and mighty because, on the one hand, I do think we have really come to overdo our taboo treatment of the N-word in particular.
But on the other hand, I would be quite upset if either one of my children, six and nine, used that word in any sense, especially – yet I would be appalled in the say way as Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early ’60s were when Ritchie uttered what you can tell is the word “fuck,” although of course in television at the time they couldn’t even indicate it. So, we have that going on. There are certain things that you are not allowed to think, and the linguistic manifestation of it is that you are not allowed to use certain slurs. And that, of course, is a good thing in itself.
But what’s worrisome is where a kind of virtue signaling on the white side, to oversimplify, and a kind of quest for group membership through eternal victimization on the black side, to oversimplify. It means that we end up being much more sensitive about the N-word than we need to be, and now we’re getting to the point where earnest white students try to hang teachers high for even using the word “Negro” out of an idea that that’s a slur when most of us just thought of it as a rather peculiar archaism at this point. So, really kind of going wild on these sorts of things. My profanity book is not my scolding, nasty societal critic me.
It actually is the jolly linguist me, and so I don’t talk too much about this sorta thing in that book. But I do discuss that the N-word, and then the F-word that’s used for gay men, and then also, depending on how you count it, the C-word that has four letters and can be hurled at a woman, those today are our profanity. To hell, with “fuck,” to put it very economically. It’s those words that are what our curse words are.
Nico: In the cases that you’ve been reciting over the last couple of minutes, it seems as though students are a primary force in the action taken by college and university administrators. Is that the dynamic you’re seeing play out on campus? Is it mostly student demands that are driving administrative action or is it something more complicated than that? Is it happening within departments? Is it happening at the highest levels of the university, in the provost or chancellor’s office? What’s the dynamic on campus that is causing this phenomenon? And I guess, what is the one thing that we could do, the one place we should look to address it?
John: Well, of course, it’s partly students, but then it’s partly a certain wing of the faculty who will help create, for example, a manifesto like the Princeton letter, which was signed by a great many professors and staff. And this was not a student’s letter. And so, you have those two elements involved, and then of course what’s probably a majority on most campuses who are just afraid to speak up, and therefore let things happen without saying anything, or in the case of the Princeton letter, as my friend Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, showed, with the Princeton letter, a great many of those people were not signing off on all of the contents of the letter; and really, a lot of them were almost certainly just signing it because they didn’t wanna be seen as having not signed it.
But I have to say that we’re doing this interview at a peculiar time when unfortunately we’re not on campus. And so, for example, I work largely from home or I’m in my office with the door closed about once a week. There is no campus culture that I inhabit physically in the way that I used to, and so it’s hard for me to say what the dynamic necessarily is because I don’t have as many conversations with students or faculty. But I think we all know what we see in the news; and this is that student protests are a major source for this kind of thing, but there are also faculty and staff who are quite willing to chime in with complaints from students of that kind and expand the complaint into a notion that the campus itself is a racist setting, which of course is almost always clearly not the case, given that university campuses are possibly the least racist settings in all of humanity.
So, it’s various currents, I think.
Nico: You have to wonder if it’s a minority of students and faculty – and I speak of minorities here numerically not demographically – that are causing these trends. You read in the social sciences how a minority can have an outsized impact in certain… environments. And most people aren’t engaged in these sort of discourses and they’re just kind of going along or you might have faculty and – for example, at Princeton, also concerned about their careers and their families and their mortgages, who sign on just to – kind of as a cover, as a sort of shield from what’s happening, especially in a climate where a lot of the language that’s used by these minorities – numerically, again, of course, is what I’m speaking here of, not demographically – that accuses people of things that then can make them… a leper within society.
If you’re accused of being a racist or sexist, that almost makes you a pariah. And so, you try everything you can to avoid it, and then as a result, you get this sort of race to the bottom or race to the top to prove your credentials, your critical race theory credentials or whatever else it might be. And some of the studies bear this out. We did a study; the largest ever study of college students as it relates to free speech and economic freedom questions. And you find that… it’s a minority of students who are driving a majority of the discussion… in those situations.
John: Definitely, and I have always had that impression at Columbia as well as at Berkeley when I used to teach there. It’s definitely a minority, numerically, of the student body who are of stridently CRT style politics. But because they are so quick to call you dirty names, they leave almost everybody scared to their socks. I’ve had students tell me about this sort of thing. I have seen… seminar classes that were either shut down or hopelessly distorted by there being one or two students of that type who, after they let their views be known within the first couple of discussions, all the students but maybe one, usually male, very brave person just toe the line.
And some people end up never saying anything, and most people end up carefully tailoring anything they say to not offend those one or two people, and to show indeed that they have their “wokeness theory” down; and so, it either distorts discussion and limits what can be talked about – and the idea is not that we wanna talk about hideous these things, but there’s this obeisance – or – I had one class where I couldn’t get the discussion going. It’s the one class I’ve ever taught where nothing I did – I was beginning to feel like a professional by 2014, but nothing I did, none of my bag of trick things could get that class to really talk.
I had one where I actually had to just shut it down 15 minutes early because nothing worked, and it was really because one and a half people. And I was stuck with that class for the whole school year. And so, that definitely happens. We’re seeing a group of people who think that they’re convincing the world of the truth, but what they’re really doing is exerting a kind of reign of terror. But they don’t see it that way because a major plank in their way of looking at things is that they’re speaking truth to power. So, as far as they’re concerned, they’re powerless people speaking up to “the man”.
They don’t understand that, at this point, in many circles, they have all the power, and that they’re exerting that power not through convincing anybody of anything, but through making everybody basically wet their pants. That’s a major problem in our discourse at this point.
Nico: It seems as though a minority can also work against the trends. I’m reminded of the situation, I believe it was, at Reed College out West, a small liberal arts school, where there was a group of students who were occupying that school’s mandatory – it’s like a great books seminar or their Western civilization seminar – mandatory as part of the curriculum, in order to change the curriculum to make it less Western-centric. They were occupying these classes every time they appear. And so, you’d have a professor at the podium and students lined up in front of him for the entirety of the class with signs.
And this happened for months, for semesters… before it was a group of primarily Asian students who spoke up about the situation and said that they’re there to learn and they wanna learn and this… is detrimental to their learning experience. And the movement kind of tapered in part because of that but also because the university capitulated and changed the curriculum. But you have seen situations where certain people speak up, especially if we’re talking about critical race theory concerns if they’re of the right demographic background, that can really help a situation. You call the phenomenon, in your article, a “new Maoism”.
I wanna ask you what similarities you see because here in America whenever we see a sort of authoritarianism in any part of our society, we refer to it as fascism or Nazism. So, we don’t have that background in what Maoism is or was to really help us inform and distinguish between the types of authoritarian actions that could take place. So, what are the similarities that you’re thinking?
John: Well, when you think about, say, the Cultural Revolution, you think about things like the relentless thought policing, such that people are made to mouth things in public that they don’t really believe, or to never say things that they do believe in public. There’s the sense that everybody always has a gun pointed at their head. And that is what’s going on with this whole CRT business as well. Not to mention, you read often in the media these puckish questions that people ask or articles that people write about whether or not you should maintain a relationship with your father or with your uncle or with your child because they don’t have the proper hard Left, “woke” views.
Now, a lot of those things are just asking a question. But it’s reminiscent of how in the Cultural Revolution you were expected to disavow family members and friends and smoke them out if they were not exhibiting the proper ideology. So, the idea is not to say that CRT is getting anyone killed. However, the group think, the relentless, menacing group think that’s involved, and the radical preconception of what it is to be a worthwhile human being morally is very similar. And it’s interesting. Hitler, we get. We have a sense of it. We’ve watched actors who play Hitler. Unless you have your head in the sand, you’ve probably seen a movie about Hitler.
We have a sense of what went wrong there. But we don’t have as visceral a sense of what, say, the Cultural Revolution was like and why –
Nico: I can’t think of one movie about it.
John: – there’s no movie, there’s no – if somebody has played Mao, it was in Chinese and none of us know it. And so, it’s an obscure reference, and people don’t realize how parallel what’s going on now is to that. When I got all those letters this summer, again and again I thought, you could imagine this being written by some poor person cowering in a tent, writing in Chinese to some overseas relative. It’s what it sounds exactly like, except it’s some professor of philosophy at a small, midwestern university. The fear, the lying, it’s really unsavory; and it’s quite unlike the “tenured radicals” that were supposed to be such a threat in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
That was always something that the right-wing cooked up as a crisis. Something really has changed in the 2010s though.
Nico: Well, you actually do see the struggle sessions, if you look at the situation –
John: [Inaudible] [00:26:42] – Crosstalk].
Nico: – with Nicholas Christakis back in 2015 at Yale. He was surrounded by a group of students yelling at him. And Bret Weinstein over at Evergreen State, surrounded by a group of students –
John: And do you know that these sorts of things are even being deliberately called for? I know somebody at BU. And I don’t think that this person wants to be outed, but this person has told me a story of how they, when they had done absolutely nothing wrong and frankly everything right, were asked to submit to what was not called a “struggle session” but would have been exactly that thing, by people with straight faces. Absolutely alarming, and very much so.
Nico: – I’ve actually heard from a lot of people behind the scenes at BU of a culture there that is increasingly –
John: [Inaudible – Crosstalk].
Nico: – conformist and stifling. So, there must be something going on there. All this… was happening last summer surrounding the debate over “cancel culture”. I wanna get what your sense is of the cancel culture debate now half a year removed from it. Is it still the concern that you saw it as being back last summer, and what is it in your conception? I realize there are a lot of people that have different conceptions of what cancel culture is.
John: Cancel culture is one of these things where, especially with social media, the meaning of the word and the nature of the concept of change so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with it. I think the core notion of cancel culture was in the entertainment industry, where the idea was that you could pull a person’s cultural products and kind of disappear them because of something they did. And so, Bill Cosby would be the classic example, or the way Louis C.K. had to disappear for a while, to an extent still is disappeared because of what he did.
But then, naturally you start to analogize to other situations, and the idea of cancellation would presumably be to get someone fired, to scrub them from social media, to make them disappear. Last summer, it started being insisted upon by the hard Left that there was no desire “cancel” somebody, but rather to…. And the “…” is strip that person of their honor, shame them in public, do something to punish them, with the new idea being, “No, we’re not trying to cancel the person, but everybody should be okay with us clapping this person in irons and flogging them.” And most of these people really do think that’s what’s supposed to happen.
That, to me now, is cancel culture. We call it “cancelling” and the constant answer is “We’re not trying to cancel the person.” But still, what the whole things refers to now is the idea that somebody is not just criticized. Criticizing is fine and criticizing can be messy and hostile, but that’s not enough. Cancel culture is when the idea is that the person must be sanctioned in some major way. And it’s a scary thing which is gonna be obscured by the fact that it’s becoming as difficult a term as racial preferences or systemic racism, where the words themselves in isolation don’t mean what they mean when you put them together. It’s no longer about cancellation.
It’s about basically… strafing someone in public and that being considered the appropriate thing to do.
Nico: And giving them no opportunity for redemption either.
Nico: I think about it and I think I’d rather almost go to jail than to have my career ruined, my life ruined with no opportunity in the future for restoration or redemption. A lot of people who are cancelled apologize, and I think some of them are quite genuine. But as social science has told us, sometimes apologies can just supercharge the response and make people even more angry and make them seem to be a witch almost, worthy of not just punishment but further punishment. And I know you’ve talked, written in the past about how some of the movements or the new Maoism you’re seeing… has a sort of religiosity to it.
It’s religiosity – and I think you’ve written about this too – without the important component of redemption, the opportunity to change, the opportunity to “see the light”. You don’t want people to be bullied into that. But it just seems like it makes for a coarser society.
John: And, of course, the people in question would say, “That’s too bad because we have found the good with a capital G, and there are gonna have to be some ugly episodes as we cleanse the world of evil and go on to a happier place.” That’s genuinely what they think. And so, as far as they’re concerned, there are many different kinds of religion and maybe it’s okay for a religion to have no god unless… Ta-Nehisi Coates is God. But I think he’s more like the Jesus. And you don’t have a God and you don’t have forgiveness, but there are plenty of religions that are missing certain elements. And nevertheless, that is the issue; that an apology in these cases often simply just doesn’t work.
People listen to the person apologizing looking for evidence that they don’t mean it, looking for evidence that it isn’t complete in some way. And in general, it just has not effect whatsoever. So, for example, this latest case with this poor guy who’s being excommunicated from his university because of these expurgated words for the N-word and also the B-word. He has given a very sincere apology, and yet it’s having no effect whatsoever. And this is considered normal by people who consider themselves to have “the proper way,” exactly as Mormons do, exactly as early Christians did.
This is part of why I say we have to coexist with the people who think this way. They’re not gonna go away, and they can’t be reached because they think they’ve discovered the answer to everything. And if you feel that you’ve got the answer to everything, it’s almost inevitable that a certain personality type among you is gonna feel that hurting people and stepping on people and pushing people out of jobs is part of doing the good work. It’s inevitable. We’ve seen that throughout human history. So, the question is just what are we gonna do about these people’s power over society? They won’t change. But what can we do to get their hands off the wheel?
Nico: Well, it’s interesting that this phenomenon runs parallel to the trend towards criminal justice reform, which seeks to be less punitive against people who have broken laws or committed societal wrongs; people who have, in many cases, engaged in violent action. Here, we’re talking about words, which of course some people argue can be violence. But you have this one track toward criminal justice reform and this other track that seems to remove redemption from the public discourse and public consciousness, which I just find interesting. I wanna get a little bit of the background here.
Have you always been interested in issues of academic freedom or freedom of speech and/or did your interest here arise from your experiences in academia?
John: They arose from my experiences in academia. You would have surprised me as recently as 10 years ago if you told me that, in the near future, I was gonna be known as somebody with a concern for issues of free speech and was gonna be crusading against critical race theory, which I had heard of 20 years ago. But it’s been a gradual business, partly based on seeing brilliant students sidelined by an ideology that discourages true curiosity. And that disturbs me. And then, as time has gone on, I’ve realized that I haven’t been specifically interested in it, but I’ve been affected by this sorta thing.
And I think some people would hear that and think that what I’m doing now is trying to get back at people who hurt my feelings in 1997 or something like that. But I, early in my academic career, found that I would be trying to make some sense out of something having to do with language, and I’d put forth what I thought. And because I was young and naïve, I didn’t understand the shibboleth involved in the CRTish way of thinking, which wasn’t as prevalent back then as it is now, but there were those people; and they’re especially disproportionately represented in the humanities, of which linguistics is one.
And so, I found that I was abused quite roundly by people who would not listen to anything that I said in response and were strangely exaggerating the nature of what I was saying. And now I look back and I realize, “Oh, wait a minute. It was these –” I call these people “The Elect” in the book that I have coming out. This is “The Elect”. The reason that I can’t say that the reason black kids have trouble in school is socioeconomic factors and not the nature of Black English being different from standard English… the reason I can’t say that the issue isn’t linguistic is because I’m supposed to be battling the power differential between white and black and therefore making everything about racism.
I wouldn’t even wonder now what I was stepping on. But back then, I thought, “Why can’t I say this when I thought I was fighting for social justice too?” I can’t say that Creole languages, like Jamaican Patois and Haitian Creole and Papiamentu – I can’t say that “Those languages are new ones that happened when slaves didn’t learn European languages completely and took what they had learned and built it into a new language altogether. Isn’t that cool?” I can’t say that because that implies that at a certain point, these African slaves did not learn these languages completely and that they created something that’s somehow less of a language.
And I kid you not. I’m not exaggerating these views. So, I can’t that Creole languages are cool or that they’re new or that they’re language having started again. And if I do say that, then people start throwing Foucault at me and telling me that I’m a reverse racist. Now, I would know what I was stepping on. I’d still say what I thought, but I would know it was coming. Back in 1999 though, I was jumped. Not only do I see students being muzzled by this sorta thing, not to mention professors, but I realize, “Hmm, that actually was getting in my way back before I was 30.” And I know that it certainly does limit inquiry in many fields that I have a finger in, and I think it needs to stop.
I think the CRT view of things deserves a place at the table. It’s not a crazy in itself. I didn’t learn about it as craziness. I learned about it as an eccentric but interesting sociopolitical way of looking at society. But the idea that the people who believe that should be at the controls and shut down everybody else? No, that doesn’t make any kind of coherent, intellectual moral sense.
Nico: Within the linguistic community, is this a result of a lack of ideological or political diversity or is it just that kind of minority phenomenon that we were talking about before? Thinking about Jonathan Haidt’s… story about a sociology conference, that he attended many years ago that kind of was an awakening for him, in which he asked this audience of hundreds of scholars of sociology if they knew any Conservatives in the field, and there was only a handful of hands that went up, which speaks to potentially part of the problem. And where does that problem come from?
Does it come from hiring? Does it come from just how… people sort themselves? It seems like you don’t get, as a result, the institutional disconfirmation, which Haidt talks about, that is so crucial in a university environment; the idea being that… to the extent ideas are proffered, you have people on the ideological spectrum far away from them who can challenge those ideas.
Nico: Cass Sunstein has done a lot of great research on this… in particular as it relates to panels of judges in cases. To the extent that you have a uniform or ideologically uniform panel, you’re gonna get more extreme… verdicts than you would even if you just had one person who dissented or one person who was elsewhere on the ideological spectrum.
John: Linguistics is typical of academia in this way. And I think another aspect of it is that contrary to what many people understandably think about linguistics, what we are is not people who know the history and definition of every word. What many linguists are involved with is documenting and maybe saving a language spoken by a small number of people somewhere far from where they live. And so, linguists are, to an extent, anthropologists, and that means that you are probably somebody who has a concern for people who live in very different circumstances than, say, a middle-class white person does.
And all of that is great in itself, but what can often go along with that kind of commitment – and I think this is especially visible in anthropology – is a certain Leftist commitment which might lean over into the sort of prosecutorial frame of mind that we’re talking about. And that does happen in in linguistics. I am not aware of very many actual, card-carrying Conservative linguists, say, under 50. There’s some older ones, but under 50, I would be hard-placed to think of one. And there is, at this point, a younger contingent coming in who are especially committed to the kind of spraying for heretics that I’m talking about.
And they’re a minority, but I know on good authority, at this point, that they exert disproportionate kind of impact on other linguists. And so, linguistics is just like the other fields.
Nico: Does your study of linguistics or of language have anything to say about this current moment? How much of it is wrapped up in the way that we speak to each other or the ways that words are used or policed? I’m thinking here of The Coddling of the American Mind, which was written by the aforementioned Jonathan Haidt, and my boss, Greg Lukianoff, where they suggest that the phenomenon that they’re seeing after having traveled the world and spoken in many different countries, this phenomenon of vindictive protectiveness or viciousness, at the time of the publication of that book at least, 2018, was unique to English-speaking countries.
Your study of linguistics, does that suggest language has something to do with it or do the phenomena just – do they start in English-speaking country and therefore they travel faster to other English-speaking countries, or is there something different about cultures based on the languages that they use?
John: I don’t have the fun answer to that that I wish I did. It would be so cool if I did. I would say that since the Coddling book, which of course was brilliant, I would venture to say that this sort of thinking has spread to countries where other languages are spoken. And I would say certainly in Europe. I’ve heard about it in France, Italy, Germany, and I forget which Scandinavian country. And now maybe that’s only spreading so far, but nevertheless that’s there. But no, I don’t think this is about linguistics. Words’ meanings change in all languages. All languages have ways of being nasty linguistically.
I think that what we’re dealing with is a certain aspect of anglophone culture. And not just last week but in the 1980s and ‘90s, a lot of this grows out of the whole deconstruction school of literary analysis, for example, which then jumps the rails into certain legal scholars’ ideas. But no, I think ultimately – for example, we can’t say that we need to learn to use language differently because there is simply no reaching people who are part of what I’m calling “The Elect”. And “The Elect” is not just the Left. It’s not just the hard Left. It’s this very specific subset of people; no kind of language you used would get across to them.
Telling them to use language differently would not work because they think they’re speaking truth to power and they can talk however they want. What we have to think about is ideas. And sometimes we’re gonna have to talk the way we want to among ourselves and just make sure that we don’t have to pretend that these other people have found the answer to everything. But no, this isn’t about language. This is about ideas. We should think of it that way.
Nico: Last question here. Kinda close on a fun one. You would recall that there was that debate a week or two ago after the lawmaker said “Amen” and “Awoman,” and there was a subsequent outrage from the people who thought this was a lawmaker engaging in the same sort of “woke politics” that… has driven a lot of things that we’ve talked about in this conversation. And I heard it from family and friends who were just outraged by this. It was almost like it was the new “Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas” debate. You had a tweet that had said, “No, this is the linguist in you. This is a form of speaking that has a long tradition in certain communities in America.”
So, for our listeners who think that the world has gone crazy based on the things we’re talking about here, you say, at least in that case it has not, right?
John: No. Yeah, that was so interesting. “Amen and Awoman” is one of the oldest jokes in the book, and he thought that enough people would know it that he wouldn’t need to say anything. If anything, that was a little clumsy. I’m not sure I quite understand why he thought the world knew that little joke. But the fact is it is an old joke known well to many black people, known well to many white people, and he was tossing it in what would have been, if he would’ve counted on most of the country understanding it, a very clever and warm way of acknowledging the women in the room and the women watching.
It’s a little, old joke. That person is not a “wokester” in any real sense that I know.
Nico: I actually think it’s kind of a funny joke, so I hope it catches on. But I’m doubtful of it at this point. Well, John, this has been a distinct pleasure. I think we’re gonna wrap it up there. I hope we can talk sometime soon – again sometime soon.
John: Me too. Definitely. Thank you for having me.
Nico: That was Columbia University professor John McWhorter. You can read his article “Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom” by visiting The Atlantic website. This podcast is hosted, produced and recorded by me, Nico Perrino and edited by Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or “Like” us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We also take feedback at So to Speak @TheFIRE.org. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review. We take them at Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever else you get your podcast. They do help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, thanks again for listening.