News & Politics

Princeton Prof. Defends Free Speech Class Cancelled After N-Word Scandal

[Getty Images] Tower of Princeton University

On Monday, an anthropology professor at Princeton canceled a class examining the limits of free speech after students complained about him using the N-word in class. His colleague, the chair of the Anthropology Department, defended his use of offensive speech to instruct his students.

“In the Department of Anthropology, our entire pedagogical mission has never been about reaffirming the political points of view of the day, right or left. Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions,” Carolyn Rouse, Princeton chair of the Department of Anthropology, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian. “If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn’t do our jobs.”

Rouse was defending Princeton Professor Lawrence Rosen, who taught a course called “Anthropology 212: Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.” The class centered around freedom of expression and its proper limits, encouraging students to question themselves as to the true roots of their own prejudices on free speech. Rosen sent an email on Monday to inform his students the class had been cancelled.

Students reportedly walked out of the class after Rosen received national attention for using the N-word. The Daily Princetonian reported that Rosen had asked, “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?” When challenged on his use of the N-word, Rosen explained that he would use it “if I think it’s necessary.”

Rouse, the anthropology chair, explained why this kerfuffle cost the students an important lesson in broadening their horizons.

“The students signed up for a course about hate speech, blasphemy, and pornography, so Tuesday’s class introduced them to the topics of the course. Like every semester, at Princeton or Columbia Law, professor Lawrence Rosen started the class by breaking a number of taboos in order to get the students to recognize their emotional response to cultural symbols,” Rouse wrote.

Importantly, she added, “By the end of the semester, Rosen hopes that his students will be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected using an argument other than ‘because it made me feel bad.'”

This is a central goal of all education, going back to Plato’s Republic. Students should learn how to defend their arguments with reason rather than resorting to emotional outbursts. In fact, Rosen’s very tactic of breaking cultural taboos should be instructive to students — why do they get angry when the professor says this, rather than that?

“Importantly, why did Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the American flag not elicit any anger, while the use of the N-word did? In a different setting — a different university for example — the student response might have been the reverse,” Rouse explained. “A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot.”

This debate about which cultural norms elicit the most anger and fear should lead to a productive, reasoned discussion about culture, politics, and law.

“So, whose feelings should the law protect? And why? This is a critical question now before the courts,” the anthropology chair wrote. “Should a baker, for instance, be allowed to refuse service to a gay couple because he or she finds homosexuality offensive or blasphemous? For students who would like to be able to answer those questions, for students who are interested in law for example, Rosen’s course helps do just that.”

Rouse referred to the Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Civil Rights Commission, in which Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to custom-bake a same-sex wedding cake because he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman. Importantly, Phillips gladly agreed to sell the same-sex couple any baked good he sold, but the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that he had discriminated against them. The case centers on Phillips’ rights to free speech, free association, and freedom of religion.

Importantly, Rouse was not defending Phillips, and she did not disagree with the likely motivations of the students who protested the use of the N-word.

“Rosen was fighting battles for women, Native Americans, and African-Americans before these students were born. He grew up a Jew in anti-Semitic America, and recognizes how law has afforded him rights he would not otherwise have,” the anthropology chair wrote. In other words, both Rouse and Rosen share the basic identity politics concerns of Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), but they wish to provide students with an education on how to defend those principles with reason.

Instead, ironically, the very emotionally charged reaction they were attempting to balance has led to the cancellation of a class intended to balance it.

In his great dialogue The Republic, Plato describes the process of education as leading students out of a cave. In the cave, they see reflections from a fire displayed on a wall in front of them, thinking these images are the real world. Education consists in guiding these people out of the cave of their own ignorance into the true light of day, to see the sun.

To use Plato’s analogy, it might be impossible to lead Princeton students to see the real light of day if they balk at the first glimpses of the sun. The situation is even more tragic because Rouse and Rosen share the same basic worldview as their students, but the students are unwilling to embrace a little discomfort to learn about a world beyond their own limited experience.