Words matter,” said Congressman Joaquin Castro on his website last week, as he introduced his bill which would strike the word “alien” in the Immigration and Nationality Act and replace it with “foreign national.” Castro went on to say, “It’s vital that we respect the dignity of immigrants fleeing violence and prosecution in our language.”
Language can be slippery, something we all observed last week with the demand that the news media in their reporting call President Trump’s tweets racist without qualification.
We think the tweets, saying some Democratic congresswomen should go back to the countries they “originally came from,” probably were racist. Still, to say Trump’s tweets were racist is a matter of opinion, not fact. It may be sound opinion and it is surely protected opinion, but facts are indisputable. Political opinions almost always benefit from dispute.
The day before Trump’s notorious tweets, Netroots Nation held its annual summit for digital progressives. Marc Lamont Hill, the former CNN commentator who was let go by the network last year after comments he made about Israel, addressed the gathering. Fox, ABC, NBC, “or whoever,” Hill told conference participants, are Zionist organizations that produce “Zionist content.”
This is protected speech not least because it is twisted. The cousin of free speech, academic freedom, allows Hill to espouse his views at Temple University, where he remains a professor.
The targets of Trump’s tweets seemed to be four first-term lawmakers in the U.S. House, women of color on the left who call themselves the Squad. Netroots also had a panel discussion that day with three of them, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
“I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table,” Pressley told the crowd. “This is the time to shake the table... All of you who have aspirations of running for office: If you’re not prepared to come to that table and represent that voice, don’t come; because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice.”
Words matter, and voices matter – but what does it mean to represent a voice? Must black voices seek to abolish immigration enforcement, like Pressley? Must Muslim voices say Israel hypnotizes the world, as Omar did, or tell their children the president is a “motherf-----,” as Tlaib boasted she did?
What about Scherie Murray, a black businesswoman who immigrated from Jamaica and last week declared her Republican candidacy for the seat held by the fourth Squad member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Is Murray an authentic black voice? Is she still a black voice by the Squad’s lights when she says Ocasio-Cortez is a one-woman crisis who is killing jobs in their district? Do only progressives like Pressley and academics like Hill get to decide?
Some academics have been exploring the idea that free speech is a racist illusion. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed about psychologist Steven Pinker quotes Joel Christensen, chair of classical studies at Brandeis University, who complained that Pinker has joined “a cadre of older, mostly white male academics who espouse a purist view of free speech and debate” that “ignores significant scholarship from women and scholars of color about how free speech and academic freedom ... overweight and privilege already privileged voices.”
When you conclude that academic freedom and free speech are racist institutions because you don’t like moderate voices, you may find there is not going to be a table left to shake.