Whittington on Offensive Speech in the Classroom

Princeton University's Keith Whittington explains why it is sometimes wise -- even necessary -- to expose students to potentially offensive material


In recent weeks there have been several controversies on university campuses over professors' use of offensive langauge in class. Princeton University professor Keith Whittington, author of the forthcoming book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, addresses these controversies in a post at "Academe," the blog of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Here's a taste:

If professors are to lead students on intensive investigations of the taboo, the obscene, and the offensive, whether in the context of an anthropology class, a law class, a journalism class, or a literature class, they will have to expose students to the obscene and the offensive. If students are to understand and grapple with the things that push at cultural boundaries, they will need to be able to scrutinize those things and those boundaries. While euphemisms and indirection are sometimes appropriate and adequate, there are times when the scholarly enterprise will require confronting that which is offensive directly. There are circumstances in which experiencing the offense might well be a necessary condition for making progress in understanding and analyzing the offensive. It is certainly easier to look closely only at those things that might have been offensive to our grandparents or in a distant culture, but if we must avoid those things that are actually offensive to us then the scope of our studies will necessarily have to shrink and the quality of our education will necessarily suffer.

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  1. The greater the taboo, the greater the gratification.

    Notice the trend of Scandinavian joke search below:

    goggled trend
    deep secrets revealed

    1. I’m not sure there is an easy answer to the question of epithets self-usage. On one hand you have “the slants”, who make a compelling case for artfully “lessening the power” of the epithet. While there are other examples of epithets in the black and gay communities were the self-usage is questionable, as it is gratuitous.

      There are definite situations in which epithets are used for subjugation and blame purposes, in which they are not just hurtful, but most substantially harmful.

      1. This comment was in reply to Eidde below

  2. Is Professor Cornel West in trouble? He criticizes use of a particular word, but shares an album with others who use it.


  3. The truth is never offensive.
    If you think it is, you are wrong.
    Learn it, deal with it.

    1. Interesting. I just recently tried to discuss with other Reason commenters the historical truth (as I take it to be, anyway) that every enduring nation since the middle ages has been constituted by a sovereign wielding unlimited power. To suggest the libertarians were offended understates the reaction. I will be interested to get reaction from them to your insight.

      Note: this is not a suggestion to renew that discussion of sovereignty.

      1. I don’t know which discussion you’re referring to in your comment, but if it was like many of these others, the offensive part is not your views about specific historical facts, but your completely unearned smug superiority.

        (The fact that Longtobefree talked about the truth and you equated that with the truth as you take it to be is indicative.)

      2. Having followed that thread, I can say that reactions you provoked were not offense at the truth about sovereignty but vocal disagreements with your assertion that that is the truth.

        In other words, the Truth can not be offensive but one person’s misguided opinion about what he/she thinks the truth is might be.

        1. A Supreme Court litigator trying to win a case by fat shaming a judge is offensive.

        2. Rossami, I would be grateful if you would quote me anything you can find from that thread which qualifies as a “disagreement” with what I asserted. I got back ideological pronouncements, denials, ipse dixits to the contrary, subject changes, but not, as far as I can recall, any substantive disagreement. I challenged commenters to cite historical instances to the contrary, and not one such example came up. I expected to have to cope with something about Switzerland, maybe, or Iceland, or the Navajo nation, or maybe something completely new to me. Nothing.

          Or maybe I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Can you help me out?

          1. I’m unaware of whatever thread you’re talking about, but off the top of my head, of European countries, it isn’t true of England/GB (note that you’ve completely failed already) or France, and Italy, Germany, and Russia didn’t exist. So maybe Spain?

            1. Tell me what you think is the founding event for each of those countries you mention, and we can see if we have any areas of agreement. The founding event would be the one which put in place the governmental system which rules today. Please note, I’m not talking about “during the middle ages,” but instead at any time since.

              1. Great Britain/the UK was formed after the Magna Carta. QED

                1. Careless, what do you think you proved? That because the king’s sovereignty was challenged successfully, English sovereignty was at an end? I suggest it was merely transferred to the king’s challengers.

                  Sovereign doesn’t mean “king.” Sovereign means having power to constitute a government without constraint. In cases of multi-party sovereignty, which are common, the sovereign power is shared, without being diminished in the aggregate.

                  Sovereignty in one model?a sovereign parliament, for instance?can be challenged, defeated and replaced by sovereignty in another model?popular sovereignty in the U.S., for instance.

                  Not all locales have sovereigns. Places which have had sovereigns can see them challenged, and see the principle of sovereign government lost in the result of the challenge.

                  I am suggesting that history shows it has been an enduring feature of nation states to be organized under sovereign rulers (of whatever kind) who enjoy the power to constitute governments. And I suggest conversely, that where that condition has not existed results tending toward anarchy are the usual result, along with the collapse of national identity.

                  There may be exceptions. I have asked if anyone knows of examples. So far, no candidates.

            2. As a proxy for a founding event, you could at least in some cases consider the event which put the nation within (or approximately within) its present boundaries.

    2. If you aren’t offended by the truth; if you don’t find some parts of our reality deeply offensive, I don’t want to know you.

      Offense exists for a reason – it is an agent of change. If you are only offended by fiction, you are an agent of stasis.

  4. New Gallup survey out today shows a majority (53%) of college students think that “inclusivity” is more important that “protecting free speech.” While holding some abstract notion of “free speech” that they view as important, this would not include anything offensive. Even The Washington Post sums it up accurately in their headline today, “College students support free speech ? unless it offends them.”

    1. Take a look across the pond if you’re not clear on the paramount importance of crushing the totalitarian P.C. groupthink intellectual stronghold, and of a cultural revival of classical liberal values and free speech.

      In the UK, yet another scandal has surfaced in which child rape rings have abused thousands of victims for decades — all while the authorities blatantly ignored it, apparently due to fears of being charged with “racism” if they dared to go after the perpetrators. Here’s an idea of what this produced:

      “Night after night, I was forced to have sex with multiple men in disgusting takeaways and filthy houses.

      “I must have been getting the morning after pill from a local clinic at least twice a week but no one asked any questions.

      “I fell pregnant twice and had two abortions. Hours after my second termination, I was taken by one of my abusers to be raped by more men.

      “The worst moment came just after my 16th birthday when I was drugged and gang raped by five men.

      “Days later, the ringleader turned up at my house and told me he’d burn it down if I breathed a word of what had happened.”

      1. Lucy Lowe, 16, was killed in 2000 along with her mother and sister after her 26-year-old abuser Azhar Ali Mehmood set fire to their house.

        Cabbie Mehmood targeted Lucy in 1997 and she was just 14 when she gave birth to his daughter.

        He was jailed for murdering Lucy, her mum Eileen and 17-year-old sister Sarah.

        But he was never arrested nor charged in connection with any child sex crimes over his illegal relationship with the schoolgirl.

        Lucy’s death was used as a warning to other girls, according to victims. One, drugged and gang raped by nine men two years later, said the threats drove her to attempt suicide.

        She said: “I was scared my family would die like Lucy’s. I thought they’d only be safe if I killed myself.”

        1. Compared to the above, this a lot less grisly, but it appears the UK is also now detaining, deporting and banning people from their country for the crime of being “right wing” on Twitter. I assume right wing here means any sort of full throated objection to mass migration and the EU’s open border policies..

          1. In the UK, yet another scandal has surfaced in which child rape rings have abused thousands of victims for decades — all while the authorities blatantly ignored it, apparently due to fears of being charged with “racism” if they dared to go after the perpetrators.

            Alright, chief.

            But thanks for the vivid imagery – I always like my outrage being manipulated towards a policy narrative. Graphic descriptions of horrible things happening to girls is always the key to good decisions.

            Quit with the propaganda and prove your case.

            1. Yes, in fact it’s more than apparent. How many mainstream UK links would you like to see attesting to this fact?


              I’m sorry if the gruesome details of real world events and consequences bother you and make you unable to think rationally. Maybe that it bothers you is a good thing and in fact the whole point. As far as being about to think rationally or make decisions, you’ll have to work that out, but facing up to uncomfortable realities can only help.

              1. That’s some lame concern trolling. You know what those details are in service of, and it’s to persuade, not inform.

                It’s not the details that bother me – one must come to grips with the fact that horrible things like that happen every day across the world. Instead, it’s that you are using the details in service of your thesis.

                It’s ghoulish and manipulative and has with only the weakest bearing on the benefits of the policy you’re advocating for.

                1. I’m not advocating for a policy, I’m advocating for a cultural revival.

                  I don’t think discussing these matters is manipulative, I think it’s important. In fact, silencing or downplaying it would be manipulative.

                  1. Cultural revival against being politically correct?

                    That’s hardly a cultural revival. You dressed up your policy into a bow tie to make it seem, if not supported, at least super noble.

                    Regardless of what it is, you are making a morally compromised case for it.

                    You are literally just pulling a blood-soaked ‘won’t somebody please think of the children/’

                    1. Hmmm. Ok, you convinced me — it is a good cultural thing for law enforcement to be so scared of liars crying racism, that they ignore criminal enterprises that gang rape children and groom them for fun and profit.

                      Or, maybe it is a bad cultural thing, but the rapes and murders certainly don’t count against it.

                      Plus, since it is children they are raping and murdering as opposed to adults, this fits into the meme about bad arguments that involve the well-being of children.

                    2. You are assuming facts not in evidence.

                      Just because I think you should argue from something other than pure emotional manipulation doesn’t mean I think your thesis is wrong.

                      Because I have no idea if it is wrong. You’ve offered zero actual evidence. More than that, I have no idea what your thesis is – ‘no PC’ is in the eye of the beholder.

                      Beyond your salacious anecdotes, I wonder how the rate of rapes in the UK compares to the US? Not that any rate above zero is OK, but it might address the validity of your UK-as-analogy-for-liberalism one sided condemnation.

                      You’re a smart guy. But this set of posts of yours seem more ten minutes of hate than call for cultural anything.

                    3. “You are assuming facts not in evidence.”

                      He posted an article… but knowing you it doesn’t count.

                    4. Jesse, did you click on the link? It seems like you didn’t.
                      It doesn’t support his thesis – it’s the Daily Mirror describing the incident and saying cops failed to do anything.

                      Nothing about the fear of being called racist he posits.

                    5. “I wonder how the rate of rapes in the UK compares to the US?”

                      I have no idea how they might compare, but I am certain that it is impossible to get good data on the topic.

                    6. Sarcastro,you really hadn’t heard that the police and local government members have stated that they didn’t do anything about these child-raping gangs because of fear of being called racist?

                    7. I went to Google, and found an internal investigation of the force revealed sine staff reported being nervous about being called racist, and cited this as one of a number of problems they found. It made no causal connection, but I’ll bet Breitbart and co. did.

                      ML’s posts are ghoulish hatemongering.

                    8. There is no doubt all of this was ignored because the criminals were immigrants of Muslim faith. As such, any investigation was equal to bigotry. This is not new information. This is years old, and not reported. If you have rational reasons why the news is ignored, please share. You knew, yet now claim ignorance.
                      Make your explanation.

                    9. There is no doubt, eh?

                      What I see is an internal investigation that lists that is one in a number of factors that may have contributed to the failure of that department. There’s a BBC article that discusses the other problems in the organization, some personal some policy-based.

                      And then a bunch of right-wing blogs fastening onto this as the one reason why all these girls were raped. Because who cares what you use in favor of proving libs are evil.

                      I will not deny that it’s a problem when policy make investigatory decisions based on their fear of public opprobrium, or public acclaim for that matter. But this ‘Political correctness raped those girls, let me go into detail what they experienced’ is just the usual demoniziation.

                      You knew, yet now claim ignorance.
                      Make your explanation.

                      You have no idea what I knew…are you challenging me to a duel?

                    10. Hatemongering? This is major news that just came out. Thousands of victims, and yet another scandal in a country that has seen several just like it in the last few years. Isn’t it important to process what happened if this appalling state of affairs is to be addressed?

                      Don’t be immune to facts. The bureaucrats’ callous (at best) dereliction of duty in these scandals is widely and rather easily understood. Read the BBC article again, and the independent inquiry report linked there.

                    11. You aren’t reporting the news, you are going into great detail in an attempt to marshal righteous anger to your cause. And your cause is to worry less about diversity.

                      I’m not immune to facts, I’m offended by your methods.

                    12. What are you babbling about? I have no cause or aim to “worry less about diversity.” I just don’t want society to be cowed any longer by the hateful, tyrannical leftists who hurl false accusations of racism as the primary means of advancing their hateful and destructive agenda.

                      We see the results: thousands upon thousands of children made into sex slaves, under threat of being burned alive — in what was supposed to be one of the most advanced and free societies???

                      Tell me, is there any more urgently problematic or pertinent example than this that should be used? Or, are you just upset, because you are suffering from cognitive dissonance, and would prefer to have those you think you disagree with employ only the weakest and most ineffective arguments in support of their position?

                      I loathe the “dignified” and proper facade you would have others maintain; it is only in service of falsity.

                    13. I don’t believe there are hateful, tyrannical leftists doing what you’re talking about.

                      And thousands upon thousands of children turned into sex slaves because of fear of racism?! That’s some bad craziness you’re smoking there – the kind that makes you rage against evil liberals that aren’t real. That makes it easier to rationalize all sorts of draconian policies to stop the ephemeral evil libs. Think of the children!

                      If you believe these rapes are the best proof proof of tyrannical leftists, draw that causal link. But you didn’t – you posted multiple times wallowing in the gory details and oops, forgot to do anything beyond bare assertion to tie it to liberals.

                      It reminds me of an anti-torture thread where Bob just posted short bios and death stories of people killed on 9-11. It’s reprehensible, and not a road I want you or Bob to go down.

                    14. What purpose do you think dignity has? It’s not the truth you seek – it’s inflammation to overwhelm reason. There’s a reason some details are salacious, and it’s not fear of the truth.

                      But I have no doubt you loath, though. Too much. Can’t be good for someone.

                    15. There you go again, denying the basic facts as to why police and social services ignored victims for decades.

                      I’m not advocating for any draconian policies. I’m advocating for a culture shift where law enforcement isn’t so afraid of nonsense “racism” charges that they permit criminal sex slavery enterprises to operate in their community.

                      Sure, some others might use terrible events to rationalize bad policies. Actually, that is close to what you are doing by rationalizing what happened here.

      2. Lest anyone think otherwise, we in the U.S. are far from immune to the carnage wrought by heinous identity politics-driven P.C. culture and policies.

        Just look at the blood of the 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

        1. If you don’t like gun control folks using school shootings to push their agenda, how is this any better? In fact, blaming ‘PC culture’ is enough of a stretch, you’re actually worse!

          1. So, lax and neglectful non-enforcement of criminal laws should not be criticized when it leads to further crime that would likely have been prevented? Even though such prevention is the most fundamental purpose of criminal law and law enforcement?

            Anyway, I don’t really have a problem with them using school shootings, in particular. I do have a problem with them pushing their agenda, in general.

            1. Criticism is one thing.

              20-20 hindsight being used to advocate for a policy such that any who disagree must be OK with school shootings is very much another, and just like the gun control case, is both untrue (as it is a counterfactual) and encourages governing-by-crisis.

              This is propaganda, not advocacy. Do better.

    2. Oh no!

      Let’s see…college students…relatively young…most for the first time unsupervised…being introduced to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new information…

      And yet you want them to make the exact perfect decisions like educated and experienced adults.


      1. Actually, it is the educated and experienced adults who are feeding students this toxic B.S., or failing to properly educate and stand up to it, other than a few heroic ones such as those mentioned above.

        1. Actually, students being more strident than deliberate has been going on forever, will go on forever, and blaming professors for it is a solution in search of a problem.

          1. It wasn’t the students who published the University of California microagressions list that claimed that saying “America is the land of opportunity” is racist.

            1. That’s not what ML Is criticizing.

          2. It is not the students who refuse to protect visiting speakers that are non-PC. It is not the students who punish professors (the topic of this post) for using words relevant to the course being taught. For example, in a law class, students at one school objected to having to hear about rape. How can they be effective lawyers if they don’t learn this?

    3. The poll should say that women and racial minorities do not support free speech, which is a shame, but academicians have been spreading agitprop that free speech serves only to reinforce the racist, heteronormative, cisgendered, ableist, classist, Christianist patriarchy (intersectionalist prose is a beauty to behold, isn’t it?) despite historical evidence to the contrary.

      1. The poll should say

        Well, that’s pretty blatant narritivism.

        1. There’s no edit function on this comment platform. The poll analysis should point out that significant difference.

          1. Fair enough.

            Though I’d want to see that analysis (especially controlled for education level).

            And I also think it is a separate issue exactly how persecuted white straight Christian males are.
            I think we still do pretty great, just less great. Momentum is not position.

  5. That’s my alma mater! I have never been so proud!

  6. Most universities and lets face it, the majority of the public education system is basically a modern system of state churches with near compulsory attendance and far more tax payer support.

    1. Don’t forget Hollywood!
      And the Mainstream Media!
      And social media!
      And cities!!

      Liberal churches everywhere!

      1. Pretty much, the Cult of the Oppression Narrative and Equality of Outcome has come to dominate most mainstream institutions these days. It effectively is the state religion of modern western society in most relevant aspects. Even most of the so called opposition follows it to a certain extent. You can sort of tell something has a pervasive influence when the cookie and dating companies start regularly virtue signalling about guns and ssm and other completely unrelated political topics.

        1. AmosArch is a communist who hates the market.

          1. Nah, the market is fine. Strip the state schools of all special privileges and open things up more for competitors that provide an actual education and I wouldn’t be surprised if things ended up evening up a bit. Liberals complain all the time about tax breaks for the temples they don’t like so it doesn’t make much sense to keep other temples that not only get tax breaks but loads of grants, and state funding, and a mandate for near compulsory attendance on top of it. In general remove the web of favorable legislation and threat of mob persecution which props up the current monoculture and you’d have a freer market.

            1. The market is great.

              Conservative-controlled campuses are pathetic, low-rated, academically impoverished yahoo farms.

              Our strongest schools are operated in the liberal-libertarian tradition.

              Conservatives whine about this, but either will not or — more likely — can not create strong conservative schools to address the problem they claim to perceive Mostly, they claim that the better schools should hire more ardent right-wingers.

              1. arthur I’d like to know where all these oodles of bible thumping hick christian colleges you always talk about are. The entire country must be covered with a 6 foot blanket of doe eyed white midwestern bible college graduates and you could walk across their heads from any two points in the country by the way you speak of them.

                1. There are hundreds of them. They are in every state. They are not as prominent as strong colleges are because, well, the conservative-controlled schools suck. They struggle to maintain sketchy accreditation, they attract poor students, they produce unaccomplished graduates. But they are out there, and relatively easy to find.

                  1. I know that they are out there. You just carry on as if the majority of the US population was churned straight out of Oral Roberts.

            2. Amos is right with the GOP agenda – expand ignorance. Cut those universities down to size. We don’t need all that book-larnin and those pointy-head “intellectuals.”

            3. Here’s a clue, Amos.

              State universities don’t have mandatory attendance.

              Here’s another:

              The state university system in the US is a triumph, which has made immeasurable contributions to the country.

              A few foolish or rowdy students – who could have imagined such a thing – don’t change that.

              1. It’s telling how often criticism against administrators being liberal slips into criticism of kids these days.

  7. Back in 1960 my eighth grade class had a very proper silver-haired spinster teaching us literature in the days when many female teachers were old maid careerists. Miss Hornplenty was as prim, proper, and stern as any of them, but she had an unconcealed passion for the limericks of Ogden Nash that she frequently shared with the class.

    One day we were working silently at our desks and she was reading at hers when she broke out in joyously uncharacteristic uncontrolled laughter. We all turned to stare at her until she finally came under control again.

    “Oh dear,” she said, “I will probably get in horrible trouble for telling you this one, but it is too good not to share:

    She offered her honor,
    He honored her offer,
    And all night long it was honor and offer!

    1. That’s funny, but it’s neither a limerick nor Nash’s.

      1. Wow, I forgot how careful you have to be with attributions around here. OK, it is a ditty. I changed her name to Hornplenty although she doubtless has long passed to her reward. She normally quoted Nash to us so that is the name that came to mind, otherwise the story is 100% socially authentic. My other emotionally significant memories of that year was hearing my politically passionate parents talking excitedly about a Senator John Kennedy.

        Social history is what matters, BTW. I recall my 8th grade math teacher regale us with his college graduation adventure riding a Harley Davidson to the World’s Fair in Chicago pre-WWII. This was the guy who administered the Stanford-Binet IQ test to our class. I found out my result when he approached my desk from behind and slapped my head with the flat of his hand. He was a hard old German and in those days he could hit me as hard as he wanted and he knocked me out of the seat!

        “I knew you were a slacker! Work to your potential!” he commanded.

  8. What inclines conservatives to figure they — after turning just about every campus they control into a censorship-shackled, nonsense-teaching, academic freedom-disdaining, science-suppressing, third-rank, barely accredited goober factory — are in any position to offer pointers to those who operate America’s strongest colleges and universities?

    Develop some self-awareness, clingers. And drag hundreds of right-wing campuses out of the academic ditch before offering to help your betters operate America’s best schools.

  9. Statistics and Damned Statistics.

    Here’s a different take on the trends in higher ed:
    Support for free speech is rising, and is higher among liberals and college graduates.

    Aside from racism and “anti-American Muslim Clergymen”, support for free speech is rising.

    By rhetorically lumping in instances of rare, fairly extreme behavior with much more common behaviors under the broad heading of “political correctness,” it is easy to paint an alarming picture of the hecklers as a leading edge of an increasingly authoritarian political culture.

    1. Don’t show Eugene.

    2. Except the Vox article’s data doesn’t show what it purports to claim. Support for free speech only matters when it’s the speech of speakers and messages we find disagreeable. Instead, the article’s data shows that “liberal” listeners support the speech of people they don’t find disagreeable articulating things they don’t dislike. Not a useful point.

      And indeed, if the Vox editors wanted to be honest, they wouldn’t dismiss as so much maw-mawing the regular shutting down of anti-leftist speech and anti-leftist speakers on college campuses. At least they might explain how supposedly a few fringe players can shut down debate on entire ranges of topics without more general support from the institutions as a whole.

  10. This is all true.

    After all, most people are not going to able to go through life hiding from offensive comments by flying first class at taxpayer expense.

  11. In a literature class, any prof is at risk because so much literature mentions sex and talking about the book could get him in trouble. An anthropology prof can get in trouble for mentioning tribal customs or traditional sex roles. A med school prof…you get the idea. The world is full of uncomfortable facts.

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