John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University with a particular interest in creole languages, sociolects, and “Black English.” He even hosts a podcast on the subject called “Lexicon Valley.”
But you probably know him better for his outspoken social commentary on race, politics, and current events in his column for The New York Times, his regular appearances on economist Glenn Loury’s podcast, “The Glenn Show,” his presence on social media, and his books — which include “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever,” and “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”
McWhorter’s perspective on online cancelation mobs, “safetyism,” music censorship, and the effect of hip-hop on American culture are often different from other prominent commentators and public intellectuals. Many of his views come from his Philadelphia upbringing and the guidance of his mother — a social worker and professor at Temple University — who taught him the subtleties and complexities of American culture.
“Being my mother’s son profoundly shaped my sense of America’s social landscape,” McWhorter says. “My mother raised me with a very strong awareness of injustice … and she inculcated in me that racism can be subtler than being called a dirty name or somebody burning a cross on your lawn.”
And of course, as a member of FIRE’s advisory council and a commentator who often lands on the “wrong” side of orthodox public opinion, McWhorter knows just how important free speech is.
“If we’re talking about an issue that’s worth discussing, there are inevitably going to be several legitimate viewpoints that need to be assessed,” McWhorter says. “If you want to get out of people everything that is useful to assessing an issue, you want people to feel free to express themselves.”
FIRE sat down with McWhorter to discuss free speech, the culture war, and more. View the video below!