Why “To Kill a Mockingbird” Could Never Be Read Aloud*

At first glance, this looks like a victory for free speech: University of Kansas assistant professor, Andrea Quenette, was allowed to keep her job after quoting the word “nigger” instead of referencing it by initial during a discussion of racism. But her victory was qualified–Quenette did not escape punishment. As The Washington Post reports, for merely quoting a word in an appropriate context, not hurling an epithet, she was placed on paid leave and subject to a four-month investigation sparked by complaints from eight graduate students, some of whom were not in class when the verboten word was uttered.

One student who was present recalls leaving the classroom in tears after hearing a word, instead of an initial, quoted aloud. (Soon the expression “n word” may be banned, since it evokes the word “nigger.” Or maybe people will start using “n word” as an epithet.) Complaining students wanted Quenette fired. They’ll have to hope for her rehabilitation instead. Before resuming teaching, Quenette will “pair up” with a faculty mentor and undergo diversity or “cultural competence” training.

This is, of course, a familiar story, but it has a particularly depressing twist: Quenette’s praise for her interrogators. I don’t mean to criticize her obeisance, which is politic and may be the cost of keeping her job. But, commending university officials for “due diligence in taking student’s concerns seriously” and expressing enthusiasm for her reeducation plan, Quenette sounds a bit like the text of a hostage video. “A faculty mentor, I think, is a great thing,” she said. “I embrace the opportunity” for diversity training.

Political correctness is an increasingly inadequate description of the current campus climate, when merely quoting a slur in the context of discussing prejudice is considered a potentially traumatizing act of aggression and possible firing offense. It’s now considered appropriate for presumptively disadvantaged students to react to the utterance of banned words the way people with arachnophobia react to tarantulas. You could use the h word — hysteria — to describe the campus climate, or you could say we’ve descended from political correctness into the realm of linguaphobia.

*The word “nigger” appears 48 times.

Wendy Kaminer

Wendy Kaminer

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, civil libertarian and author of several books, including Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU.

4 thoughts on “Why “To Kill a Mockingbird” Could Never Be Read Aloud*

  1. You were right the first time, this is a part of scripted show trials everywhere. The defendant must willingly accept punishment.

  2. “Tarantulas” is a good choice. These people are Nietzsche’s tarantulas. Or, rather, the tarantulas are the people–faculty, administrators and professional “activists”–(ab)using these highly impressionable and vulnerable kids to further their own revenge.

  3. Thank you for pointing out the “hostage video” thing, and also for being appropriately compassionate about it. I read about this in Inside Higher Ed the other day, and honestly, when I read Quenette’s words, I had this flashback to Star Trek episodes, or something, where someone who had undergone “integration therapy” or “re-education” or something stared blankly at a stunned crew member and said something along those lines.

    I read crap like this and I thank whatever guardian angle allowed me to fail at my aspiration to become a professor. Jeez.

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