Rhetoric Spring Colloquium: Desmond Jagmohan

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Candor and Courage: Ida B. Wells and Fearless Speech

This paper explicates Ida B. Wells’s argument that journalists and leaders have a moral obligation to speak fearlessly. To do so, I explicate the normative relationship between candor, courage, and duty underlying Wells’s anti-lynching editorials and reporting during the Progressive Era. I begin with her argument that yellow and impartial journalism are, in different ways, responsible for the precipitous rise in lynchings. Yellow journalism uses sensationalism to fuel whites’ fear and anxiety and, at times, goes so far as to coordinate lynchings. The more fact- driven and impartial journalism of the New York Times does no such thing. But it substitutes cold facts for moral courage and thus shirks an important social responsibility. Second, I contend that her willingness to risk death to expose the true causes of lynching to help others see their way toward justice and away from injustice exemplifies fearless speech, or what the ancients called parrhesia. Third, I question whether intrepid speech can be a moral obligation for journalists and leaders living under extreme persecution. 

With Christopher Tomlins, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law, UC Berkeley, as discussant


Desmond Jagmohan is an Assistant Professor in the Politics Department at Princeton University. He researches and teaches history of political theory, working primarily in the areas of American and African American political thought, with interests in slavery and modern political thought, theories of property and freedom, and historical methods. Based on several years of archival research, his current book project, Dark Virtues: Booker T. Washington’s Tragic Realism, recovers an unseen and more radical, if tragic, Booker T. Washington. It reconstructs his political ethics, including his moral defense of equivocation, concealment, and deception as political virtues under conditions of extremity. His second book, Slavery and Moral Agency, reads Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative as a philosophical response to proslavery arguments and a defense of a curious form of moral agency.


Co-sponsored by The Department of Ethnic Studies and The Center for Race & Gender


This event is free and open to the public.