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This independent-minded scholar provides linguistic sanity in an age of outrage

Linguist and Columbia University Professor John McWhorter has been a voice of reason in carefully parsing unfortunate statements – many posted on Twitter – that have provoked outrage and cancellation by academic mobs.

McWhorter has taught seminars on American English and linguistic history at Columbia and has written more than a dozen books on the subject.

His most recent book is “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” an analysis of “woke racism” as a religious phenomenon in which the “elect” believe their ideology is irrefutable and their opponents are dangerous heretics.

McWhorter also happens to be black.

Since The New York Times hired him to write a subscriber-only newsletter in August 2021, he’s penned several essays in which he carefully analyzed the meaning and implications of short utterances that have generated inflammatory responses.

While those in the academy and on social media routinely favor emotional reaction over logical argument and disregard the speaker’s intention, McWhorter provides nuanced, reasonable and good faith interpretations of the latest linguistic faux pas.

Back in February, when Ilya Shapiro was put on administrative leave by Georgetown University for a tweet criticizing President Biden’s decision to rely on affirmative action in choosing his Supreme Court nominee, McWhorter defended Shapiro with a careful analysis, “Don’t Assume Ilya Shapiro’s ‘Lesser Black Woman’ Tweet Was Racist.”

McWhorter explained that Shapiro’s tweet criticizing Biden for neglecting what he viewed as the best candidate in favor of “a lesser black woman” should not be interpreted to mean that Shapiro thinks black women — or black women lawyers — are “lesser.”

Instead, McWhorter wrote, “I think Shapiro meant that, one, Biden would choose a Black woman and two, that because [Judge Sri] Srinivasan is — in his view — the ‘best’ of the judges that a Democratic president would consider nominating, any other potential nominee, including any of the Black women on the president’s short list, would be less qualified than Srinivasan.”

He continued: “I don’t think Shapiro meant to say that a Black woman would be less qualified because she is a Black woman.”

McWhorter finds it “psychologically implausible” that Shapiro would publicly declare his belief that black women are inferior; it would be a “stupid” thing to do. Additionally, McWhorter wrote, Shapiro’s apology seems to indicate that the fault of the tweet was that it was poorly worded, not bigoted.

For all these reasons, McWhorter argued that the suspension was “unnecessary and unjust.”

Later in February, McWhorter wrote another essay, “The New N-Word Standard Isn’t Progress,” to teach readers the difference between “using” a word and “mention[ing]” a word – with reference to the “N-word,” likely the most offensive term in our language.

When a person uses the “N-word,” McWhorter wrote, they are deploying it as a slur to demean a black person or black people.

However, when they mention the word, they are simply referring to the word itself, perhaps in a context of quoting someone else; they may even be referring to it to condemn its use.

This important distinction, McWhorter wrote, means that we should stop “putting people in the stocks” for stating the word in an innocent context.

In his most recent essay, on March 1, McWhorter took up the defense of Jeffrey Lieberman, the chair of the Columbia University psychiatry department, currently under fire for another allegedly racist tweet.

Lieberman’s infamous remark concerned Nyakim Gatwech, an American model of South Sudanese descent who has very dark skin. He wrote, “Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”

The reaction was predictable.

Columbia suspended Lieberman, who also resigned from his position as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and lost his job as psychiatrist in chief at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Lieberman apologized profusely and committed to making “needed personal changes.”

Again, McWhorter encouraged a more generous and sympathetic reading of an apparently careless remark.

“It would obviously be fair to say that Lieberman’s tweet reflected poor judgment,” McWhorter said, as well as an ignorance of the history of rhetoric dehumanizing black women.

However, a fair reading of the tweet may interpret the remark as a kind of awkward compliment.

“He didn’t call Gatwech a ‘freak,’” McWhorter wrote, “and to argue that he intended to requires a rather laborious reading of that tweet.”

To properly “respond to Lieberman with nuance and prudence,” McWhorter wrote, would mean saying something like the following:

“We know you meant it as a compliment, but you should know that there are offensive connotations to using that word in reference to Black women, and an apology is owed.”

Instead, Lieberman, “one of the most accomplished and respected psychiatrists in the world,” had his career detonated by his peers.

The reaction, McWhorter said, “is a disproportion of punishment to crime. It is extreme and unnecessary and ultimately lacks reason.”

Our academic and online culture may be past the point of responding to mistakes with reason, as well as with “nuance and prudence.”

But with McWhorter as a guide, we may come a bit closer to treating fallible speakers and clumsy tweeters with charity and forgiveness, rather than as heretics to be burned at the stake.

MORE: How long will John McWhorter last at The New York Times?

IMAGE: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

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About the Author
Margaret has previously worked as an associate editor of Columbia magazine, an editorial assistant at DNAinfo.com, and an elementary school teacher at a charter school in Phoenix. She holds a B.A. from New York University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.