Do Mention It

Editor’s Note: This essay once mentions a well-known racial slur. Indeed, much of the essay is about the usefulness of maintaining a distinction between using a word and merely mentioning it, and argues that mentions of even taboo words should be allowed, so it would be self-defeating to resort to euphemism in this case.

by Gerald Dworkin

For the past year or so there have been a considerable number of cases of teachers or authors or journalists who have been threatened with sanctions, had sanctions imposed, or lost their positions, because of articles they wrote or statements they made as part of their occupations. Many of these cases involved the appearance of the N-word in their speech or written work. Here are some of them.

1. In a course at the Rutgers Law School last Fall, a student was curious about why a defendant in a case was charged with conspiracy to murder, when he had not been directly involved in the shooting. So he looked up the case and found that the defendant had shouted that he was going to  return to the scene where the shots were fired, but first, “I’m going back to Trenton to get my niggers.”  This clarified for the student why the defendant might be charged with conspiracy to murder.

The professor of the course has asserted that she did not hear the word spoken during a videoconference session, which three students had attended after the criminal law class.

As the NY Times reported: “In early April, in response to the incident, a group of Black first-year students at Rutgers Law began circulating a petition calling for the creation of a policy on racial slurs and formal, public apologies from the student and the professor.”

At the height of a ‘racial reckoning,’ a responsible adult should know not to use a racial slur regardless of its use in a 1993 opinion,” states the petition, which was signed by law school students and campus organizations across the country.

“We vehemently condemn the use of the N-word by the student and the acquiescence to its usage,” the petition says.

To date the Professor has not apologized for her conduct and has not been sanctioned.

2. The editor of Poetry magazine has resigned from his position because he published a 30p-page free-verse poem that contained “an offensive term referring to Black women and imagery.”  We do not know what the term was, since the poem has been removed.

3. Greg Patton is a professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California. During a recent virtual classroom session, he was discussing public speaking patterns and the filler words that people use to space out their ideas: um, er, etc. Patton mentioned that the Chinese often use a word that is pronounced like nega.

“In China, the common word is ‘that, that that that,’ so in China it might be ‘nega, nega, nega, nega,'” Patton explained to his class. “So there’s different words you’ll hear in different cultures, but they’re vocal disfluencies.”

But because the Chinese word nega sounds like the N-word some students were offended and reported the matter to the administration. Patton took a short-term pause from teaching the course, after a group of Black MBA students wrote a letter about Patton’s use of the Mandarin word in his class on Aug. 20.

USC’s Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX found professor Gregory Patton, who used a Chinese word that sparked controversy, “did not violate the university’s policy.”

4. At the New School for Social Research, a novelist and Pulitzer prize finalist, was accused of using the N-word in class in a discussion of James Baldwin.

During a conversation about Baldwin’s argument that the “war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Sheck asked the class if anyone had seen the 2016 documentary film on Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In so doing, she noted that the title of the documentary used the word “negro,” instead of the N-word, which Baldwin used in an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show”. Sheck said she used the actual word because Baldwin used it, and because future class texts included the word, as well.

For a thorough examination of a Professor’s quotation from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which contains many mentions of the word in question see

5. New York Times correspondent of 45-years, Donald McNeil was forced to resign for using the N word.  “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn explained.

McNeil, 67, went to PERU as a representative of the Times on a 2019 trip with American high school students.  McNeil said “I was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur.”


The unusual feature of these cases is that , with the exception of the poem, none of the people being attacked are using the word themselves. They are either quoting someone else who used the word ( law student case) or quoting Baldwin, or quoting what a student has just said or asking someone if they actually used the word in a video (McNeil).

Now there is ambiguity in the idea of “using” an expression. It may simply mean someone wrote or said it. In that sense all of these statements use the word. But what philosophers and linguists mean by using as opposed to mentioning Is  quite different. 

Consider the two statements 1) Bachelors are unmarried men and 2) Bachelors has 9 letters.  The first is true. The second  is both ungrammatical and nonsense. But 3) “Bachelors” has nine letters is a true statement.  The difference is that in the first statement we are using the word to make a claim about people who are called by a certain term.  In the third  we are making a claim about the word rather than the people.

Whenever we quote what a person said or wrote , we are not using those words. We are mentioning them. If I quote Hitler as saying “Kill all the Jews” I am not saying that Jews should be killed. I am not saying it even if I believe all Jews should be killed. I am not uttering a command, or a suggestion, or a call for Jews to be killed. I am telling you what Hitler said. 

The point of quotation marks is to isolate the meaning and use of words from the beliefs and views of the person quoting. Of course it is possible that the writer/speaker does in fact believe or support the views that are quoted. But that cannot be known from the quotation itself.

Given an understanding of the difference between use and mention, what are we to think about the kinds of cases listed above?  One claim is that those protesting the mention of the racial slur are simply making a conceptual mistake. Undoubtedly some are. But it is unlikely that all of them are confused. When they object to  what a law student says that  a Supreme Court Justice said a defendant said, it is unlikely they think the student intended to attack Black people by using  a racial slur. The most plausible interpretation is that the mere presence of the term on the page, or its being uttered, has the same damaging features–perhaps weaker– as the term itself. It creates the same kind distress and/or harms that the use of the term are claimed to create.  This might explain the controversy about the term “niggardly”  It is not that most objectors thought the term was in some way related to the slur–some may have thought so of course–but that it sounded too much like it. And this would also explain the nega case.

I believe this interpretation gives some credence to those who object to the mention of slurs. While some may simply be confused about the use/mention distinction there are others who are objecting simply because of the appearance of sound of the slur.  

Nevertheless I believe that these attacks are both mistaken and counter-productive to the just and important struggle that the protestors are engaged in.  I believe they are mistaken because the norms of the academic world about quotation and mention are valuable. Attacks on those who rely on these norms are unfair  and an attack on academic freedom itself..

For a defense of the current professional norms see  The New Taboo: Quoting Epithets in the Classroom and Beyond by Randall Kennedy and Eugene Volokh in 49 Capital Law Review.  For an attack on current standards see LawProfessorBlog in Above the Law, May 4.

In a 3Quarks blog on Lenny Bruce in 2018 (The Costs of Free Speech) I argued that Listening to others who differ from us in values, attitudes, moral commitments, is necessary if we are to be reasonable in determining what to value, what kinds of person to become, which social policies to support or oppose. This is not true of slurs, or the kinds of anti-Semitic cartoons that were published in Nazi Germany. Insults, slurs, racial caricatures are not necessary, and are indeed counterproductive, to thinking about how to believe and how to act.”  

Given the distress and harm these slurs cause there is a prima facie case for  condemning their use and their users.

But that very blog opened with a quote from Bruce’s comedy routine containing as many racial and ethic slurs as he could remember. I was mentioning them but not using them.

It still seems to me that to understand Bruce–which is an intellectual task well worth doing- -one has to see that he was deliberately mentioning  these terms because his purpose, as he explains in the routine, was to routinize the words, so that they lost their shocking impact and obtained the status, as he says, of “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” Bruce was unduly optimistic about what he could accomplish by mentioning these terms.  But it is unlikely that those attending his routine were upset or offended either.

What fiction and film would look and sound like if the mere presence of the words on the words were forbidden is puzzling. The film on the Underground Railroad which opened this week contained at least 20 utterances of the N-word  in the first half-hour. Mostly by slaveholders. Some by slaves. But their presence contributed as much to the viewers understanding of the horror of slavery as the brutal scenes of flogging.

What happens to fiction is very unclear. The issue is whether the normal insulation of the author of a work of fiction from the acts and beliefs of her fictional characters will no longer be understood.  If it is the mere appearance of the word on the page which is claimed to be offensive and harmful then this is not possible.  This will have the consequence that authors who intend to attack racism by showing exactly how racist characters act and talk will face attack themselves for using racist language in their fiction.

In a just published article in the New Yorker  “An Artist and how he survived the Chain Gang” the author writes in a very moving manner of his experience with the word. He quotes the word as it was applied to him by others.  He then gives a justification for doing so. “I understand that seeing that word written flat out on the page may hurt some people. My hope is that they will come to understand why its there… My story will not be as clear if I block out the word or even change a single letter. A substitute doesn’t carry the same effect. To me, it means it isn’t the same word…I want the reader to understand the effect it carries when you use the word and how degrading it is.”

I think it is important to be  able to quote Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or David Duke.

I believe that the Rhode Island Supreme Court was correct in saying: 

“We note that, in the testimony of both troopers, the various epithets allegedly uttered by the defendant on the night of his arrest were transcribed without redaction. We have chosen to reproduce their testimony in this opinion in a similarly unbowdlerized fashion because what the defendant is alleged to have actually said is so central to the issues on appeal. Unfortunately, many of the words in question are likely to cause real offense to some readers, but we are convinced that an unflinching examination of the defendant’s speech is critical to a just analysis of his arguments. “

Nothing I have said here should be taken as denying that we should be alert, particularly in the classroom, to the feelings of those who have been the targets of slurs and insults. But I believe that the attacks that have occurred on those who are following current academic, professional  and literary standards which have a legitimate justification, are  unfair to those attacked, and  are counter-productive to achieving the kinds of necessary social change the protestors  correctly desire.

I would like to thank Robert May for many long and valuable discussions on this topic.