When private emails go public and are condemned as ‘racist’

Last week Buzzfeed broke a story leaking several private emails sent among members of a University of Chicago fraternity, calling the culture “toxic.” The easy response is to put on our swimsuits and dive headfirst into the self-righteous fray. But I think it’s time we went a step further, and consider how the easy response is in fact contributing to the longevity of racism and discrimination in society.

If these students had posted the same content to blog posts instead of emails, it would be fair to assume that their words would be universally available and criticized. But they were not; they were private communications among friends that, despite all the furor, are not even particularly racist, they merely play with the same vocabulary. The deeper problem is that somehow it has become acceptable to mine private communication for possible unsavory speech.

We have all had conversations with friends or families in which someone has injected a caveat,  thank God no one can hear us or I shudder at what they would think. Does simply saying something politically incorrect mean that we meant every word literally or that we are discriminating?

Our current strategy is to publicly flagellate anyone who says anything uncomfortable. All that does is stifle progress and keep us firmly rooted in the ideas and discourse of the past. We have to confront the things that make us uncomfortable in order to move past them. Language is a powerful tool for change and how we use certain words can signal monumental shifts in social mores.

So much social progress starts in private, among friends and peer groups. When we expose private communication, we send the message that no one should feel safe to let anything potentially offensive escape, even if it's a joke, even if it's meant as a send-up of racist speech, even in private. And it is understood that if we say anything politically incorrect, it will be exposed on a massive public scale, with all the collateral consequences that go with that kind of exposure. 

Anything more than a cursory read of the emails posted by Buzzfeed reveals that there is a level of self-awareness, irony, and humor in these messages. Perhaps something is missed by taking those conversations totally out of context. Most of these emails are probably riffing on in-person conversations and jokes; any nuance that is understood by friends of the same age, intellect, and friendship circle is lost by posting them cold.

There is also a certain amount of self-policing among the fraternity members. One writes in response to an email about using the acronym “NIG” - "who's going to tell [redacted] that NIG is less of an acronym than a minor racial slur." Another warned his fraternity brothers that they should not use his outwardly very racist nickname publicly or on university online services because it would not be well received. 

Most importantly, there is an email attempting to make the (albeit clichéd) argument that we should not be afraid to use the n-word because arbitrarily avoiding it gives it power. Sure, we can all roll our eyes, but this argument is a move toward trivialization of a word that has historically been discriminatory. When we trivialize something, we reduce its power to harm. This retooling of language is a good thing, a movement beyond bigotry in a genuine way. It allows us to criticize ourselves for past injustices by mocking the ways in which we as a society have discriminated. When a student called another a “klansman,” he surely did not mean that his friend is a member of the Klu Klux Klan; he was ribbing his friend, gently criticizing him.

Not too long ago, no politician dared support same-sex marriage in public; before the tide truly turned, millions of people were whispering among themselves, what’s the big deal, it’s okay to be gay. If we had exposed those phone calls, email chains, or conversations and allowed those people to be publicly vilified for their private beliefs, how much longer would it have taken to get where we are?

Ultimately, it does not matter if the content of speech is “right” or “wrong”; we all have a right to express our ideas. Silencing those whose opinions differ from ours by public shaming is a sure way of stifling intellectual progress by making it impossible for us to confront our demons.

If you want to witness the result of our current environment of speech, look no further than Donald Trump.  It's telling that people love and vote for Trump because it's a relief for them to finally hear someone saying what they have felt unable to say publicly for so long. Maybe if we let them feel heard and part of the process, we could have more balanced conversations and ultimately progress faster.

That does not mean we can't criticize what they're saying; but there's got to be a middle ground available in public discourse between unconditionally validating all ideas and making it a virtual crime to offend anyone even a little bit.

Patricia Padurean is a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a graduate of the University of Chicago.

Last week Buzzfeed broke a story leaking several private emails sent among members of a University of Chicago fraternity, calling the culture “toxic.” The easy response is to put on our swimsuits and dive headfirst into the self-righteous fray. But I think it’s time we went a step further, and consider how the easy response is in fact contributing to the longevity of racism and discrimination in society.

If these students had posted the same content to blog posts instead of emails, it would be fair to assume that their words would be universally available and criticized. But they were not; they were private communications among friends that, despite all the furor, are not even particularly racist, they merely play with the same vocabulary. The deeper problem is that somehow it has become acceptable to mine private communication for possible unsavory speech.

We have all had conversations with friends or families in which someone has injected a caveat,  thank God no one can hear us or I shudder at what they would think. Does simply saying something politically incorrect mean that we meant every word literally or that we are discriminating?

Our current strategy is to publicly flagellate anyone who says anything uncomfortable. All that does is stifle progress and keep us firmly rooted in the ideas and discourse of the past. We have to confront the things that make us uncomfortable in order to move past them. Language is a powerful tool for change and how we use certain words can signal monumental shifts in social mores.

So much social progress starts in private, among friends and peer groups. When we expose private communication, we send the message that no one should feel safe to let anything potentially offensive escape, even if it's a joke, even if it's meant as a send-up of racist speech, even in private. And it is understood that if we say anything politically incorrect, it will be exposed on a massive public scale, with all the collateral consequences that go with that kind of exposure. 

Anything more than a cursory read of the emails posted by Buzzfeed reveals that there is a level of self-awareness, irony, and humor in these messages. Perhaps something is missed by taking those conversations totally out of context. Most of these emails are probably riffing on in-person conversations and jokes; any nuance that is understood by friends of the same age, intellect, and friendship circle is lost by posting them cold.

There is also a certain amount of self-policing among the fraternity members. One writes in response to an email about using the acronym “NIG” - "who's going to tell [redacted] that NIG is less of an acronym than a minor racial slur." Another warned his fraternity brothers that they should not use his outwardly very racist nickname publicly or on university online services because it would not be well received. 

Most importantly, there is an email attempting to make the (albeit clichéd) argument that we should not be afraid to use the n-word because arbitrarily avoiding it gives it power. Sure, we can all roll our eyes, but this argument is a move toward trivialization of a word that has historically been discriminatory. When we trivialize something, we reduce its power to harm. This retooling of language is a good thing, a movement beyond bigotry in a genuine way. It allows us to criticize ourselves for past injustices by mocking the ways in which we as a society have discriminated. When a student called another a “klansman,” he surely did not mean that his friend is a member of the Klu Klux Klan; he was ribbing his friend, gently criticizing him.

Not too long ago, no politician dared support same-sex marriage in public; before the tide truly turned, millions of people were whispering among themselves, what’s the big deal, it’s okay to be gay. If we had exposed those phone calls, email chains, or conversations and allowed those people to be publicly vilified for their private beliefs, how much longer would it have taken to get where we are?

Ultimately, it does not matter if the content of speech is “right” or “wrong”; we all have a right to express our ideas. Silencing those whose opinions differ from ours by public shaming is a sure way of stifling intellectual progress by making it impossible for us to confront our demons.

If you want to witness the result of our current environment of speech, look no further than Donald Trump.  It's telling that people love and vote for Trump because it's a relief for them to finally hear someone saying what they have felt unable to say publicly for so long. Maybe if we let them feel heard and part of the process, we could have more balanced conversations and ultimately progress faster.

That does not mean we can't criticize what they're saying; but there's got to be a middle ground available in public discourse between unconditionally validating all ideas and making it a virtual crime to offend anyone even a little bit.

Patricia Padurean is a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a graduate of the University of Chicago.