One Graceless Tweet Doesn’t Warrant Cancellation
Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and one of the most accomplished and respected psychiatrists in the world, recently tweeted about Nyakim Gatwech, the celebrated American model of South Sudanese descent who is known for her dark skin, writing, “Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.” A number of people on social media and within and outside Lieberman’s profession found his words offensive, particularly his use of the phrase “freak of nature” and specifically the term “freak” in a tweet about a Black woman, and the sequence of events that followed was, sadly, all too predictable.
As the Times’s Lola Fadulu reported Wednesday, Lieberman has resigned from his position as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, was suspended by the university and will no longer serve as psychiatrist in chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
The day before he was suspended, Lieberman apologized in an email to colleagues, saying, according to The City, that he had tweeted “a message that was racist and sexist” and contained “prejudices and stereotypical assumptions I didn’t know I held” and that he was “deeply ashamed and very sorry.” He offered that “an apology from me to the Black community, to women, and to all of you is not enough. I’ve hurt many, and I am beginning to understand the work ahead to make needed personal changes and over time to regain your trust.” Note, here, his understanding that the apology by itself was not the whole job, that he has learned much from our current culture and was trying to do the right thing.
But in this current culture, that’s not enough. Even after his sincere apology for a single mistake, Lieberman probably won’t be able to continue serving society — at least not as before — as the brilliant doctor he is.
His swift sanctioning — accompanied by a Zoom faculty meeting that was attended by hundreds and, according to The Times’s reporting, included the head of the hospital describing the tweet as “outrageous” — appears to have been conducted according to a fantastical notion that Lieberman had called a Black woman a “freak.” But he did no such thing. He used that word in the expression “freak of nature,” and that expression — regardless of what “freak” means by itself — was intended as a compliment. If you doubt it, consider that the supposedly offending phrase was bookended by the phrases “work of art” and “beautiful sight to behold.” Lieberman thought of himself as admiring Gatwech’s beauty, and I assume that most people understand that, even if they won’t admit it.
It would obviously be fair to say that Lieberman’s tweet reflected poor judgment, particularly for someone in his position. There’s no good reason for a senior university official to randomly and publicly remark on a model’s looks, however complimentary he thought he was being. But a compliment it was. He didn’t call Gatwech a “freak,” and to argue that he intended to requires a rather laborious reading of that tweet.
There is, also, certainly a point to the argument that referring to a Black woman with the word “freak” involved at all is a poor choice. As Elle Lett, a University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral fellow and medical student, wrote for Medium, “There is a history that dates back to the antebellum South” of “fetishizing, hypersexualizing and otherizing Black women in freak shows and displays to media and even medical textbooks. Black women are consistently dehumanized in America. By using ‘freak of nature,’ you separate Black women from the rest of human existence.”
One example of this fetishizing that comes from Europe, not the American South, is the history of the Khoikhoi South African woman Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman, who was, as a story in The Times said two decades ago, “put on display around Europe as a sexual freak” in the early 19th century because of her body type, degradingly billed as the “Hottentot Venus.” A type of barbarity that must not be forgotten.
But must Lieberman’s career be destroyed because of a tweet that pretty clearly reflects an ignorance of that history but that was, also, clearly well intended? We’re often told in such cases that what matters is not the intent of the perpetrator but the impact on the recipient of the message. But impact has degrees, and we have to consider whether some are claiming vaster impact in certain cases than plausibility would suggest. Because we’ve reached the point that there’s no room left to respond to Lieberman with nuance and prudence. To say: “We know you meant it as a compliment, but you should know that there are offensive connotations to using that word in reference to Black women, and an apology is owed.” And then — crucially — to accept a sincere and full-throated apology when it is given, as it was here.
For someone to instead, almost instantly, be suspended from one job, dismissed from another and resign from a third because of such a thing is a disproportion of punishment to crime. It is extreme and unnecessary and ultimately lacks reason. There’s something amiss if we’re now at the point that someone’s career is to be permanently tarnished and perhaps ended based on a passing error, which started as a misguided attempt at praise and which has been profusely apologized for. We must assess what the actual purpose of this kind of language policing is. We must ask: What, in terms of combating racism, is accomplished? Will it result in better and more available psychiatric care — or medical care in general — for Black people? Will it make Columbia University, where I am a faculty member, a more open-minded place?
I know that in terms of themes running throughout my newsletter since last summer, my take here may seem predictable. I’ve argued repeatedly — here, here, here and here — against overreaction to what might be called racial insensitivity. But on this subject, that predictability is something I gladly own and see as crucial. I, just like those who scuttled Lieberman, seek justice. It is unjust that someone’s life — and life’s work — be derailed because of a graceless way of putting something in an isolated instance. And race being involved in the gracelessness does not somehow render fairness irrelevant.
So, versed as we are now in the etiquette of the virtual meeting, consider a hypothetical scenario: At the Zoom session where Lieberman was dutifully condemned, one person puts the hand-up sign in her window, and when called on by the moderator, takes a deep breath and says, “Dr. Lieberman’s comment was inappropriate, and I see why a lot of people took exception to it. But I think this treatment of him is excessive. I don’t think he should be suspended or lose his job.” After an awkward pause, the applauding-hands icon appears in a different window, followed quickly by another, until the applauding hands decorate a substantial number of the windows, and many of them are from people of color. The chat section gradually fills up with people chiming in, echoing the meeting’s original Spartacus. The meeting ends in confusion. The next day, those who were brave enough to stand up to this new cancel-first fashion, who together are too numerous to feasibly face punishment for their unwillingness to acquiesce, gather and write a letter outlining their opposition to mauling someone over a minor tort and calling it social justice.
If only. Too often, in reality, we stand by and say nothing as we watch expulsions that we know to be unfair, out of fear that we’ll be next. I am unaware of any precedent that encourages us to think of this as moving society in the right direction.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”