Oberlin: How Can People Be Threatened By Words? Easy.

People amaze me, sometimes in the worst of ways. Again it’s the comments. Always the comments.

Oberlin is having some issues with racism, homophobia, anti-semitism and possibly other things. The popular conclusion seems to be that it’s a very small group of people spreading hate. It probably is a small group; a small group of people can be scary. A small group of people can do a lot of damage psychologically and physically. Take a moment to consider what a group of 5 people* can accomplish in a community of around 3000.

One commenter on this article took it upon himself to talk about how not scary words are.

ronnie lane comment ronnie lane comment 2

Ronnie Lane if you do not understand how words can frighten and hurt people, then I can only presume you are entirely insensitive to what people who are noticeably different from those around them often go through.

You quote Novack as saying he doesn’t believe there is any word that needs to be suppressed. That, I believe, is true. However, there are words that need to be used constructively, not destructively. There are words of which, as a society, we need to work to eliminate the destructive usage. I don’t mean laws, I mean societal values.

When someone calls a black person the “n” word in a derogatory manner – that is something we as a society need to suppress by making it clear that that attitude or belief is unacceptable. As a society, as a culture we need to develop values that ostracize – yes, ostracize – those members of our society that can’t learn to get along. I’d like to eliminate racism even in the privacy of the home, but I’d be okay with eliminating the (now-)acceptable public/semi-public demonstration of it. That means I’d be okay if children of all colors and creeds could be friends  with one another, no questions asked. I’d like if our socio-economic classes were impossible to judge by our skin – that is I’d like statistical equality, so being white or Asian or black or Hispanic could never be a predictor of socio-economic class. Wouldn’t it be great if our chances at a job or a spot in a school could not be predicted by anything other than our merit, if everyone truly had an equal potential to get to a point in life where applying for a career track job or university was a possibility?

When someone calls a woman a bitch derogatorily, when a person treats a Hispanic person as if they are automatically stupid, when someone calls an Asian an “Oriental” as an insult – these are the things that society should react to. We should react, not with government censorship, but with societal censure. To the racist, the sexist, the homophobic, the anti-Semites we should react with harsh criticism. Harsh societal criticism. The local newspapers should refuse to publish letters to the editor that are openly or overtly hostile to a race or religion or sex or sexual orientation or gender or what have you. Friends should confront, family should confront, strangers should confront. It’s not that I think we need hostility in these situations, but we need, “How can you think that way? what could make you think that way?”

At the same time that we need more tough questions, we need more open discussion. We need less accusations of racism when people are simply struggling for words. I certainly find it difficult, coming from a position of relative privilege, to try to discuss race without sounding racist. (Homophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism I have a much easier time discussing.) We need to establish ways to have tough discussions, and we need to come together. There are the straw-men – those that aren’t racist or bigoted or anti-Semite – and there are the real ones. How we identify these mystifies me, but we need to work harder to do so. We need to find a way to talk about our societal problems without attacking each other, without condemning one another so quickly. We need to mingle more in society, rather than segregating ourselves by political party, religion, lack of religion, race, sex, gender identity, etc.

We need a lot of things. I’m sure most of what I’ve written sounds lofty and idealistic. I know it’s a slow process, but doesn’t anyone else feel like we’ve lost the key parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech? What is wrong with our society that on a college campus, arguably one of the most liberal places you can find on the planet, people are running around like it’s the 1950s trying to intimidate and scare people based on some arbitrary status? And can we please have a discussion about race where all the races involved are actually present and represented?

How can people be threatened by words? Easy. People act on words. They may only write the words down, but they may also write racial slurs and follow up with an attack. What can 5 people do? To one, they could kidnap, beat, potentially rape, murder, steal from, cause PTSD. 5 kids can hurt one lonely child easily. 5 adults or teens have been known to do horrible things. Even one single adult can single-handedly wreak havoc on a community with words and actions.

Words are powerful. They can be scary, in much more than just a figurative way. There’s a reason yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is illegal. There’s a reason there is a charge called “making terroristic threats” and a reason you can be charged for that without threatening en masse. Words terrorize. Symbols terrorize. Marking a community with the wrong words in the wrong way shuts people off from one another, it segments our population, it makes us suspicious and hateful of one another. Encouraging free speech is not the same as allowing racist remarks to go unchecked or un-censured.

*5 is an arbitrary number

**Truth: I really wanted to rant about the commenter above appearing to be white and male, but he may be of a low class, he could be gay, he could be a she – “Ronnie” is ambiguous – or trans, he could be very oddly strong-minded, he could even be delusional. I made assumptions about him at first (white and male, how much more privileged could you get in the US?), but I guess it’s better not to rant about something when I don’t know the facts.


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2 thoughts on “Oberlin: How Can People Be Threatened By Words? Easy.

  1. please sign the petition to stop racism, see my post and link to petition here:

  2. It’s interesting that he talks about Zappa. My impression is that he wants to claim the moral stance of the underdog, but of course what he is denying is the effect of such language on those with diminished social standing. It can be a tough call as to how social status shakes out in the particulars, but it seems to me the shift is an invariant theme in PC-bashing and conservative appeals to free speech. They just don’t deal with the realities of the context at hand.

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