The New York Times and Modern Blasphemy

The Donald McNeil controversy has long roots. A historian of free speech explains.

In Monty Python’s classic 1979 satirical film about Jesus, Life of Brian, a man is stoned for saying a blasphemous word. One of his accusers says the word, too, and the crowd turns on him. Then an elderly authority declares that nobody should ever say the word, but of course he says it as well. And he gets stoned, too.

I’ve been thinking about this hilarious scene during the dead-serious virtual stoning of veteran New York Times journalist Donald R. McNeil Jr., who as you’ve probably heard by now, resigned from the paper last week after reports surfaced of him using the N-word during a Times-sponsored trip for high school students in Peru in 2019. Like the accusers in Life of Brian, McNeil said the word during a discussion of when and how the word should be penalized. But when it comes to blasphemous terms, context doesn’t count.

That’s the best way to understand the McNeil stoning: as a case of blasphemy. Whereas Americans today probably associate that term with countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it has an ugly history in the United States. And I fear we’re reviving it to revile those who violate ever-changing norms regardless of their intent.

To be fair, we don’t know all the circumstances of what happened on that trip. The reports in the Daily Beast and in the Times’ statements on the matter are opaque. This much seems clear: McNeil reportedly used the N-word after a student asked him whether her classmate at home should have been suspended for a video she made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. McNeil asked if the classmate had called someone else that slur or whether she was quoting a song or a book. And, just like the hapless Monty Python characters, he said the word itself.

In the end, at least six of the roughly 26 students on the Peru trip complained about McNeil’s comments on race. Two of them specifically said he used the N-word; the others said he had made generically racist remarks, invoked stereotypes about Black teenagers, and suggested that he did not believe in the idea of white privilege. That’s a controversial statement, to be sure, but it’s hardly a job-ending offense.

Instead, as best we can tell, it was the N-word that led to McNeil’s demise. After student complaints, Times executive editor Dean Baquet investigated the Peru trip and concluded that McNeil’s behavior had been “offensive” but not purposefully so. “He showed extremely poor judgment,” Baquet wrote of McNeil, “but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” That seems like a reasonable and thoughtful conclusion.

Too bad it didn’t last. But here’s the thing about blasphemy: your intentions don’t count. Unsatisfied by his measured response, over 150 Times staffers signed a letter to Baquet (who is African American) focused largely on the N-word and declaring that McNeil’s purpose in using it was “irrelevant.” Instead, the letter insisted “what matters is how an act makes the victims feel.”

The Times staffers are not the first persons to announce that blasphemy hurts, which is why believers across time—and into the present—have tried to stamp it out.

In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy—defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like”—punishable by death. In colonial Maryland, likewise, it was a capital crime to deny Jesus Christ as the son of God.

After American independence, most states continued to pass and enforce laws against blasphemy. The measures had different targets, but their goal was always the same: to “prevent argument” and “a man giving his honest opinion,” as famed atheist Robert Ingersoll declared in 1887, while defending a New Jersey client who had run afoul of the state’s anti-blasphemy law.

And that’s also the point of the unwritten but powerful rule that led to the ouster of McNeil. In response to a question, he was trying to frame an argument about the use of the N-word. And it does appear that he gave his honest opinion, which is precisely what the student had solicited.

Perhaps McNeil was trying to teach too much on the trip to Peru, one of several dozen “student journeys” offered each year for middle and high schoolers by the Times and its partner, Putney Student Travel. You don’t have to be a hidebound materialist—or a hopeless cynic—to imagine that the Times‘ first goal in these $5,500-per-person junkets is to generate revenue, not knowledge and understanding.

If McNeil actually challenged his students to think about where and when the N-word should be prohibited, more power to him. They probably learned more than they would have from teachers who simply present it as blasphemy and leave it at that. Saying the word, regardless of context or intent, triggers excommunication.

That’s why history professor Philip Adamo was suspended in 2019 by Augsburg University in Minnesota, where he had led a class discussion about the N-word. It began when a student read a passage aloud from an assigned text in the class, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which uses the word. Adamo later sent the class two essays on the N-word, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ popular essay “In Defense of a Loaded Word.”

It’s also why students in 2019 charged the New School’s literature professor Laurie Sheck with violating the school’s anti-discrimination policy. Her crime? Quoting Baldwin’s statement “I am not your (N-word),” which he made during a guest appearance on the old Dick Cavett Show. She also asked the class why filmmakers had changed the term to “Negro” in their Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary about Baldwin.

And it’s why Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen was shouted down after asking his class in 2018 whether it would be worse for a white man to punch a black man or call him the N-word. Rosen eventually canceled the course, which was called—you can’t make this up—“Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.”

I have no doubt that some of McNeil’s students were hurt by his use of the N-word. Ditto for the Times staffers who signed the letter. What I do question is whether we can have a democratic culture without the freedom to critique our ever changing rules about blasphemy.

And that’s what this dispute is really about. As law professors Randall Kennedy and Eugene Volokh argue in a recent article, teachers should retain the right to say the N-word for purposes of accuracy and analysis. An African-American raised in the segregated South, Harvard’s Kennedy describes racism as “a huge, destructive looming force that we must resist.” But he and Volokh do not believe that prohibiting the N-word serves that cause; instead, it makes it harder for us to teach and learn about racism itself.

You don’t have to agree with their article, which uses the full N-word—not the euphemism—in making its case. But you should be able to read and discuss it out loud, without fear that merely repeating its text, regardless of intent or context, will render you a pariah. We can resist racism and fight the new bans on blasphemy. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.