Controversial Statements Should Be Analyzed According To Merit

To the editors:

While Ben Kawaller’s piece entitled “The Era of PoHoMoPho” (op-ed, Mar. 7) is spot-on in its treatment of the exchange of taboos between close friends, I believe Kawaller misses the mark when he extends his analysis to public figures. His logic is that a word such as “faggot” loses its sting if the person saying it is cuddly, left-of-center, and/or not despicable—so Jon Stewart makes the cut, while Ann Coulter does not.

One need not look far to see the consequences of this focus on the speaker rather than the speech. For instance, a certain racial slur is okay for Jay-Z, but not for Michael Richards. Or, to use an example closer to home, if an individual is disliked or perceived as illiberal (and at Harvard, these two usually go hand in hand), their benign-to-mildly-offensive comments can take on new degrees of horrendousness, suddenly becoming the grounds for unprecedented public sanction.

The point is that statements should be analyzed according to their merits, not by some process that licenses certain individuals to use offensive language. Or, put differently, words hurt. And if someone is hurt by a particular word, he will not likely be mollified by the assurance that it’s okay because the speaker was “allowed” to say it.


Cambridge, Mass.

March 11, 2007