Monday, January 20, 2014

The * Word

How far does "context" get us? In the case of one student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it may not be very far. On January 16, 2014, the Huffington Post reported that in November 2013, "the UNL student senate debated and passed a resolution 'encouraging a broadly inclusive and welcoming campus' that concluded:
Be it resolved, that as senators... We pledge to remove derogatory terms from our vocabulary (that may or may not be purposely directed as offensive) in regard to a person's gender, age, disability, genetic information, race, color, religion, pregnancy status, marital status, veteran's status, national or ethnic origin, gender identity or expression, place of residence, political affiliation, or sexual orientation."
The article went on to disclose that in opposition to the senate's position, one student used a racial epithet while quoting comedian Chris Rock to make his argument. The student, Cameron Murphy, argued that such language is acceptable in certain contexts and if used by certain people. In response, the school has attempted to impeach the Senator on the grounds that "intolerance of intolerance . . . must include intolerance of intolerant terms." 

While UNL has subsequently failed to impeach the student Senator, there remains the problematic issue of where intellectual freedom and freedom of speech fit when struggling to fight intolerance and "isms" in our communities. 

Can we allow for an understanding of context when dealing with speech -- and indeed, materials -- that include terms that we now consider derogatory and hateful? Is there room for an understanding of time, place, and source? Or should there simply be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to such language? 

Should our goal be tolerance or respect and understanding?

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