Professors are being fired for private discussions of grades and race. Students are terrified of expressing politically incorrect views.... Pictured: photo of Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School. (Photo by Senate Television via Getty Images)
Slate — the online magazine known for its provocative content—has indefinitely suspended one of its star podcasters, Mike Peska, for debating with a colleague, on an inter-office messaging platform, whether it is ever appropriate for a non-Black person to use the N-word in the context of a discussion about race. It is not clear whether in the course of the discussion Peska actually uttered the word itself or just used the term "n-word."
In defending Slate's decision, a Black staffer argued that "For Black employees, it's an extremely small ask to not hear that particular slur and not have debate about whether it's OK for white employees to use that particular slur." Not have debate?
Should anything be off limits to debate and discuss? Is this issue not reasonably debatable? Can only Black people debate this issue, as my colleague Randy Kennedy brilliantly did in his book whose title is the actual word—spelled out? Can the issue be discussed in racially mixed classrooms? Should that depend on the race of the teacher? Must a teacher who wants to have such a discussion issue a trigger warning? Is a trigger warning enough? Must he obtain permission from Black students in the class to discuss the use of the word even if the word itself is not uttered? Do these restrictions apply only to this word and only to slurs against Blacks, or do they apply as well to derogatory words against other groups.
There was, for example, a recent controversy over the use of the word "kike" by a basketball player. Can that word be used in debating the proper NBA response to the use of that slur, or comparable slurs against gays, women, Asian Americans or others? Are there even comparable slurs or is the N-word in a category by itself because of its history?
Finally, have I committed a suspendable offense by asking these questions in this column? Or on my podcast (The Dershow), which I have done?
The fact that we even have to ask these questions demonstrates the precarious state of freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas in the cancel culture which is quickly becoming the American culture.
Professors are being fired for private discussions of grades and race. Students are terrified of expressing politically incorrect views, especially about race, sex, sexual orientation and even politics. Even silence is not always an option. An adjunct professor at Georgetown law school was suspended and pressured to resign for not criticizing a fellow professor who bemoaned grade disparity based on race. His sin: bystander complicity.
There are several exceptions to this cancel culture rule. You can say almost anything negative about Jews, as evidenced by the recent Grammy awards, during which three overt anti-Semites were honored. These bigots did not even try to disguise their anti-Semitism behind the facade of anti-Zionism. They accused "the Jews" of promoting white supremacy. They denied the right of the Jewish people to national liberation. They showed support for the bigot Farrakhan who calls Judaism a "gutter religion," and blames them for the slave trade. Imagine the Grammy
's honoring a David Duke acolyte or someone who was critical of Black Lives Matter! It would not happen. We should discuss why this double standard is not only tolerated -- it is promoted and applauded by those who would cancel politically incorrect expression with which they disagree. Even discussing or debating this double standard risks cancelation.
There has never been a time when respectful and nuanced debate has been more needed, especially about race and other taboo subjects— taboo unless you toe the line of political correctness. We are a deeply divided nation. We need to find common ground where such exists, while at the same time respecting conflicting views.
Slate's decision to suspend Peska strikes a blow against diversity. Yes, diversity! —which includes diversity of views about every issue including how best to deal with racism and how best to achieve equality.
Slate should end Peska's suspension, apologize to him, and encourage debate about the issue over which he was suspended. I, for one, will not be intimidated into silence. I will continue to write and speak about these issues and encourage others to join me. That is one way to fight back against cancel culture.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of the book, Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo, Skyhorse Publishing, 2019. His new podcast, "The Dershow," can be seen on Spotify, Apple and YouTube. He is the Jack Roth Charitable Foundation Fellow at Gatestone Institute.