As I pointed out last week, the NY Times pushed Donald McNeil Jr, one of its star reporters, out of his job after a 2019 incident came to light in which he used the n-word during a school trip to Peru. In a groveling apology issued last week, McNeil explained that during a dinner one night he was asked by a student whether another student should have been suspended for using the n-word in a video. “To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself,” McNeil explained.
All of this had been previously investigated when it happened in 2019 and, at the time, the NY Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet said he planned to fire McNeil but then determined there had been no malice in his use of the word and let him stay on. But when the issue became public last week, a group of 150 Times’ staffers wrote an outraged letter demanding consequences. Baquet suddenly reversed himself and announced “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
Regardless of intent seems like a very bad standard for the head of a leading newspaper to adopt. That’s the jumping off point for this piece by professor John McWhorter:
It was the N-word thing that pushed things over the edge, and is the focus of the letter signed by 150 staffers demanding, in effect, his head on a pole.
That is, for people like this, the N-word has gone from being a slur to having, in its mere shape and sound, a totemic taboo status directly akin to how Harry Potter characters process the name Voldemort and theatre people maintain a pox on saying “Macbeth” inside a theatre. The letter roasts McNeil for “us[ing] language that is offensive and unacceptable,” implying a string of language, a whole point or series thereof, something like a stream, a stretch – “language.” But no: they are referring to his referring to a single word.
The kinds of people who got McNeil fired think of this new obsessive policing of the N-word as a kind of strength. Their idea is “We are offended by this word, we demand that you don’t use it, and if you do use it, we are going to make sure you lose your job.” But the analogy is off here. This would be strength if the issue were the vote, or employment. Here, people are demanding the right to exhibit performative delicacy, and being abetted in it by non-black fellow travellers…
…to get McNeil fired for using the N-word to refer to it makes black people look dumb. And not just to the Twitter trollers who will be nasty enough to actually write it down. Non-black people are thinking it nationwide and keeping it to themselves.
I guess I disagree with McWhorter on that last point. He says that people will prefer to say that the mob that ganged up on McNeil were mean rather than dumb because this is more socially acceptable.
My own take, even before reading his, was that there is a meanness in this effort to claim scalps by ignoring context. The woke mob wanted to flex, not have a reasoned discussion. That’s not dumb so much as it’s ruthless.
So while I don’t think it’s necessarily right to call the people in the mob dumb, I do wonder about the people around them who either remain silent or go along. Dean Baquet, for one, ought to be holding the line and pushing back on this cancel first, questions later approach to human resources. Instead, the woke mob flexed and Baquet went crawling under his desk despite the fact that he clearly knows better.
You can bet the house this is going to happen again at the NY Times. Now that the woke mob has learned no one will dare to stand up to them they are going to become more aggressive. How long before they form factions and start trying out out-woke one another? Sooner or later the revolution eats its own.
Update: Nikole Hannah-Jones has been arguing about all of this on Twitter, including some claims that don’t hold up to scrutiny (there may be a pattern…)
3/ I do think NHJ gets a disproportionate share of harassment in part because of her subject matter but you can't constantly tweet questionable, accusatory stuff and then not expect people to get mad or for it to reflect poorly on your paper.
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) February 8, 2021
Whether you consider 20 times in a year to be “regularly” doesn’t matter. The point is that if this word is verboten under any circumstances, then the Times should never publish it. The fact that they have demonstrates how absurd and novel this “no context” approach to the word really is. Either fire every author and editor who put the word in print or admit context matters. You can’t have it both ways.