Free academic speech or racial slur?

USC Professor Patton, removed from course

Earlier this month, the University of Southern California removed business professor Greg Patton from his classroom. His offense? In a lecture on linguistics, he used a Chinese word as an illustrating example of filler words (“um” or “like” in English). So far, so good, but that Chinese expression, 那个, or ne ga sounds a lot like a racial slur in English (the N word). That word is one that I have found to be tremendously useful when I’m in China. It means “that one” and comes in handy ordering in a restaurant when you can just point at a picture of a dish and say “ne ga”, i.e. I’ll have that one. Additionally, native speakers of Mandarin use it in conversation as a filler, as the USC professor was trying to illustrate, making the point that such words or sounds are common across languages. He made clear that the expression was Chinese (not English). Despite that, several African-American students took offense and complained. They wrote a letter to the dean of the School of Business, describing Patton as insensitive and suggested he be removed from his post. They wrote,

There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.

In fact, the letter sent by the students is incorrect, in that the Chinese term is not a “a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, ” in fact not a synonym at all, i.e. a word with the equivalent meaning. It is at most a homonym (words sounding alike), but that is not normally seen as significant or meaningful when you are dealing with two different languages.

As reported in Inside Higher Education, the complaint and removal have been controversial with a petition for Patton’s reinstatement stating:

For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.

The professor himself apologized to those students offended, but also reported to Inside Higher Education, “Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”

In a report on the incident in The Atlantic, a fellow professor (from UCLA), Eugene Volokh, suggested how the Business School Dean should have replied:

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa … Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning. To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world’s nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin.

On the other hand, as the article discusses, this kind of reply, as reasonable as it sounds, does not take into account the real feelings of the USC students who were upset by the incident.

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