Language Log: Political Correctness and the Use/Mention Distinction

Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”The distinction between use and mention is too often ignored and worth a detailed look. Language Log has an excellent article on the topic that begins with this.

Professor Donald Hindley was recently found guilty of racial harassment by Brandeis University for statements that he made in his Fall 2007 Latin American Studies course. The case is discussed in this report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and in a number of blog posts, including this one by Margaret Soltan and this one by Eugene Volokh. Criticism of Brandeis is based in part on what appears to have been an egregiously unfair process, and in part on the nature of the charges against him.

Brandeis has apparently refused to disclose publicly exactly what Hindley said that it considers “racial harassment”¹, but according to FIRE, which in my experience has a record of accuracy in such matters, the complaint is that he said:

Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as ‘wetbacks.’

His offense is described as having used the word ‘wetback.’ This is false. He did not use the word ‘wetback’; he mentioned it.

For that, far too often, and in places where you should think they would know better, people have been “run out of town.” Quite often with the help of mobs, the media (if there’s any difference) and in some cases with threats and intimidation hanging over their retreat.

It’s a huge problem that can limit free expression and stifle speech.

I think the balance of the explanation and analysis are worth the time of the bomb tossing blogger, hyperbolic Disqus troll and everyone in between.