Is an academic discussion of free speech potentially traumatic? A recent panel for Smith College alumnae aimed at “challenging the ideological echo chamber” elicited this ominous “trigger/content warning” when a transcript appeared in the campus newspaper: “Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.”
No one on this panel, in which I participated, trafficked in slurs. So what prompted the warning?
Smith President Kathleen McCartney had joked, “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?” In the transcript, “crazy” was replaced by the notation: “[ableist slur].”
One of my fellow panelists mentioned that the State Department had for a time banned the words “jihad,” “Islamist” and “caliphate” — which the transcript flagged as “anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language.”
I described the case of a Brandeis professor disciplined for saying “wetback” while explaining its use as a pejorative. The word was replaced in the transcript by “[anti-Latin@/anti-immigrant slur].” Discussing the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn,” I questioned the use of euphemisms such as “the n-word” and, in doing so, uttered that forbidden word. I described what I thought was the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.