Saturday, February 17, 2018
Princeton University, where I have had the privilege of teaching for more than thirty-two years, recently received a black eye in the media when Anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen cancelled his course "Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography" after several students were offended by his saying--purely and unmistakably for bona fide pedagogical purposes--a racially derogatory word. Here's an update from Reason magazine on the matter.
I stress that Professor Rosen's mentioning of the word, which he did several times (as he had done in previous classes on culture and free speech with no adverse reaction), was pedagogical. No one was in any doubt about that. No one could possibly have been in any doubt about it. The idea that Lawrence Rosen, whom I have known since I arrived at Princeton in 1985, is a racist is beyond risible. He is a person of decency and upright character in every way. There isn't the slightest trace of animus in the man. He treats all of his colleagues and students with respect. As it happens, he is also one of the Princeton's most brilliant and eminent social scientists. He is MacArthur genius award winner, among countless other distinctions. It is painful for me personally, as I know it must be in even greater degree for him, to see his name dragged through the mud for allegedly (as some media misleadingly put it) "using a racial slur."
It is important for people to know another thing about the incident. Princeton did not pressure or even ask or encourage Professor Rosen to cancel his class. No pressure was placed on him by colleagues or administrative officials of the Department or the University. Princeton's president, Christopher Eisgruber, strongly defended Professor Rosen against the smears to which he was subjected and expressly and forcefully supported his right to use the words he deemed necessary and suitable to accomplish his pedagogical mission in teaching about hate speech and related issues. The same is true of Professor Carolyn Rouse who chairs Princeton's Department of Anthropology. Neither President Eisgruber nor Professor Rouse deserves to be counted among those college and university administrators around the country who have brought shame on themselves and their institutions by caving in to demands for speech policing and the curtailment of academic freedom. Quite the contrary. Both deserve high praise for standing up for freedom of expression on campus and other core academic values.
Why did Professor Rosen elect to cancel his course? I do not know the whole story, but I do know that he made the decision in light of his judgment that cancellation was in the interests of the students who had enrolled in the course. I do not know how that could be, but I haven't the slightest doubt that this was in fact Professor Rosen's sincere judgment and motivation. He is not a coward and would never yield to intimidation tactics. I know that some students who privately told Professor Rosen they wanted the course to continue were too afraid to speak out publicly. Evidently they feared being defamed as "racists" or "bigots." That makes me sad. As Professor Rosen told his students, the surest way to lose freedom is to remain silent in the face of efforts to squash it.