Campus Free Speech

The Great USC Chinese Homonym Panic of 2020

Global reactions, plus a question [UPDATE: which has been answered, see below]. (This post, put up yesterday afternoon, was bumped so people can see the UPDATE.)

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I wanted to follow up on this story briefly by linking to some news accounts of the matter—CNN (Jessie Yeung), BBC (Kerry Allen), and the New Zealand Herald; the first two add some material on international reactions, e.g. (from CNN):

The controversy has even made waves on social media across Asia; many in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China responded with disbelief, sympathy for Patton, and a fair bit of ridicule.

Numerous comments on the Chinese social media site Weibo pointed to the Chinese song "Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse" by Wowkie Zhang, in which nei ge is repeated throughout the chorus. [I listened to it, and it does have an absurd bizarro rap quality to it. -EV]

Other Weibo users echoed American criticisms that this may be an example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong, with a few comments likening the incident to "literary inquisition," the historical Chinese persecution of intellectuals for their writings.

"I've watched the video of the professor's class, and read the email letter his students sent, and the statement from the school," one person wrote on Weibo. "I only want to say, this is ridiculous. It's just too ridiculous."

[UPDATE: This question has been answered, see below.] I also wanted to mention an e-mail that I've been sending since Monday, in various versions, to various people. I haven't gotten any substantive answer, but I thought I'd flag the question:

One thing that nags me about the Patton matter is that all the news accounts report just that the complaint came in an e-mail by "Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022." Is there any information on how many students signed on to the e-mail, or confirmation that they were indeed black MBA candidates in the class of 2022? At least the counterletter from the 100+ students has names, and a few searches on the more unusual names suggest they check out. I just wonder whether this might have been either a prank that the Dean fell for [I assume not, but who knows?], or perhaps a reaction of a very small and unrepresentative group of black students who managed to be seen as speaking for black students generally just by dint of their signature.

Of course, it's also possible that this did come from all, most, or many of the class of 2022 black MBA candidates; and of course my substantive view on the matter doesn't turn on that. But I'm always interested, just as a student of organizational politics, in how these things develop (especially in a situation where a school should recognize that either of the obvious options can create possibly bad publicity, indeed possibly bad worldwide publicity).

If anyone does know the answer, please let me know!

UPDATE 9/12/2020, 2:38 pm: This post did indeed yield an answer, which appears to be that the complaint was signed by all the black MBA students in Prof. Patton's class, plus some white students—I much appreciate the information, which helps show the pressure under which the Dean was.

But I continue to think that the Dean reacted the wrong way to that pressure; indeed, the number of complainers just shows how serious a problem there is here. Apparently a considerable number of future businesspeople, who are going to a leading MBA program, are in a position where they seem to be bitterly offended (in their words, had their "mental health" "affected") by a word that many of them will likely have to hear on many occasions in their business life, if they ever visit a Chinese-speaking country, work around Chinese speakers who might speak casual Chinese to each other, or deal with Chinese clients, customers, or contractors who might do the same. The BBC story points out that this has at times yielded fights:

In July 2016, a fight broke out on the subway in the city of Southern Guangzhou, after a black man heard a Chinese man saying na-ge and mistook it for the N-word.

Footage went viral online showing the black man slapping the Chinese commuter and shouting "you dare try that again" and "never say that again"

More recently, in April this year, Taiwanese news website UDN reported that two men nearly came to blows on the island outside a restaurant over the same misunderstanding.

It's the job of our educational system to teach students not to react this way, either with fisticuffs or deep offense/trauma/mental injury/psychological injury, to a simple accidental homonym. It is not, as I understand human psychology, a difficult task. It is something that many American blacks who study Chinese apparently learn without great difficulty (see, e.g., https://twitter.com/vicmarsh/status/1301928063865729024 and https://twitter.com/BLKChinaCaucus/status/1301931390917840898). It is something that people who speak multiple languages routinely learn (and have to learn). It is well within the power of a business school to teach. It is not, however, the path that the USC Business School seems to have chosen.

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  1. It sounds like you are getting closer and closer to cracking what is probably the biggest case of 2020. Just watch out for those darn, meddling, kids!

    1. The Scooby Gang has moved on.

      Shaggy has gone into business for himself – “like, I can’t believe it’s legal now!”

      Scooby is enjoying his new, improved Scooby Snacks.

      Fred has gone into engineering – his wife Daphne manages the business.

      Velma teaches science at a community college – she used to be a distinguished professor at an Ivy League school until they purged her for using the word “jinkies,” a word which they figured was probably racist because they couldn’t figure out what else it could mean.

    2. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it came from a WHITE student(s).

      1. And again — cui bono?

  2. I am long removed from the college scene, but I’d guess that any 3 week MBA class is not going to be packed with students, and there may well be so few black students in it that “all” could have been “offended”.

  3. Gotta love that Chinese song

  4. “Numerous comments on the Chinese social media site Weibo pointed to the Chinese song “Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse” by Wowkie Zhang, in which nei ge is repeated throughout the chorus. [I listened to it, and it does have an absurd bizarro rap quality to it. -EV]”

    Oh, man. Play that 24 hours straight on all channels and all the Prog’s heads will explode.

    1. Jerry,
      Have you heard any progressives here singing the praise of the school’s response? This seems like a situation where the reaction of both conservatives and liberals has been quite similar.

      I’m concerned for you . . . in your paranoid and delusional universe, is it really filled with faux progressive whose heads would explode? Would that be a literal explosion or a metaphorical explosion? In your fantasy world, is Trump leading Biden in the polls so far? Just trying to get a sense of how grounded in reality you are/are not. Asking for a friend.

      1. You mean the polls that said Hillary would win, until she didn’t?

        1. The polls said Hillary would get more votes than Trump, and she did.

          1. They also said she would win the election. It is a bit early for this kind of historical revisionism.

            1. A 70 to 95% chance of winning doesn’t mean that she would be guaranteed to win.

              Most people, unfortunately, incorrectly interpret a high percentage.

              1. Agreed. But Google – it is instructive s to what the polls were saying.

                1. The above should have been Google the phrase ‘polls “Hillary will win” ‘

      2. “in your paranoid and delusional universe,”

        Is his paranoid and delusional universe… USC?

        1. Okay, that was pretty funny. (And on point, sadly.)

        2. USC = University of Spoiled Children….

      3. Sure, look no further than 5 responses down, at the comment from Commenter334

      4. Sorry, but if you don’t support the idea that this professor should be disciplined for saying the Mandarin word for “that”, you’re no true Progressive.

        1. Well, I’m a Republican. Can I be Republican, pro gun rights, and also a progressive? I guess I’m pretty liberal on most of the other major social issues, so I’d like to think I can wear both of those hats at the same time. 🙂

          1. If you wish to be politically relevant from here on, I encourage you to consider joining the Democratic Party and working to improve it.

            Unless you live in some desolate backwater . . . the Republicans will continue to lord over those southern and rural stretches for some time, so if you want to be Prothonotary in Can’t-Keep-Up, Alabama, Sheriff of Outer Jesusland, Idaho, I’d recommend sticking with the Republican Party.

  5. As I said in a previous comment, the anonymous students who wrote this letter are cowards. They are trying to ruin someone’s life to further their political agenda. They are treating him like a prop, but he is a human being. In addition, their statement concerning the word’s pronunciation was an intentional lie. USC should investigate the origin of this letter, and take appropriate disciplinary action.

    1. The USC administration does not have the cojones to do that.

    2. Scott,
      Was the letter anonymous? From reading elsewhere, it was my understanding that all the black students (and some of the white students) in this section signed the letter. How would this be known if it were anonymous?

      1. This came out after my post.

  6. According to the USC Marshall class profile of 2022 full time MBA students, there are 217 in the class, of which 23% (50) are black, latinx, American Indian, Alaskan native, Hawaiian Native, or Pacific Islander.
    If, in fact, the letter came from black MBA students in the Marshall School of Business, there were, at most 50.
    Of the three links to news articles at the top of the post, two say it was a “letter” (not an email) that was received. The third (BBC) doesn’t say one way or the other. That would make it even harder to figure out who it actually came from.

    1. Cui bono?

      That’s who did it….

  7. No one is saying the Chinese can’t say that word. They’re saying people can’t use the use of that word as pretext to marginalize and make black people uncomfortable.

    This whole debate touches on the most critical issue surrounding discrmination — it’s not over, it’s covert, pretextual and underhanded.

    You can see it in the comments under related posts in this blog, in which a few users constantly use the word “niggardly” — always pretending to use it for its formal meaning when it’s clear what they’re doing.

    1. I think it’s clear what you’re doing….

    2. What you mean is that affirmative action having failed, it is time to make a new excuse, i.e., unconscious bias.
      Now we have policies aimed at URMs and OPCs (other people of color). We all know the lists of URMs, blacks, native Americans, and hispanics.
      BUT who are OPCs? Really. Who are they?
      Are Sicilian OPCs? Do Indians need special treatment? Thy seem to have done damned well in the tech sector. Are Chinese OPCs but not Japanese who often have very white skin?
      Isn’t this just the new excuse for treating people differently based on the color of their skin.
      Admit it. It is just a new racism

      1. Not unconscious at all. It’s intentional and schemed.

        “I want to discriminate against this black person but I can’t say that, so let me find some fake pretext.”

        “I want to make this black person uncomfortable by using the n-word around them, but I can’t just say that, so let me pretend like I’m using that Chinese word.” Not saying the prof did this, but some do.

        1. “It’s intentional and schemed.”

          Except that, in the case at hand, it isn’t.

          The notion that we should only punish the guilty isn’t as unfair as you seem to think it is.

          1. He’s speaking more generally: Not saying the prof did this, but some do.

            I’m not sure I agree with him – some of those gleefully finding excuses to say slurs or slur-adjacent words are doing so purely for free-speech reasons.
            Defending the right to be an a-hole by acting like an a-hole makes you an a-hole, just not quite the same type of a-hole.

            Note that I’m saying finding excuses. Not quoting or using for legit effect.

        2. And with this goes the unspoken assumption that all non-Black people are racists against Blacks, and only speak certain words they’ve used all their lives just to be insulting.

        3. I think it far more likely that the letter-signers were intentionally raising a fuss over nothing than that the professor was trying to sneak in derogatory comments.

    3. All of that dishonesty in one comment. ‘No one’ is in fact telling any Chinese person openly that they cannot use the word. The effect is slightly more subtle, but, I suspect you are aware of this.

      As for your argument about use of niggardly, what is it that you think the speaker is clearly doing? There’s a word for this, psychological projection. In tandem with the tendency to deconstruct text in order to make it fit a preconceived bias, this doesn’t make your arguments compelling.

  8. Four or five posts on this, nothing on Trump banning a reporter for publishing a truthful account.

    Free expression, clinger-style.

    1. You don’t know what free expression is.

    2. A non-troll would provide a link – preferably to a site not behind a paywall.

      1. Here’s a link (to a clinger-friendly source, apparently wall-free).

    3. I agree with Professor Volokh’s blog priorities. The problem illustrated here is not just a single misunderstanding in a single classroom. It will cause major problems for every Chinese language instruction program in the country. It has already resulted in absurd confrontations in Chinese speaking countries. It can easily lead to ugly destructive confrontations in the U.S. as well, outside of Prof. Patton’s USC classroom. Try to step outside of your own narrow American-centric viewpoint for a moment, instead of responding to the issue with sarcasm.

  9. “It’s the job of our educational system to teach students not to react this way”

    THIS. All of this. For all of this that’s going on. Why are our colleges failing at actually educating students when these things happen? What is wrong with all of these adults who just roll over and assume that all these immature brats are right and rule the roost?

  10. There is a new article in the National Review that uses the Patton controversy to illustrate the problems with cancel culture. Headline: Cancel Culture Is Not the Problem; Conformity Culture Is.
    Excerpts: Patton’s “case also serves as a warning that, while cancel culture is a real phenomenon that presents a clear and present danger to academic freedom, a more insidious peril lurks: the soft despotism of presumed conformity.”
    “He was educating students about Chinese language and culture, yet was canceled in the name of cultural diversity. Patton’s lesson pertained to the use of language, yet his dean, Geoffrey Garrett, misused the obligatory word “safety” (Oxford English Dictionary: “the state of being protected from or guarded against hurt or injury”) to describe the anxieties offended students felt.”
    “All these episodes are problematic. They invert the purpose of learning, which inherently entails discomfort, as well as a baseline condition for scholarly inquiry, which is academic freedom.”
    “A larger question looms behind them: Who never speaks in the first place? One can imagine junior faculty, in particular, treating Patton as a cautionary tale: Offend students, get suspended. But even that is rooted in the shock and awe of prominent cases.”
    “To be sure, cancellation is a cudgel for conformity.”
    “Many proponents of critical race theory — whose animating idea is that race is the one thing needful, the single lens through which all other phenomena should be viewed — are indeed trying to compel compliance. But even more simply operate on the belief that everyone agrees with them.”
    “There was a similar inversion of words in a recent online town-hall meeting at Northwestern University’s law school. It featured the spectacle — at once bizarre and predictable — of individuals denouncing themselves as racists and promising to “do better” in the future. Here, too, the Maosim was chilling.”
    “Yet the assumption behind this softer and more insidious version is that no one disagrees to begin with. It is not an attempt to tyrannize through dominant opinion. It rests, rather, on an unreflective presupposition that dominant opinion is universally shared. This is not cancel culture. It is conformity culture.”

  11. 1987 in Baltimore, I was doing Post-doc work in a lab with mostly Chinese folks – a great cross-cultural experience. The only other white male was 6ft2in tall, thin, with flame-red hair. I was 5ft9in, stocky, with dull reddish-brown hair. They kept confusing us say all you Americans look alike. Ethnic and cultural cues were very different…

    In discussing a recent movie release, I called it Dark Humor, which fascinated them. Later, I heard them say I liked Black Jokes. It took some ‘splaining to sort that before things got out on hand. Johns Hopkins Med wasn’t in a neighborhood where Black Jokes were in vogue, although Uptown near JHU, they were a staple of everyday conversation in the white, working-class neighborhood where I lived.

    1. I guess Black Comedy is now cancelled, except when referring to Tyler Perry’s movies.

  12. A roommate from India used the term “Red Indians” to distinguish between Native Americans and his countrymen. I knew what he meant, but quietly suggested that others might not…

    1. I think it was fairly common British expression at one time. I heard it in an old movie recently. It makes a sort of sense for the British to have a way to differentiate between Asian Indians and and American Indians.

  13. “Apparently a considerable number of future businesspeople, who are going to a leading MBA program, are in a position where they seem to be bitterly offended (in their words, had their “mental health” “affected”) by a word that many of them will likely have to hear on many occasions in their business life, if they ever visit a Chinese-speaking country, work around Chinese speakers who might speak casual Chinese to each other, or deal with Chinese clients, customers, or contractors who might do the same. The BBC story points out that this has at times yielded fights: …”

    Eugene, I think the way you’ve repeatedly cast this situation may be a red herring. I’m pretty sure that Patton’s black MBA students, now that they know of the Mandarin word “neige” including its use as a filler word, won’t be offended at all by its use in any of the situations you describe. That would be silly. (I also suspect that the people mentioned in the BBC story who interepreted “neige” as a fighting word were unaware of its meaning or its role as a filler word, and thought they were being called “nigger”).

    I suspect that to the extent they were truly offended by the classroom event (and I’m not ruling out the possibility that some are jumping on the bandwagon for other reasons), it’s because of Patton’s threefold repetition of the word, to an English-speaking class – and not just any class, but a class in cross-cultural communication, in which students might reasonably expect the prof to not only teach, but also to role-model, effective & sensitive cross-cultural communication.

    I know you’re not black so it’s a bit of a stretch, but can you see reasonable black students getting upset and/or disturbed by such behavior? I certainly can, mainly because it was both intentional and unnecessary (Prof. Patton could easily have made his filler-word and neige-awareness points without a threefold, or even one-fold, repetition, of the “nigga” sound, though perhaps not quite so memorably).

    Actually, I think that pretty much everyone involved could have done a better job of seeing things from others’ perspectives, including most discussants here. I know it stretches credulity, but that might even extend to me.

    1. Certainly an interesting argument, but I observe that you twice spelled out the offensive word to make your point (once with an “er,” once with an “a”).

      1. Thanks Eddy. As the last line of my original comment suggests, I might even be convinced my use of those two words was inappropriate. Do you think that any of this somehow rebuts the point I was trying to make?

        1. I don’t like the idea of someone uttering the word who isn’t either (a) black or (b) Cypress Hill. There can be rare circumstances where it’s necessary to use it, but I see these as rare exceptions.

          As to similar-sounding words, especially in foreign languages…that’s a different matter, and I suspect that the beleaguered USC prof wasn’t thinking “wow, that sounds like n-word!”

          By this stage of the controversy I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid offending *someone.* An entire nation uses a similar sounding word without racial intent, and I doubt the’d give it up. But in practice Americans who know both languages will reduce their use of it.

          I suppose I tend to view these things through the frame of hapless prof versus woke scolds, and this may affect my way of viewing the matter.

    2. I ‘m calling bullshit. If they interpreted Patton’s use as malicious in the classroom, it is fairly likely they will do the same in other situations with other speakers.

      1. Hank, the scenario in Patton’s class is very different from the scenarios listed by Eugene. I tried to list the differences in my comment, and suggest how they might affect listeners’ reactions. Not sure you read my comment carefully.

    3. If, instead of Chinese, the prof had, like used Valley Girl, to, like, make his point about, like, you know, filler words, and ‘like’ was offensive in some language[1], would you still be offended that he had used the word, like, three times?

      [1]because the multi-language offensive word problem is like the birthday paradox – there are enough words and languages that every word is offensive in some language.

      1. That is a different scenario, Ab. In Patton’s case the audience the audience spoke was English, and the offensive term was an English term.

        1. “and the offensive term was an English term.”

          Ummmm… ‘那个’ isn’t an English term.

      2. Of course not, Ab. That would be silly. But that is not the situation Patton’s students faced.

  14. Abusers use this technique on their victims to manipulate their behavior. “If you do or say X it will cause me harm and you don’t want to harm me do you?

    It’s called emotional blackmail and no one should tolerate it.

    1. Was thinking same, this is a passive aggressive technique often used by serial abusers, child abusers, sexual abusers, et cetera. They also tend to perceive themselves as victims; our society has made too much of victimhood.

  15. “It’s the job of our educational system to teach students not to react this way, either with fisticuffs or deep offense/trauma/mental injury/psychological injury, to a simple accidental homonym…”

    The problem is that the ritual of the religion these schools practice is that, if someone says you’ve offended them, you apologize for the pain you caused them. That’s what the professor and dean did.

    Sometimes its the schools’ job to tell students that, it a particular case, it’s stupid to be offended. But their religion prevents them from doing this.

  16. Note who is acting ignorant and intolerant here. Any standards for their behavior? No, of course not.

    The woke religion gets a pass for any and all conduct, no matter how mean, how unjust, how intolerant, harmful, evil, and downright stupid it is.

    There’s no need to ever give the woke or their apologists the benefit of the doubt on anything, nor to ever assume they are acting in good faith. They could acknowledge their mistake at any time in this situation if they wanted to be viewed as thinking individuals with integrity.

    1. These double standards are revealing, isn’t it? You have to be very careful with the words you use around the woke crowd because the wrong words can cause them emotional and physical harm. Trigger words, et cetera.
      At the same time, the woke crowd has no such similar concerns about being careful with their words, with what they say. They can call you a racist and fascist and essentially demand that you be removed from your employment at the slightest offense. Are they ever told that their “trigger” words cause harm? That they need to be careful? No.
      This is an unbelievably mean spirited and crude movement that our more reasonable liberal friends need to confront. Many just keep dismissing these incidents as “anecdotes”; they’re not.

  17. I can remember when the Berlitz language book teaching German had a warning that the word for “bright” wasn’t a swearword in German. (It’s “hell”)

  18. Isn’t it the Great USC Chinese HOMOPHONE Panic of 2020? A homonym is where two words are pronounced and spelled the same way (the animal “bat” and the big stick “bat”). A homophone is where two words are pronounced the same way but spelled differently (“two” and “too” and “to”). A homograph is where two words are pronounced differently but spelled the same (“axes” the plural of “ax” and “axes” the plural of “axis”).

    1. “Homonym” includes (see, e.g., dictionary.com), “a word pronounced the same as another but differing in meaning, whether spelled the same way or not, as heir and air; a homophone (def. 1).”

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