Today I am taking a sidestep from my harm series and examining the case of Dr. Greg Patton.

On August 20th, 2020 Dr. Patton, a professor at USC’s business school with over 20 years of teaching experience, delivered a lecture on oratory to students in the master’s program. He explained the importance of avoiding filler words such as um or er. He then he gave an example of a Chinese filler word – that (那个) – which happens to sound like an English pejorative that starts with N and is commonly heard in rap music.

In China, the common word is that—that, that, that,” he explained. “So in China it might be nèi ge – nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries.” Use this link to view an America Uncovered video clip of the lecture.

Some class participants found the example offensive and on August 21st a mail titled “Subject: A Callous, Reckless Illustration in Management Communication” was sent to Dean Geoffrey Garrett by an anonymous group of students. They accused Patton of racism and malicious intent to harm their mental health. Later one of the students gave an interview on NPR but withheld her last name for fear of backlash.

Dr. Patton had been using the example for years and had purposely included it to be more inclusive to international students. As he said in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine shortly afterwards: “We’re a global university. A third of our business students are international. We’re deeply entrenched on the Pacific Rim—our first Chinese student graduated in 1892. You would expect to have examples from Japanese, Korean, and Chinese brought into class. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t.

How did Dean Garrett react to the complaint? He apologized for Patton’s “misconduct” and suspended him from teaching the course. Following a further review he was reinstated. This particular incident in the unending PC battles has already received in-depth online and offline coverage and I only want to add one comment.

What bothers me is that the students who wrote the letter remained anonymous as did the woman who gave the NPR interview. What has happened to open dialog? Is it impossible to approach a person directly with your grievance? You will mar an individual’s reputation but only from the safety of anonymity? Shameful.

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