Walter Mosley’s recent New York Times article, “Why I Quit the Writer’s Room,” detailing his contentious interaction with the HR department of a major entertainment studio that led to his quitting should be required reading for every American because it addresses what constitutes free speech in the workplace, in schools and in the arts. To summarize, Mosley was telling a personal anecdote in the writers room of CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery: “I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all n—ers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in n–er neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good.” An unidentified writer in the room complained to human resources about his use of the n-word and HR admonished Mosley not to say the word again. He could write it in a script, they explained, but not say it aloud. Mosley’s response was to quit the show.
There’s all kinds of crazy in that previous paragraph. The writer who was offended should have expressed their discomfort directly to Mosley so they could have a mature discussion. The offended writer should have asked themselves a few questions about whether or not taking offense was a legitimate response to a black man telling a story that happened to him and quoting the dialogue used. Clearly, the story has much more visceral impact — which was Mosley’s point — when you hear the actual word being spoken so cavalierly by a police officer. And why was there no offense taken to the use of the derogatory “paddy”? Finally, one has to question the ability of that writer to produce complex and layered characters and themes if they lack the sophistication to understand all that.
HR’s response is predictable because their language policy, like so many other rules in the workplace and schools, is based on the one-size-fits-all condom of policies: zero tolerance. “Zero tolerance” sounds like a strict ethical stance, but in reality it’s a lazy position created so institutions can appear culturally sensitive while really just trying to legally cover their asses. However, zero tolerance in anything related to free speech is antithetical to democracy and is destructive to promoting open discussions about important issues. What makes the American judicial system the foundation of our democracy is the realization that actions cannot be judged outside of context. We don’t judge just the action, we weigh the circumstances, the intent and any other factors that illuminate the cause of the action.
The most important context in this situation was that a major literary talent who has written dozens of critically acclaimed bestselling novels was in a writers room telling a story to other writers that reflected social conflict, cultural insensitivity, injustice and an unreliable narrator (the cop) unaware of how his prejudice contributed to the problem. What should have been a moment of insight instead reflects the very point that Mosley’s story expressed, except in this case HR is the unreliable narrator contributing to the problem.
The proper context for HR to curtail speech is when that speech is used in a way that promotes hate toward or the devaluation of a person or group based on religion, gender, gender identity, ethnicity or national origin. Mosley’s comment did the opposite: it revealed the harsh reality of how that hatred works. CBS TV Studios released a statement in response to Mosley’s article: “[W]e are committed to supporting a workplace where employees feel free to express concerns and where they feel comfortable performing their best work.” Employees should feel free to express concerns, but the expression of those concerns does not automatically make them policy. Feeling “uncomfortable” is not the same as being threatened by the language. When HR neglects to take on the responsibility of making that distinction, they aren’t encouraging the writers’ “best work,”especially since artists are supposed to use the audience’s discomfort to create effective art.
This story is not about racism and no one, including Mosley, has claimed it is. Star Trek: Discovery’s writers room includes among its admirably diverse staff of writers three African Americans, two Asian Americans, a Native American and a Latinx. This story is about scrutinizing inflexible policies for corporate convenience that result in curtailing the creative process and stifling individual speech that is focused on healing, not harming — and our responsibility to protect the difference.
In my favorite John Updike story, “A&P,” a teenager working at the grocery store watches the store’s manager bully three teenage girls whose clothing he doesn’t approve of: “‘After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy.’” To which the boy muses, “Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency.” Despite realizing how disappointed his parents will be and “how hard the world was going to be,” he quits in protest. But in the face of such arbitrary “policy,” what else could he do?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA Hall of Famer, contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter and a writer for the most recent season of Veronica Mars.