Monday, February 26, 2007

Another @#!&%*# Speech Case at UW!

First, if you haven't already heard about it, you need to read the article, "Professor Accused of Racial Slurs," from last Thursday's Capital Times. It tells of a recent firestorm sparked when a UW student alleged in effect that a Prof. Leonard Kaplan went all Michael Richards during a lecture on inter-ethnic relations.

Next, here are excerpts from a statement, placed on interesting page of the Badger Herald web site, by Nam Dao, a UW student who is enrolled in Kaplan's legal process class and, unlike a lot of people who have weighed in on this issue, was actually present at the now-notorious lecture:
... Though I was not offended by Kaplan’s use of the Hmong stereotypes, I felt a bit uncomfortable mainly due to the delivery of the stereotypes, which were shrouded in Kaplan’s trademark style of humor that can be quite polarizing. Yet at the same time, I realize that law school is not about being in your comfort zone all the time. Many times, we discuss delicate issues that affect everyone including gender, race, and sexual orientation.

... The subject matter in our Legal Process class was about the role of cultural values in formulating law. Kaplan used Hmong stereotypes, particularly the dowry system and the gang problem, to illustrate two points. With regards to the dowry system, if a women does not consent to sex, the man will be charged with rape in America. However, in criminal cases involving ethnic minorities, there exists the cultural defense argument—essentially, “in my culture this is not a crime.” Kaplan noted that the cultural defense argument is used by people from other cultures as well, such as Muslims. Regarding the gang problem among the Hmong population, Kaplan used it to illustrate the point that the state of Wisconsin is not doing a good job of providing educational opportunities and job training to the Hmong. Thus, the state of Wisconsin is not doing a good job of embracing cultural differences and helping a section of the Hmong to assimilate into mainstream culture. Kaplan noted that the second generation of immigrant groups usually contain a criminal element, using Meyer Lansky, who was Jewish, to illustrate that point.

I think it is clear that Kaplan is not a racist, but nonetheless some of my friends and classmates were offended by his use of Hmong stereotypes to illustrate an academic point. ... I feel that the classroom is a place to discuss stereotypes, especially in law school. Society does not have too many forums where we can discuss stereotypes openly. Kaplan, I think thought that these stereotypes were based on empirical observations. I don't think that Kaplan was trying to make a value-judgment about Hmong people. I think a reason why people were offended was because of his unconventional style, and couple that with the fact that the Hmong are under the microscope in WI and we have the volatile situation we see here. I think this incident can be a springboard to promote thoughtful and productive dialogue about race consistent with the teachings of Grutter. ...
I was not there and have not heard Prof. Kaplan's own account of what he said, so I will just say six things about this already-sorry tale. Keep in mind that all six are offered from the I-wasn't-there perspective:

Thing one: I have known Len Kaplan for over twenty years, and if I thought I heard him say some of the bizarre things alleged in law student Kashia Moua's defamatory email about him -- eg., that young Hmong men have no talent for anything but to commit murder -- I would sooner believe that I was hallucinating than that Len said and meant them. He is not a racist. As Hume said, in a conflict like this, always reject the greater miracle.

Thing two: As odd as this might seem, I think Moua should have thought something like that as well. It's more likely that there is a misunderstanding here than that a highly educated person who has spent a lifetime thinking about these matters would say such utterly wacked-out things as expressions of his/her own opinions. Get a grip, people!

Thing three: In some incidents like this one, including possibly this incident itself, people show a very poor grasp of what analytic philosophers call the use/mention distinction. If I quote someone else using the N-word, I am not using the word. I am mentioning it. This is a big difference. Shakespeare did not say "Life is a tale told by an idiot." MacBeth said it. Mark Twain did not say "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell." Huck Finn said it. If I use a word, that supports your making some direct inferences about my beliefs and feelings. If I only mention it, matters are more complex. Shakespeare and Clemens did not agree with the the statements their characters were making. Their motives in constructing these sentences were rather more complicated and roundabout than direct self-expression. What were their motives? This is where you have to be complex yourself, and do some interpreting. The trouble is, today we are getting to be so sensitive to the power of certain words and locutions, that this complexity is becoming impossible. Mentioning them at all tends to be somewhat unsafe. This is not a good thing. We have to be able to mention them in order the rationally check and improve our opinions.

Thing four: From all the accounts I have seen, it looks like Dean Davis of the Law School has handled this incident very badly, from the point of view of the need to maintain a climate of rational discourse at the university. He has repeatedly apologized in Kaplan's behalf, expressed disapproval of him, and never said one word, as far as I know, that reflect an appreciation of Kaplan's rights of free speech and academic freedom. It looks like his only concern throughout has been to soothe the angry, and to assure them that at all events they should not be angry at the law school or at him. If that is indeed true, he should do something to correct this situation, right away.

Thing five: Professors and deans should think of incidents like this as "teachable moments," as opportunities to get the message across that, in any conversation, you have an obligation to make a good-faith effort to understand what the other person is saying. This is one of the most profound life-lessons you can get from a liberal education. It looks like this was very far indeed from what the Dean was thinking in this case.

Thing six: Some people who have weighed in on this have said that whether comments are racist need not depend at all on the speaker's intent. The impact of the comments, or the speakers lack of care about their impact, can be sufficient. I think this is a very serious error. The only thing that can ever give meaning to any comment is speaker-intent, the human thought behind the sounds. Impact can be ethically very important, but it is important in a completely different way. To say the impact alone can give meaning, is to say that you can can grasp meaning without bothering to interpret your fellow human beings. It is to say that your anger over the impact is a good-enough substitute for understanding.
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