Awkward adventures in…

Awkward adventures in moderating. On my last panel, I was moderating a discussion on anger, in fiction and elsewhere. It was an hour and fifteen minutes of vibrant discussion; I think, overall, it went very well. One of the final comments, when we had a few minutes left to go, included someone quoting an incident (fictional, I think, though I don't quite remember), and as part of the quotation, using the n-word. (As an example of when it might be appropriate to be angry.)

And I was not quite sure what to do. As some of you may remember, I did the exact same thing once, as a panelist, and an audience member called me out on it, and I think rightfully so. She pointed out that even if my intentions had been purely academic, the use of that word was not value-neutral -- that just hearing it could be traumatic, like a slap in the face. Saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean you to actually feel that as a slap in the face," is rather useless after the fact. It took me a moment, but I apologized, and I remain grateful that she took the time to stand up and call me out on that usage. Not a mistake I'll make again.

So here I was as moderator, and I could see the audience reacting to that word leaving this person's mouth. Not everyone, but in a large hall, there were severallooks. I wasn't sure what to do. I did briefly think -- ah, here we are in a discussion on anger. If I were black or anyone else on the panel were black, would they have used that word so casually? Perhaps this is the right time for an intervention, for a comment calling attention to the issue, to the anger that such a usage might provoke.

I decided not to address it, though. For one, because there is a difference in power, when a panelist and moderator with microphone is speaking to an audience member. Secondly, because this is an international conference, and words connote differently in different places, and I am fairly sure from accent that the speaker was European, and I do not know if the n-word carries the same weight here as it does in America. Thirdly, because we were about to run out of time, and I didn't think there was any chance we'd be able to do a fair and nuanced analysis / discussion of the point before we'd have to clear the room.

So I let it go, and I think I would do the same again, in that same situation. But I regret it a bit as well. And so here I am, writing it out, hoping this delineation will be of us small use to us, going forward.

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