I write to respond to the The Badger Herald’s coverage of the so-called “Blazing Saddles” incident a couple of weeks ago at the University of Wisconsin. As is well known by now, a student (or students) complained to the Equity and Diversity office because he was offended by the movie’s use of the “N” word, a racial epithet. To be sure, the use of racial epithets in class can indeed be a problem and needs a pedagogical justification in order to pass instructional muster. Invidious uses of such words are wrong, and call for a remedial response that respects both students as equal citizens and intellectual freedom. Given the university’s strong commitment to nondiscrimination and equal respect, it is best to assume non-invidious intent as a default position unless evidence exists to the contrary.
One noteworthy letter to the Herald was Eric Schmidt’s “Blazing Gaps in Herald Reporting,” which concerned the university’s apology for the class. As Schmidt points out, everything depends upon the context and why the instructor chose to show this movie. Taken as a whole, “Blazing Saddles” makes a mockery of racism, using humor to get us to think more dynamically and creatively about race in America. Without a sufficient picture of what transpired, we are left to wonder if the university has not overreacted, missing a chance, once again, to make a difficult yet important point about intellectual freedom in class, and how such freedom can enhance our thinking about controversial and painful issues about which we need more thought, not less. Though Schmidt accuses the Herald of not providing sufficient information, it also appears that the university has not given us the background information necessary to make a responsible judgment.
Schmidt, a senior in political science, raises a crucial question: If the university publicly denounces, without providing a reasoned justification, the showing of a widely-viewed and critically-acclaimed movie like “Blazing Saddles” in a class situation, just how free are we to talk honestly and in good faith about race at this university? Must we avoid great works of literature because they contain words offensive to some? Does sensitivity trump the pursuit of truth? May we only engage in discourse that is so “safe” it fails to challenge us to think hard and with an open mind? Is that what a great university is supposed to be?
One also wonders why the key responsibility to deal with such issues lies with the Equity and Diversity office, which was not established to safeguard and fathom the intricacies of academic freedom. Is it not time that we had a university institution whose primary responsibility is the protection and delineation of academic freedom?
I raise these questions because the way this case has been handled opens the door to such critical speculation. Due respect for students is a pedagogical obligation. But we also owe students our good faith intellectual and moral honesty, which can be both enlightening and unsettling at the same time. Mr. Schmidt appears to understand what is at stake better than the university itself, and for this, I salute him.
Donald Downs, Professor of political science, law and journalism, and President, Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights