Tag Archives: United States

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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Stay Away from Floodwater: Why I’m upset about Sandy

I am terribly far behind on my challenge, but instead of specifically writing a challenge post, I wanted to write about something that has been bothering me for a while.

It concerns the events surrounding Hurricane Sandy.

I live in the United States, considered by many to be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the nation. There is only one reason that any person living in this country should have died in that storm – that reason is stupidity.

But that is not the only reason people died in and after Sandy. That makes me angry. Very, very angry.

In the last ten years of my life – the years I have been aware of what is going on around me – we have watched any number of disasters cause far too many deaths. Most of these disasters struck with little to no warning. Tsunamis, for example, are usually unpredictable. Seismologists and geologists (and whoever else) studying earthquakes are working to find more reliable ways to predict those disasters, but progress isn’t as fast as we all wish it could be. Weather prediction, on the other hand, is quite advanced. We may not be able to say with exactitude where a hurricane will make landfall days before it happens, but we can approximate the time of landfall and the general area. We can predict days ahead of time that a hurricane will develop, and we can say with almost complete certainty that it will hit one area or another.

We can estimate storm surge and its effects. We can say with near certainty what areas will experience flooding days ahead of time. There was plenty of time to communicate and heed the evacuation warnings for Sandy. Plenty of time for officials to make certain everyone would heed their warning except perhaps a few exceptionally stupid people, but it seems to me that officials didn’t work hard enough. I’m not blaming the deaths on officials, but rather on the anti-science bias of the American public and the clearly inadequate SOPs that led to people staying in places that should have been completely evacuated and to inept responses after the storm.

Getting on the television and telling people to leave their homes and stuff behind was and is not enough, particularly in areas unused to disastrous storms. If you tell an American living in tornado alley that there is a tornado touching down and they need to find shelter, they will find shelter. If you tell someone living in the flood plains of a major river like the Mississippi or Minnesota to leave his or her home because that river is on the verge of flooding, they will nearly always leave their home*. When a damn breached in Iowa in 2010 and residents of the area nearby had only minutes to evacuate, no injuries were reported. Minutes. Why do these people listen to warnings and heed evacuation notices? Because they have seen on a somewhat regular basis the effects  flooding or high winds can have. Talk to a Californian about earthquakes – many will tell you that if they had advance warning of an earthquake, they would absolutely heed it.

I grew up near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. I grew up being told over and over again how dangerous floodwater is. To stay away from flood waters, even if it looks shallow, even if it looks like just an inch. Don’t ever try driving through even what looks like a small amount of water. I grew up watching clips of the very few people that don’t heed these warnings and discovering that I actually like being safe and alive. People who live in or near flood-prone areas better know what can happen when you ignore evacuation orders. We don’t worry about the possibility that officials are basically crying wolf.

I think in a lot of cases, the people of New York City and New Jersey that got caught in floodwater lacked that type of knowledge. I take for granted that everyone around me knows to stay away from flooding and to heed evacuation or emergency orders. When people here hear of a single person or family that tried to ride out a flood or just flatly refused to leave their home, we have a hard time feeling sympathy for them. We all understand how attached people get to homes and things, but in the end your home and your things aren’t going to come through the storm any better off just because you stay, and in staying you are a lot more likely to lose the most valuable thing of all – your life.

In places where floods and high-winds or other major hard-to-predict disasters are not a common occurrence, though, maybe people just don’t realize what they risk by ignoring warnings. That makes for a situation in which community leaders and officials need to get out the word about evacuations by doing more than just going on television. Whether that means going door to door or what, I don’t know. All I know is that it is shameful that in the year 2012 in the United States of America a hurricane predicted days ahead of time was able to take so many lives in one of the most developed areas of one of the most developed countries in the world.

*remember my stupidity exemption?

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Try to Think Globally

I think every region and country is probably at least somewhat guilty of being self-absorbed, but the sheer amount of it that I see from the United States amazes me. I’m not bashing my country – I love the US and most of the people in it (at least until I get to know them, ha). Yet I see way too often an incredible level of a the-world-revolves-around-us mentality.

Maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about, and maybe not.

I had a conversation in college with a few people about accents – as in how we pronounce words. One of these people is from New Zealand, another from somewhere in the eastern United States, another also probably from the eastern US and myself. People I met in college often expressed surprised at how little of the “Minnesotan” accent came through when I spoke*. We were discussing this and the New Zealand accent, and one of the people from the eastern US said, “I don’t have an accent.” The other three of us were at a loss when it came to explaining that there is no such thing as no accent. It’s basically impossible unless you invent a language, and even then it’d probably be labeled as an original or classic accent.

No one speaking English in the world today lacks an accent. You could speak American Broadcast English and you still have an accent – albeit one that is considered the most eloquent and easy to understand in the US. It is not possible to not have an accent. Even if your regional accent is barely perceptible, if you grew up in the US speaking English you’ll have an American accent.  Enough about accents – my point is that it takes an incredible level of self-centered attitude to think you could possibly not have an accent.

The general attitude of our news sources seems to favor that self-centered attitude as do our politicians and some of our small-business owners. In general it’s as if people here forget that the rest of the world exists and has people in it. We behave like everyone should emulate us. I don’t think it’s as conscious as thinking everyone should live like we do so much as we tend to forget that most people do not live as we do – whether that means our access to clean water or how many miles the average person travels by car in a year.

We even have the audacity to call ourselves Americans (and everyone else abides by this, perhaps because the entire world is too lazy to come up with a better label). America is a large land mass divided into three parts (two continents) – North, Central and South, yet this nation of roughly 310 million people lay claim to a term that should describe every person on the two continents.

I do wonder if other countries are as self-involved. I know the general attitude, probably not intentional, in the US is that people all over the world pay a lot of attention to what goes on here (not just what affects other countries, like our economic policies).

Again, I’m not bashing my country. I just wish more people would take a step back and try to think more globally.

*Scare quotes because the accent, though not uncommon, is by no means limited to Minnesota and also isn’t very strong in our most populated areas. Speak to an average person in Minneapolis, for example, and you may notice a few words, but you won’t hear the accent from Fargo.

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Ads that send me into blinding rage will cease… for a while.

Every citizen of the United States (and any person that lives here, I suppose) can breathe a sigh of relief. No, not because Obama was re-elected. You can breathe a sigh of  relief because you will no longer have to see or hear those ridiculous campaign ads. (The ads I refer to in the title of this post were the “vote yes” ads about the marriage amendment that were full of lies.)

The election is over, and I’ve been waiting so long for the few months of relief we will have. Okay, it might be a bit longer than that. Regardless, I’m happy it’s done.

I can’t say I’m all that pleased by the results. Michelle Bachmann, for example, was re-elected despite proving herself to be as plastic and horrible as every other incumbent politician in her debate against her opponent, Jim Graves. Jim Graves is my ideal candidate – fiscally conservative, willing to make changes, but socially at the very least he is live-and-let-live (he’s a Dem, in case you have no clue what I’m talking about).

Believe it or not, my ballot was purple. I am one of those independents that often splits my ticket. Never have I voted for all Dems or all GOP candidates. If we’re all being honest with ourselves, I highly doubt anyone who has actually educated themselves about each and every candidate individually could say all the candidates of one party or the other are best qualified.

I have got to thinking after reading a few post-election articles here and there: the rigidity of our parties at this point in time is horrifying. I doubt if Jefferson or Adams, for example, would mind so much that we have two major parties. I do think they’d be appalled by how divided the parties are and how unwilling to compromise.

It’s not exactly a bright part of our history, but representatives from the developing nation were actually willing to compromise on slavery in order to come to an agreement. Obviously that’s terrible, but at the same time what happened to our willingness to compromise?

Occasionally I say something along the lines of, “I like that our government is inefficient and has a hard time getting things done.” On the surface, that’s true, but it’s not quite reflective of what I really mean.

I like having two parties that disagree sharing power because I like that there are at least two perspectives being brought to the table. It should be hard to get things done, not because no one ever compromises or changes their minds, but because it takes time to hammer out solutions that everyone agrees on.

I’m not talking about the toothless legislation that is so often passed that’s full of weird compromises and pork spending. What I mean is really getting down to the bottom of things. Sometimes the Democrats are right. Sometimes the Republicans are. In a functioning democratic republic, time should be spent convincing one another using evidence to show which policy ideas are good ideas. Those ideas should then be pursued.

Back to the rigidity of parties – people like to talk about China’s political system, often saying it’s a bad system. I don’t ever want to have their system, but the United States is coming frighteningly close. In China, it’s my understanding that dissent is not well-liked. More and more that is true about both parties in the United States of America. Parties practically disown you if you run with them, but act individually when elected. It’s a terrible trend and we need to stop it.

On another note, I read somewhere that Puerto Rico’s non-binding referendum may have come out in favor of statehood. Why the hell would they want to become part of this country now of all times?

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