John McWhorter on Cursing, Anti-Racism, and Why ‘We Need to Stop Being So Afraid’

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter on “anti-racism” as a new, misguided civic religion and his new book on curses, Nine Nasty Words.
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If advocates of “wokeness,” “critical race theory,” and “anti-racism” seem to be acting like religious zealots who must crush all heretics, that’s because they are, argued Columbia University linguist John McWhorter at a 2018 debate at the Soho Forum.

“Anti-racism as currently configured has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism to today [being] a religion,” said McWhorter. “I don’t mean that as a rhetorical thing. It actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith.”

The 55-year-old author first explored his idea of anti-racism as “Our Flawed New Religion” in a 2015 essay at The Daily Beast. He’s expanding the concept into a book, due out next year, that he’s serializing on Substack. Tentatively titled The Elect, it lays out his argument about the misguided fervor undergirding the anti-racist movement championed by people such as Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Meanwhile, McWhorter’s latest volume to hit store shelves is Nine Nasty Words, a study of how curse words such as fuck and the N-word became commonplace, unsayable, or something in between. Reason’s Nick Gillespie talked with McWhorter about the shifting status of curse words and accusations of systemic racism in contemporary America.

Written by ReasonTV


  1. John Mcwhorter is a delightful man! I love his openness and his willingness to speak honestly without the fear of offending people. I'm 60 and I miss people being open and honest. I haven't changed my level of openness because I have no fear of being accused of racism or being cancelled. I've already made my way in the world and found success and in the business I own; it's not really possible for anyone to cancel me. I don't think it would be much h fun to be a young person now days and live in fear of being open and honest. To have to pretend to go along with the mob or be harrassed. To not be allowed to have a free exchange of ideas without being called a fascist or nazi. It's really a shame. I'm also happy that my sons are no longer in the school system and have finished college as well. I would definitely home school them if I had young children now days. There's no way I would allow my children to be brainwashed or bullied into silence. Hiw awful for students. When I was in school we were encouraged to think independently and originally and to have open and polite discourse without fear.

  2. I've done two of his audio college courses, but only when I was sick. It's strange to hear his voice when not sweating and blowing my nose.

  3. I really like John and much of what he has to say, but I think he's a little out of touch. Cunt has become much more mainstream in the US in the last few years and isn't a female only insult. Fag/faggot is also used pretty generically and isn't predominately directed towards gays anymore either, South Park had a whole episode about it over 10 years ago.

  4. John McWhorter did a couple guest lectures in Sam Mchombo's Ling 5 class at Berkeley when I was there 20 years ago, and I'd see him regularly on campus for the next couple years. He always seemed to recognize me and greet me. That was not all that typical for profs. He seemed a lot more down to earth. His lectures were good, but I decided I liked him because he seemed like a good guy. This was despite his on-campus reputation as a bit 'controversial'… nowadays, I suspect he'd receive a far worse reaction due to the dominant ideology of intolerance to intellectual diversity.

  5. It's fear of the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune in the absence of any actual gods and a politics that can elect your actual neighbour into a leadership position in the land of the free ?

  6. The 'C' word is only really a big deal in the USA. In the UK and Australia, it's the sort of thing you can use in casual conversation.

    EDIT: Ah, you guys only understand the 'C' word to be a slur against women, yeah nah it has nothing to do with women in our usage.

  7. The purpose of cursing and/or using strong profanity is to help drive, shock and force your comprehension onto others into believing your argument, story or ideology in order to get your message or viewpoint across.

  8. 20:30 My biggest problem with this whole taking offense to words thing is that we can't even use the fucking words when were talking about them or else we are seen as using them against someone. There was a time not too long ago where we still had the intellectual freedom to discuss these words. In college, my professor put a certain book by Randall Kennedy on our assigned reading for both discussion and so we would be forced to go to the bookstore and ask for it. That shit wouldn't fly today but there class gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the word.

    Side note: I kept all my college books and novels and I had a very awkward start to a conversation with a black girlfriend at the time thanks to this book.

  9. 0:10 I have seen exactly that sign before. It was no colour-foto from the thirties here in Germany, and darauf stand geschrieben: "Deutschland erwache!"
    This was then, and is now pure UGLYNESS.

  10. This professor is a product of an improving situation who doesn’t understand his new privilege or how his privilege was earned. It’s good that he has it, but it’s bad that he doesn’t know the lessons learned. His privilege is more tenuous because of his ignorance. He knows that there was a change, but he doesn’t understand why.