John McWhorter on Cursing, Anti-Racism, and Why 'We Need to Stop Being So Afraid'

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter on "anti-racism" as a new, misguided civic religion and his new book on curses, Nine Nasty Words.


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If advocates of "wokeness," "critical race theory," and "anti-racism" seem to be acting like religious zealots who must crush all heretics, that's because they are, argued Columbia University linguist John McWhorter at a 2018 debate at the Soho Forum.

"Anti-racism as currently configured has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism to today [being] a religion," said McWhorter. "I don't mean that as a rhetorical thing. It actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith."

The 55-year-old author first explored his idea of anti-racism as "Our Flawed New Religion" in a 2015 essay at The Daily Beast. He's expanding the concept into a book, due out next year, that he's serializing on Substack. Tentatively titled The Elect, it lays out his argument about the misguided fervor undergirding the anti-racist movement championed by people such as Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Meanwhile, McWhorter's latest volume to hit store shelves is Nine Nasty Words, a study of how curse words such as fuck and the N-word became commonplace, unsayable, or something in between. Reason's Nick Gillespie talked with McWhorter about the shifting status of curse words and accusations of systemic racism in contemporary America.

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  1. I’d like to see this guy in a round table with Chomsky.

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  2. “I don’t mean that as a rhetorical thing. It actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith.”

    Interesting that he throws the ‘naive’ quilifier on there. Like, despite his own lamentations about the ambiguity from his position in the current era, it’s the anthropologist’s fault for not being able to distinguish the two.

    1. No he’s saying an anthropologist who was not tainted with all of the context surrounding anti racism. He’s saying that if this anti racism happened on another planet, our anthropologists would call it “faith”. But because it happened here, and anthropologists have been caught up in the middle of it, being in academia, they probably do not recognize it as faith.

      He’s saying that their current biases don’t let them see it as faith.

      1. To me, that woud be encapsulated in the word ‘anthropologist’, someone who’s inextricably removed from the culture, as opposed to a reporter, pundit, philosopher, maven, magnate, etc.

        1. Contemporary American anthropology would be meaningless semantic babble AFAICT.

          1. agreed. Because if it dont fit the narrative and dont finish with the “appropriate outcome”–Equity based can fix of course–then its something that ends in Ism or Phobe

      2. That’s the way I read it also.

    2. I would read the “naive” there as without previous bias towards how to interpret the concept.

      1. Yeah, I also figured it was a technical usage and not at all pejorative.

        1. Again, to me, ‘anthropologist’ rather than academic or casual/unwitting observer or whatever implies social detachment and/or impartiality. The ‘naive’ in “naive scientist” or even “naive specialist” is explicitly derogatory.

          But I admit to clinging to antiquated notions that scientists strive for impartiality/non-bias by default.

      2. exactly. a trusting anthropologist without preconceived notions on the matter.

      3. Yeah, sort of analogous to the way a physician might describe a patient as opiate naive – ie. no prior exposure.

        1. Except, presumably, an anthropologist has prior exposure to human culture. ‘Naive heroin user’ doesn’t bode well for the heroin user.

  3. Does anyone recall the chatter, following BHO’s election in 2008, regarding the prospect of living in a “post racial society?”

    Not a chance in hell will that ever be allowed to happen.

    1. The motherfucker was elected president (fairly convincingly) twice with no real accomplishments to speak of, and he’s still not done punishing us for all our sins, real and imagined.

    2. As I recall, OWS was attacking the rich from the left and the Tea Party was attacking overspending from the right, so then it was all racism all the time.

    3. I think it was talked about, but fairly minimally. Honestly, the closest we really ever got to a no-shit “post-racial” society was probably the late 90s, when the Boomers were in the early peak as far as their political power was concerned. They had been the ones who took the “equal opportunity” ideology and MLK’s speech about not judging people by their skin color to heart.

      Unfortunately, Peggy McIntosh’s poisonous essay on white privilege, Francis Cress Welsing’s race-centered writings, and all of their even more toxic intellectual children were making their way through academia at this time. The Gen-Xers and later on, Millennials, in graduate schools fully embraced these ideologies and went on to indoctrinate a whole new slew of students themselves.

      1. Chapelle’s Show, Undercover Brother, How High, and much else – none of these could ever be made today.

        I called it when Obama was elected: it would make race relations worse. Not because people would object to having a black president, but because all opposition to his policies “to fundamentally transform America” would be met with immediate screeching about “rAcIsM”. What the left has done to this country over the past decade is unforgivable.

        1. Leftists don’t need your forgiveness. It’s your compliance they want. And it looks like they’re getting it bit by bit. You’re too cowed to opine under your real name, hiding behind a pseudonym, for example.

          1. You’re absolutely correct. I suggest showing this piker how it’s really done. Please provide us with your full name, address, name of employer, and telephone numbers where you can be reached. Show the world what true courage looks like. Or maybe shut the fuck up and stop calling out others on shit you’ll never dream of doing, you bitch.

            1. Another coward hiding behind a pseudonym.

  4. “…punishing us for all our sins, real and imagined”

    The sin part certainly has expanded since then; I find that I am now a cis gendered white supremacist privileged mother fucker. I had no idea, back in 2008.

    1. It’s a religion that believed in original sin, but denies any hope of salvation. After we die go to an eternity of struggle sessions.

      1. Which makes it even more incomprehensible that so many people are signing up for it. I guess the fear of being called “racist” is a powerful motivator.

        1. It’s shallow and requires no thinking while receiving collective approval.

        2. “the fear of being called “racist” is a powerful motivator.”

          We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.

      2. Don’t forget the perpetual indulgences (“Donate to my Venmo/Patreon if you don’t want to be racist.”)

      3. Holy Crap, that would be Hell.

  5. Only the left is afraid. As it should be.

  6. Anti-racism is racism.

    1. Not even passive racism, but active racism

  7. curse words such as fuck and the N-word

    Come on, buddy. Don’t let the shrill dickheads rule your language. There’s no reason you shouldn’t write “nigger” there. Mention of a bad word isn’t bad. There are no magic spells.

    1. Along with my niggahs, I think that nigger is a positively delightful word.

      Why don’t my niggahs want me to enjoy it too?

      Racist motherfuckers don’t want to share their victim gold cards.

    2. “There are no magic spells.”

      There are taboos.

      1. “a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing:“

        Inalienable rights supersede taboos.

        1. If you want to be a social outcast, then exercise those rights. If you want to live among society, respect the taboo.

          1. which taboo?


            1. In this case it’s the N-word taboo. Any more questions?

          2. My greatest fear is being reincarnated as one of the obliviously stupid masses.

      2. What is absolutely idiotic to me is that Fuck is now so socially accepted in public that it can be worn on shirts in the mall while Nigger is pushed to social leprosy. And lefty-“libertarians”, that championed Fuck in public usage, have no issue with the social stigma attached to Nigger.

        I’ll know we have turned a corner when libertarians begin agitating for the social stigma around the “n-word” be dropped the same way it was for the “f-word”.

        1. Thought police is as though police does.

          The appropriate response when these types proclaim themselves ‘libertarian’ is to point and laugh.

      3. I have no problem with the taboo on calling people niggers. But the idea that the word can’t ever be uttered or written by someone who is not black is absurd and racist and should be resisted.

  8. This guy has taken his role of house negro a little too seriously.

    1. And the socialist can’t help being a racist.

      1. I mean, if you’re more concerned about people being woke compared to Black people being shot by police then you have a pretty serious problem with priorities. Ever watch him? I have. His problem isn’t his ideas— which are run-of-the-mill Republican. It’s that he’s an insufferable pendant. Is pointing that out racist? Man, that’s pretty woke.

        1. His problem isn’t his ideas— which are run-of-the-mill Republican

          Which is weird, for a self-described “liberal Democrat.”

          1. Yeah… every run-of-the-mill right winger these days claims to be a liberal Democrat or a former liberal. Big deal.

        2. He’s an insufferable Pedant… not an insufferable shiny bracelet. My mistake.

        3. It’s possible to be concerned about both. In fact, I’d say one ought to be concerned about both if one cares about improving racial disparities and race relations. The “woke” are not doing much that will actually help with the problem of police shooting people inappropriately. And are doing a lot to make racial problems worse.

  9. “It actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith.”

    A faith or religion is a set of beliefs and practices that unify people and give them strength. It’s not a bad way to go for a social movement.

    And I don’t see that much difference between the ‘intelligent and sincere’ activism of yesteryear and that of today. Back then the movement was led by religious figures like King and Malcolm X. There were also tremendous outbursts of violence and the formation of militant groups like the Black Panthers.

    I guess the biggest difference between now and then is the Internet and advances in communication. There isn’t the emphasis on large demonstrations, neighborhood patrols, or food distribution. Attacking the racist today is a matter of targeting individuals on Twitter, cell phone cameras, DOXing them and so on.

    1. I don’t think any set of beliefs that unify people and give them strength would be a religion. A religion has to have tenets that you take on faith – that is, aren’t subject to empirical validation or logical analysis. Otherwise its not a religion.

      1. We often use ‘religion’ in a confusing way. Climate science is a religion, you may read in these pages. Or Black Lives Matter, as in the article above. My definition of religion is a set of beliefs and practices that allow us to interact with the supernatural. The unity people find in religion is only secondary. There are lots of ways to unify people the way religions do. The military has been doing it for centuries – there’s no logical analysis that causes soldiers to sacrifice themselves for their comrades.

    2. The other big difference is that MLK, at least, was actually opposed to racism rather than just wanting a different flavor of racism as today’s woke activists do.

      1. According to John McWhorter, today’s activists are faith based, as opposed to the intelligent and sincere activists of the past. He thinks this is bad, somehow, but he doesn’t say it’s racist. My definition of racism: the idea that one’s race (usually skin color) is one’s essential defining characteristic. I don’t think this is what defines today’s woke activists. To them (at least the most militant among them) one’s attitude to racism (as defined above) is one’s essential defining characteristic.

        1. I dont accept his words and definitions. Maybe we need to play their game too

          1. If your goal is intelligence and sincerity, you should be aiming higher, Don’t bet against Black, though. And don’t make them your enemy. For some time now they land on the right side of history in any American internal conflict which has a racial dimension. Basically all of them.

      2. Well MLK wasnt really. He called for affirmative actions. Such things always lead to where we are today. ANd take a little more look at his faith. Didnt accept the divinity of Christ yet called himself a Christian?

        1. You may be finished with the past, but the past isn’t finished with you.

  10. So Interesting that he throws the ‘naive’ quilifier on there. Like, despite his own lamentations about the ambiguity from his position in the current era, it’s the anthropologist’s fault for
    https://wapexclusive.com , not being able to distinguish the two.

  11. This guy likes to play both sides of the table. When we say nothing then its the dance of pretending to be against such article headlines. But the minute one of us talks then its the solemn and whuimpering faces of the R words raising its head again. They bait with Dial logue then always end with lecture-logue

  12. It’s somewhat ironic that McWhorter talks about white people wanting black people to give them an official “not racist” badge they can wave around and be superior while Nick Gillespie is very clearly doing exactly that. Let’s not pretend Gillespie would have ever arranged this kind of interview with a white professor. It has to be a black guy because only a black man can confer the communion of “not racist” upon the white man.

  13. “It has to be a black guy because only a black man can confer the communion of “not racist” upon the white man.

    So what? Only a priest can confer communion on a supplicant. Americans have long been willing to look on blacks as spiritual and moral leaders. The first abolitionists were all clergy or deeply religious. In Hollywood these days, they employ the ‘magic negro’ someone like the prisoner in the Green Mile, and many many more.

    1. Mr. McWhorter seems a little frustrated by the religious-ization of anti-racism. I simply found it strange that he professes that while he actively engages in it. I suppose that’s a bit unfair to him because he can’t choose to make himself white in order to make his argument outside of the priest robes of blackness. I just think in an ideal world you wouldn’t need a black person on hand in order to talk about race relations. We don’t require gynecologists to be women, why do we require proof of not being racist from minorities?

    2. Yes, mysticism.

      Fill your taboots.

  14. “we require proof of not being racist from minorities?”

    That’s a bit strong. I don’t feel I need a black stamp of approval, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

    “Mr. McWhorter seems a little frustrated by the religious-ization of anti-racism.”

    He’s a man of the Enlightenment, basically science good, religion bad. He even criticizes, bizarrely to my mind, today’s activists for not being ‘logical’ like MLK.


  15. The N-word is now so toxic that the sound-alike “niggardly” is also taboo, academic objections to its use going back over 20 years.

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