Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

The departure of Donald McNeil from the New York Times is a troubling moment for American journalism.

On Friday afternoon, Donald McNeil, who has been a science reporter at The New York Times since 1976 left the paper. His departure comes more than a week after a thinly-sourced article in the Daily Beast reported that McNeil had “repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks … including, according to two complaints, using the ‘n-word,’” during an educational trip to Peru with high school students.

McNeil was further accused of having “suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege .. said white supremacy doesn’t exist … was also disrespectful to many students during mealtimes and in other settings” and “used stereotypes about Black teenagers.”

But the most serious allegation against McNeil is that he used the “n” word and his departure letter explained what happened.

“I was asked at a dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year old in which she used a racial slur,” McNeil wrote. “To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.”

While this may sound like a self-serving explanation it tracks with what the Times claimed to have discovered in its own investigation. As a Times spokesperson told the Daily Beast, when it initially ran the piece on McNeil, “We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”

In other words, McNeil had used the word, but not in an abusive, derogatory, or racist manner. It appears that he simply repeated the question he was asked. In virtually any other context this would be seen as an unfortunate error and not something worthy of causing someone to lose their job. That’s what first happened.

But this was not good enough for 150 staffers at the Times who wrote an open letter to the paper’s publishers. The signees claimed to be “outraged and in pain” and asserted, without any evidence, that McNeil had shown “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.”

Even worse, the signees argued that even if the Times concluded the use of the “n” word was not done “maliciously or with hateful intent” the “intent is irrelevant.”

This is an astounding statement. Does the way we use words, even ones deemed offensive, not matter anymore?

What is, however, even more astounding is that it apparently swayed the paper’s editor, Dean Baquet and was enough for the Times to hasten McNeil’s departure. In announcing that the four-decade veteran was leaving, Baquet used similar language as the aforementioned letter, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” which is a reversal of what the paper had said days earlier.

I find it genuinely mind-boggling that a newspaper would argue that the intent of language, even racist language, is not relevant.

It's one thing if McNeil had a documented track record of racial insensitivity, but to be fired, for what appears to be a one-off incident in which he simply repeated a racist word is frankly insane. As for the other alleged insensitive statements, how is not believing in white privilege (if true) a fireable offense?

But it seems more and more that we operate in a culture of “one strike and you’re out” when it comes to issues of racism and sexism. It’s reminiscent of an incident at Netflix in 2018 when the company’s head of communication used the “n” word as a way of emphasizing how offensive Black people find that word. He was subsequently let go.

Indeed, one doesn’t even need to use the “n” word to face consequences. Consider, for example, the linguistics professor at USC who was suspended for using a Chinese word that sounded like the “n” word. I get that these are anecdotal examples and the plural of anecdote is not data, but these incidents have an enormous chilling effect and put people in harm’s way for using words and expressing ideas that they might not understand or appreciate are offensive. It is, in effect, lowering the bar for others who might “commit” similar offenses.

If intent doesn’t matter when it comes to racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination than how does anyone ever learn from their mistakes? Should McNeil have not repeated the “n” word? Clearly yes. But wouldn’t it make more sense to explain to them why that is the case and use it as a teachable moment rather than forcing him to lose his job?

Personally, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with repeating an offensive word. If someone uttered an anti-Semitic epithet and I understood that their intent wasn’t malicious - and they were trying, for example, to elucidate a point - I would not be upset. But that’s me. I understand that other people have different standards and I do my best to respect that and not use words, like the “n” word,” that are clearly offensive. That’s what you do in a society! But in a society we also learn to forgive and allow people to engage in introspection and learn from their errors.

Some might argue that the “n” word operates in a rarefied air of offense, and I understand why that is. But other words are considered deeply offensive to various racial and ethnic groups? Will all the people who defended Rep. Ilhan Omar’s use of the word “benjamins” to describe American Jews supportive of Israel now reconsider their views because intent no longer matters? After all, the 150 Times employees who signed that letter argued “that what matters is how an act makes the victims feel,” which is perhaps the lowest standard imaginable.

All of us engage in subjective responses to words or events, which is why considering intent or past bad acts is crucial. It seems legitimately impossible to have a functional workplace (or society for that matter) if we assess language based solely on the metric of “did people take offense to it.” But, in effect, that’s what would happen if you take the position that intent doesn’t matter. The Times retreat on Don McNeil may, in the larger scheme of things not seem like a big deal, but it opens up a very messy can of worms for journalism and the larger culture.