View from the other side of the desk

David Lapakko, Dept. of Communication Studies, Film, and New Media

The N-word controversy on campus has opened up a rather messy can of worms. That word is arguably the most inflammatory and volatile term in the English language. But it doesn’t stand alone.

Once we adopt a “zero tolerance” stance in which some words can never be uttered in a classroom, regardless of the exact circumstances, then we really must look at other words as well. The most obvious examples are “swear words” — specifically, the F-bomb and the S-word.  Some would say that, by nature, they create a hostile environment. But that’s only the beginning.

There are derogatory words for women: one is the B-word, and the other (much nastier) C-word. In terms of human anatomy, we have the V-word and the P-word. Then there is the Q-word. (Even though many colleges and many in the gay community have embraced it, I’m still getting used to “Queer Studies.”) The R-word is certainly considered a pejorative term for those with developmental disabilities. And there are issues with scores of other words, including “girl,” “Oriental,” “illegal alien,” “Negro,” “handicapped,” “honkey,” “redneck” and so on. I wish I had space for a dozen more examples.

Nobody should use words like these indiscriminately; that’s a given.  But in the end, if we are to curtail both free speech and academic freedom, with no consideration for context or intent, we need to know what the boundaries are. It’s neither right nor fair to impose penalties on people post facto for using specific words without telling us what those words are. If we are going to enforce sanctions for “offensive” speech (something both the ACLU and the National Communication Association would have problems with, by the way), then let’s make a list. That sounds ridiculous, but for better or worse, it seems to be where we are at.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 07, 2018 issue.