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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.