On Friday, Professors Randall Kennedy and Eugene Volokh found apparent hypocrisy in the pages above the law while writing about the Volokh conspiracy. One columnist, Lawprofblawg, wrote a violent criticism of the use of the n-word in a classroom. But the good professors noticed another ATL article, written almost two years ago by another columnist, in which the n-word appeared with no euphemism as part of a block quote in the piece. It was from this lynchpin of editorial inconsistency that the good professors made their bigger arguments in defense of the use of the n-word by people of any color when citing other sources or documents.
I was the senior editor for the site back in 2019 when the offensive Blockquote was published (in a larger article on drug legalization) so I will take responsibility for this bug. I will state in my own defense that we are a sparse operation that publishes over 20 stories a day. I have certainly never seen the post before it was published, nor can I remember reading it later (the columnist in question is actually one of our more conservative contributors, and I try not to edit conservatives so I don’t get up my feelings, make of it what you want). Even so, I sat in the big chair (I literally had a post-it with my name on the armrest so people would stop stealing it) so the content was ultimately my responsibility. This mistake was mine as much as anyone else. I apologize.
The key point, of course, is that it was a mistake. If I had seen or noticed it, I would have[n*****]”or”[the n-word]”Without consulting the author. The fact that I didn’t see or notice it is a mistake. Had this been a consistent problem on these pages, I might have issued an edict: “All uses of the n-word will henceforth be written as ‘the n-word’. “It’s a legal publication, rules making is always appreciated.
Why would I have changed the word? Because it doesn’t cost me anything. It doesn’t cost the website anything. It doesn’t cost the writers and columnists anything. To turn this word off, it takes all five additional keystrokes in order not to repeat a worthless arc. If that were I could blow out “Republicans” so easily.
Is there any single person who has a good faith belief that including a few asterisks in this word confuses the reader as to the nature of the content? Is there a good faith person who believes that using an em dash or euphemism will detract from the advocacy or accuracy of the piece? Is there really an argument that asterisks “disinfect” bigoted quotations in a way that redundant for the bigote’s benefit?
No, nobody believes that, not even Kennedy or Volokh. In their article highlighting a post about the law, they make no argument about how literal spelling of the word would have helped or improved the points made in the post. I can only assume that they have no such arguments, an assumption supported by the fact that there are no such arguments. The columnist’s point in this piece was that anti-drug laws are steeped in a story of racial intolerance. He used the quote to highlight some of the most obvious examples of this intolerance. No one reading this post came away thinking, “I wonder what this block quote was about. It seemed to be going somewhere, but then there were these confusing asterisks. If only someone could tell me what was edited, I might have learned more! “
Without an argument as to why the spelling of the n-word in a written post would support the goals of that post, its author, legal advocacy, or human society, the professors turn to a (completely different) argument as to why the n-word should be used in a law school classroom (they also start tossing the spelled n word around so many times that you think they’re reading the script of a new Quentin Tarantino movie). You’ve heard her reasoning before: Professors should use the n-word because students need to be comfortable hearing it … for reasons. You write, “The more we consider words taboo in the law school classroom, the more we reinforce an attitude that prepares our students less to use them in practice.”
I haven’t practiced for long, but the things law school “didn’t prepare me for” range from “Holy crap, you are innocent and if we lose the government they will kill you” to “Oh my god God “You are actually not innocent and I have no idea where the guards are” (various clients). Taboo damn words didn’t keep me awake at night (to the extent I was allowed to sleep, which is another reality of the practice, Law Class doesn’t really explain that very well). The idea that law students (especially black ones) don’t know what to do when their white professors don’t use the n word in class is more than ridiculous. Your reasoning actually infantilizes the students these guys seem to believe are just big babies.
And yes, I was just using “fuck” with no asterisk. I often use swear words when I write, even more when I speak. I use them for emphasis, for jokes, for shock value or just because I fucking want to. I use them because I believe, rightly or wrongly, that they add value to what I am saying.
I don’t use the n-word regularly, even though I can (we can discuss why I can and Volokh can’t at another time) because I rarely see that particular word refer to what the hell I am trying to get across, adding some value. Kennedy and Volokh say that they believe in the distinction between mention and insult in using the n-word, which means that they consider using the word as an insult to be “bad” while using it as mere reporting on something that someone else uses as an insult, okay. I would easily turn this argument around: spelling the n-word as a mere function of repetition like some kind of mindless parrot brings no value and should therefore be avoided. If you use it as a verbal abuse, at least I know you are aspiring to a term at ASSlaw. Say what you want to say about the principles of Nazism, but at least it’s an ethos.
But that’s just me, the guy writing a blog post. I don’t teach in front of a student classroom. Is it really too much to ask a professor to use the propriety a euphemism offers in front of students? My God, my professors called me “Mr. Mystal ”in class. Not “Elie” or “Big Guy” or “You Race-Baiting Fuck” as my more general terms are along the way. Adding the n-word to the list of “Things Not Said in the Name of the Courtesy of the Classroom” really doesn’t feel like a high value of about 6,000 in this experiment in human civilization.
Look, I can prove I’m right about that. I just wrote an entire article on a word that I don’t want to type in. Is anyone confused? Does anyone not know what word I am talking about? Do I sound like my advocacy is being chilled or my speaking rights are being “canceled”? Please tell me where in this article the formulation of the word would have brought my point home. Show me the award I would have won.
The argument for the n-word is just silly. We’re talking about a legal class, not a rap fight. The radio editing is fine for educational purposes.
Elie Mystal of The Nation can be reached on Twitter at @ElieNYC.