Beware Ad Homonyms
In the late 1990s, as a graduate student in history, I had the good fortune of serving as a teacher’s assistant to Julian Bond. Bond was a gentlemanly presence in the history department at the University of Virginia. He was also an excellent teacher, and the class he taught every semester on the history of the civil rights movement was always popular. So popular that he always had three TAs — many or most of the American history grad students served in that capacity at some point.
I happened to be assisting Bond (pictured in 2006) the year that an aide to Washington, D.C.’s mayor had gotten in hot water for using the word “niggardly.” To be “niggardly” is to be — how to put this? — careful with one’s spending on others. It has nothing to do with the N-word. Yet it sounds a great deal like it. There was instant controversy, and David Howard, the man who uttered the word, was pressured to resign.
An uproar ensued. Passions ran hot, but the prevailing view was that the resignation was unnecessary, even mistaken. When Howard was reinstated, the Washington Post interviewed Bond: “NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who in criticizing Williams last week said that people should not have to ‘censor’ their language to meet other ‘people's lack of understanding,’ praised Howard's reinstatement.”
The newspaper did not quote a joke that Bond had shared with his TAs: “Guess I can’t go to Cancun on vacation.” The second syllable in “Cancun” is, of course, a homonym of a racial slur. Bond realized the hyper-sensitivity that had led to Howard’s resignation was absurd.
That story comes back to mind in light of the recent controversy at The University of Southern California.
CNN reports the episode this way:
Professor Greg Patton [was] discussing the use of pauses while speaking, and giving an example of how Chinese speakers use filler words.
"In China, the common word is 'that' -- that, that, that, that," he said in the video, before using the equivalent Chinese term nei ge several times to demonstrate.
The following day, a complaint was filed to the school administration, saying the term sounded like the N-word and that Patton had "offended all of the Black members of our class."
A formal complaint was filed and Professor Patton was soon relieved of teaching duties in that class. The dean released a statement saying, “Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students. We must and we will do better."
In 2020, as in 1999, there are many saying that the reaction is over the top. But today, at least in this case, identity politics cuts both ways. “The Black China Caucus” -- an American organization that describes itself as “amplifying Black voices in the China space” -- has defended Patton. Criticism of the professor, the group asserts, smacks of cultural imperialism, making as it does the English side of the homonym the “norm” in the controversy.
One doesn’t have to speak Chinese to realize the danger of the notion that an innocent action by a professor is a firing offense merely because one word happens to sound like an English language epithet is. It’s a form of the heckler’s veto and, as such, an assault on free and open speech, discussion, and even expression.
A colleague of mine likes to joke that some insensitivity training might be in order on campus, to help us engage more easily in free and open debate. We also might teach our students something about interpretive charity. As the cultural dispute here demonstrates, one language’s epithet is another language’s filler term. And if merely saying a word, even a foreign word, that happens to sound like the N-word gets a professor taken out of the classroom, then free speech, and with it free discussion and thought, is on shaky ground.
It was quite some time ago that I worked for Bond. My recollection is that he did not pull his punches in class. And he was definitely on the Martin Luther King Jr. side of the movement, as opposed to the Malcolm X side. His politics, as I remember, were on the left edge of the Democratic Party. But he was also very much on the integrationist side of the civil rights movement. The distance between the turn that the 1999 controversy took in Washington, D.C., and that which today’s controversy at USC is taking, suggests some of what we have lost as civil rights has turned against the color blind ideal and has, instead, married itself to identity politics. The result, I fear, is not progress. It is a deepening rather than a healing across America’s racial divide.