Ethical Quote Of The Month: Bret Stephens’ Critical Column About New York Times Cowardice And Hypocrisy That The Times Tried To Censor

Stephens

Ethics Alarms is temporarily parting with its usual practice by publishing Times columnist Bret Stephens’ suppressed column in full. Normally, I regard doing this as unethical: the publication that pays for an essay deserves to have the benefit of the links and the views. But this was published not by Stephen’s employer, whom he serves as house conservative with varying effectiveness, but by a competitor, the New York Post, to which the piece was leaked. As a leaked document, it is fair for Ethics Alarms to publish, and as an important piece of evidence further proving the corruption of American journalism, I believe that Stephens’ spiked op-ed needs to be widely read. I doubt that the mainstream media can be trusted to give it the circulation it needs.

Stephens wrote his column in response to this incident, where his paper fired a respected journalist after its investigation of his reportedly using the word “nigger” in a discussion with students indicated that none of his remarks had been, I wrote, “sexist or racist, but that he had used words employed by sexists or racists to talk about sexism or racism, rather than using the approved poopy/ pee-pee/woo-woo baby talk codes (n-word, b-word, c-word) demanded by language censors.” “Initially, the Times’ editor, Dean Baquet, tried to be fair and to uphold what the Times is supposed to respect—the Bill of Rights,” I continued,”but eventually capitulated to his woke and anti-free speech staff, as he has before.”

Stephens told colleagues the column was killed by Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. The piece the Times didn’t want the public to see circulated among Times staffers and others until someone sent it to the New York Post.

I will say at the outset that Stephens should quit, just as Glenn Greenwald quit his own organization when it blocked publication of his piece about the Hunter Biden story embargo .I don’t know if there are enough journalists of integrity and honesty who are concerned about the ruinous abdication of their profession from its crucial obligations to democracy to prevent the death spiral into totalitarianism. But the few there are need to step up.

Here is Bret Stephens’ column:

Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.

It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.

A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.

I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. Late last week, Donald J. McNeil, a veteran science reporter for The Times, abruptly departed from his job following the revelation that he had uttered a racial slur while on a New York Times trip to Peru for high school students. In the course of a dinner discussion, he was asked by a student whether a 12-year old should have been suspended by her school for making a video in which she had used a racial slur.

In a written apology to staff, McNeil explained what happened next: “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.”

In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would “work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

This is not a column about the particulars of McNeil’s case. Nor is it an argument that the racial slur in question doesn’t have a uniquely ugly history and an extraordinary capacity to wound.

This is an argument about three words: “Regardless of intent.” Should intent be the only thing that counts in judgment? Obviously not. Can people do painful, harmful, stupid or objectionable things regardless of intent? Obviously.

Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.

That ought to go in journalism as much, if not more, than in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?

Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.

No wonder The Times has never previously been shy about citing racial slurs in order to explain a point. Here is a famous quote by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater that has appeared at least seven times in The Times, most recently in 2019, precisely because it powerfully illuminates the mindset of a crucial political player.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ “states’ rights” and all that stuff.”

Is this now supposed to be a scandal? Would the ugliness of Atwater’s meaning have been equally clearer by writing “n—, n—, n—”? A journalism that turns words into totems — and totems into fears — is an impediment to clear thinking and proper understanding.

So too is a journalism that attempts to proscribe entire fields of expression. “Racist language” is not just about a single infamous word. It’s a broad, changing, contestable category. There are many people — I include myself among them — who think that hardcore anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. That’s also official policy at the State Department and the British Labour Party. If anti-Semitism is a form of racism, and racist language is intolerable at The Times, might we someday forbid not only advocacy of anti-Zionist ideas, but even refuse to allow them to be discussed?

The idea is absurd. But that’s the terrain we now risk entering.

We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.

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21 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Month: Bret Stephens’ Critical Column About New York Times Cowardice And Hypocrisy That The Times Tried To Censor

  1. Fine words here: “What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?”
    If he believes them, how is it that he has worked for the NYT while it pushed – without evidence – the ‘Russian interference’ hoax and the ‘no evidence’ hoax?

      • And how about the obligatory swipe at Trump: “It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act).”

        Fuck you, Bret. Lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. This is the team you chose, the roll you chose: House nigger, er, conservative. You were let into the house to do a cushy job rather than being left outside to be dumped upon. Toe the line or stop taking the pay checks. Asshole.

  2. So based on the times new standard can we expect Stephens to be canceled because he wrote the word nigger? I’m sure one of those 150 people who work for the times must have seen it or yet leaked it to make sure it would be public. Based on the new standard perhaps they were trying to get him fired.

    • Let’s involve the other story; One of the interesting things with the Gina Carano debacle was that she was under some kind of double-secret probation; Lucasfilms has already scrapped the spinoff series they pitched at Investor Day last year, and reports are that they were just waiting for her to do something so they could fire her. While she might not have known how close Damocles’ hammer was, she knew she was in shit. She knew her spinoff was dead.

      So… Real question: Was she trying to get fired? Spinoff: dead. Future work prospects: minimal. What did she have to lose? I’m not saying that Lucasfilm has cause, or what they did was right… But the writing was on the wall, and we live in the real world. I’ve had this attitude before, particularly when speaking to progressives (which she was also doing); Eventually, you’ll say something they’ll decide to take offense at, it’s inevitable. Hell, you could quote their own words back at them and they might still go off… So why try? If the destination is the same one way or the other, pad the exit chute and blast away.

      For Brett Stephens, he’s criticizing his own employer for firing someone who said “nigger” in a context obviously not intended to cause harm, and almost certainly did not, in fact, cause harm. When you take that context in, and then type out the quotation: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ “states’ rights” and all that stuff.” You have a point, but you know the article will never be approved by your employer, but it’s not unforeseeable that it sees the light of day anyway. I’m unsure as to whether this was a colorful resignation letter or a dare, but I think the assertion that it was a work project he expected to see print from the Times is… novel, at best.

      • And just because some people (perhaps not the regulars here, but you know they exist) are determined to interpret things in the worst context possible, when I say “You have a point”, I meant the article Stephens wrote as a whole, not that the quotation is meaningful in any way other than as an example of a quote that is watered down by babying up the test.

        The sanitization of ugly quotes is a boon to the hateful; I’ve only heard the slur in question directed hatefully at another person once in my life, and it was jarring. It’s the kind of thing that requires the full disinfecting power of sunlight, not to be tucked in under juvenile euphemisms.

      • This was my thinking exactly (regarding Stephens, not Carano – her tweet seems far to inoffensive to be a “go ahead and fire me” missive). Stephens’ Never-Trump shtick is losing relevance very rapidly now, and the Times doesn’t really need a token conservative who might criticize the new Democratic power structure, so he surely knows his time at his current job is limited. Better to get fired for something like this, which might help shore up his conservative bona fides which he has spent the last few years eroding in the service of Trump hate. Getting fired for defending free speech might help take the stink of the New York Times off him for a conservative audience in a way that just being let go because his services are no longer required wouldn’t.

        • Good observation. I lost all respect for him when he left the WSJ to become a token conservative at tThe NYT. His writing quickly lost a meaningful perspective and readers noticed and stopped reading him. Perhaps the article was all about “please fire me.”

  3. This is an excellent inquiry into the current state of political culture. The left has discovered one of the things it has historically eschewed — the concept of strict liability, and the power it brings them to redefine the English language in America, and by extension, the political environment. For years, liberals have found crimes which didn’t consider intent offensive, and for good reason. Alas, it seems that is no longer the case.

    At the risk of being pedantic, strict liability — for those who may not be aware — is a type of crime or regulatory violation where intent does not matter. The quintessential strict liability crime example is statutory rape, where violation of the statute requires no general or specific intent. Regardless of whether the violator knew, had reason to know, or intended to have sexual relations with a minor person, the fact he/she/xe/them did is all that matters.

    The word “nigger” has now become, in the world of the Left, a strict liability offense when uttered in any form and for any reason. More and more, this is also becoming true of descriptive constructions like “n-word, ” “n*****,” “n—–,” or “n_____.” The recent incident with the Times shows just how successful this effort has become, and is sure to become a model for other words considered to be offensive at some fundamental level. There is no reason to believe the proponents of this new morality will be circumspect in this expansion, either.

    Using the power of the mob, the Left has found that they can circumvent the First Amendment by ginning up social outrage and placing pressure on companies to do what the law cannot — punish speech. Make no mistake, losing your livelihood is about as strict a punishment short of prison as can be imagined, at least in the West. Not only that, how long do we suppose it will take before the mob looks for a way to attack the social safety net (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) to prevent the “canceled” from accessing its services? Impossible? Don’t you believe it.

    This is already being expanded further to pressure service industries and even the banking sector to deny their services to people, businesses, and even whole sectors of the economy that the Left can incite the mob to “cancel.” The road to perdition is paved with strict liability offenses, which is one reason why they are so rare in law. Cumulatively, strict liability offenses can be a doomsday weapon that destroys not only its target, but also its wielder and the society they hope to create.

    The Left also knows history, and history shows over time that once actions begin to have social consequences outside the legal arena, the legislatures begin an assault on that problem. Eventually, the zeitgeist will force the legal community to adopt laws that reflect it. At that point, the First Amendment will be as dead in fact as it is becoming in spirit.

    Stephens’ column is important, and its spiking instructive — arguably even signature significance. I doubt that observation requires further exposition in light of the foregoing. Stephens’ spurned column may well turn out to be the ethics quote not just “of the month,” but a signpost on the way to the Long Night of the American experiment.

      • I hope you’re right, but I seriously doubt it.

        My apologies if James Lindsay is already widely known by you or your commentors, but I recently read an article of his and have been thinking deeply on it:

        https://newdiscourses.com/2020/12/psychopathy-origins-totalitarianism/

        If his hypotheses are correct, this is yet another step on the way to totalitarianism. People aren’t waking up to the fact that “systemic racism” is a pseudo-reality; they’re doubling down. (Very smart) normal people in my life are scaring me. Someone I respect very much just shared that he read something the other day that taught him that with racism, it’s not intent that matters but function. How did he get to the point where he stopped thinking critically if the word “race” is mentioned? I think Lindsay does a good job explaining that in the essay I linked above. I don’t know how right it is, but it rings true and it’s utterly frightening.

        • Thank you for posting the well-written and research article. Yes, we are far down the road to a leftist cult-driven totalitarian society. I do, however, find many people are finally understanding the danger we face. That gives me hope.

  4. Guess Stephens is a product of his environment. Just had to get that slight in against Trump. Great article otherwise, but that Trump comment was jarring. Would have been the same if he replaced Trump with Clinton.

    • Yeah, I noticed that too. Can anyone write anything in the media today without insulting Donald Trump in it? It shows that they have such a hollow ideology that they are nothing without Donald Trump.

      • Ooops. I should have put my rant in here, so I’ll gladly say it again:

        And how about the obligatory swipe at Trump: “It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act).”

        Fuck you, Bret. Lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. This is the team you chose, the roll you chose: House nigger, er, conservative. You were let into the house to do a cushy job rather than being left outside to be dumped upon. Toe the line or stop taking the pay checks. Asshole.

  5. Brett Stephens will now be fired. As a retired newspaper publisher, I am alarmed at the open attacks on free speech. Our education system’s lack of understanding in this area is a death sentence for our nation. Intolerance from leftists has serious unintended consequences. Even despots know that locking up mouthy but non-violent dissidents is wrong.

    The threat to free speech on Western campuses is very different from that faced by atheists in Afghanistan or democrats in China. But when progressive thinkers agree that offensive words should be censored, it helps authoritarian regimes to justify their own much harsher restrictions and intolerant religious groups their violence.

    It is worth spelling out why free expression is the bedrock of all liberties. Free speech is the best defense against bad government. Politicians who err (that is, all of them) should be subjected to unfettered criticism. Those who hear it may respond to it; those who silence it may never find out how their policies misfired.

    In all areas of life, free debate sorts good ideas from bad ones. Science cannot develop unless old certainties are queried. Taboos are the enemy of understanding. When China’s government orders economists to offer optimistic forecasts, it guarantees that its own policymaking will be ill-informed. When American social-science faculties hire only left-wing professors, their research deserves to be taken less seriously.

    The law should recognize the right to free speech as nearly absolute. Exceptions should be rare. Child pornography should be banned since its production involves harm to children. States need to keep some things secret: free speech does not mean the right to publish nuclear launch codes. But in most areas where campaigners are calling for enforced civility (or worse, deference) they should be resisted.

  6. That a NYT editorialist writes this sentence is shocking:

    //That ought to go in journalism as much, if not more, than in any other profession.//

    as much as, if not more than. The way it is written, it will expand to the ungrammatical “as much than, if not more than”.

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