Civil Liberties

Smith College Paper Considers the Word 'Crazy' an 'Ableist Slur'


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The campus far-left: Ruining the English language for all of us. This story—an argument between the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Smith College, a women's liberal arts school—is as insane an example of the zeal for self-censorship at college campuses as any.

Here's what happened: Wendy Kaminer, a First Amendment expert and member of FIRE's board of advisors, participated in a discussion about free speech at Smith College in September. Kaminer was unafraid to use the words n*gger and c*nt—instead of their frequent replacements, "the n-word" and "the c-word"—reasoning that saying the words aloud should be perfectly acceptable in an academic context. Hurling insults is one thing; addressing a taboo word in an intellectual setting is quite another, she said.

The usual outrage ensued. Kaminer was accused of committing "an explicit act of racial violence" by a student with a poor grasp of what violence entails. Smith College President Kathleen McCartney was criticized for not denouncing Kaminer—presumably, the muzzlers would have wanted her to yell "shush!" at the first sign of controversy.

But perhaps the most incredible facet of the debacle was the Smith College student newspaper's transcript of the Kaminer discussion, which was prefaced by the mother of all trigger warnings:

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.

You would be forgiven for thinking all this is absolutely crazy. Of course, if you expressed that sentiment at Smith College, you would be censored. Indeed, the word crazy was also deemed offensive. In that very same paper, the transcriber replaced all utterance of the word "crazy" with [ableist slur]. According to FIRE:

This censored transcript is therefore itself an excellent example of how censorship hurts dialogue. All instances of "nigger" are written as "[n-word]." Kaminer's use of the word "cunt"—which she used one time, to clarify a student's reference to "the c-word," was written as "[c-word]," resulting in this line in the transcript:

WK: And by, "the c-word," you mean the word [c-word]?

Clarification was evidently needed, considering that another c-word was also censored from the transcript:

Kathleen McCartney: … We're just wild and [ableist slur], aren't we?

That's right, wild and crazy. It took my colleagues and me a moment to figure that one out (it is audible in the audio recording of the panel). Despite this word apparently being too offensive to reproduce in the transcript, it was spoken by all three of the other panelists besides Kaminer, in addition to President McCartney.

It's impossible to overstate the sickly condition of the free exchange of ideas at the modern college campus. Harvey Silverglate, chairman of FIRE's board, diagnosed the problem excellently in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts." Silverglate used a metaphor of which I am also fond: Campus censors are like the cowardly wizards of the Harry Potter universe who are too afraid to speak the name of the dark lord, Voldemort, instead referring to him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or You-Know-Who. Harry Potter and some of his allies, however, are unafraid to utter his name. They correctly reason that making a word unsayable gives it undue power over their emotions.

If only college students were half as wise.