Westboro not the only source of hate
The past week has seen numerous articles about the visit that the University will soon receive from the infamously anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church Wednesday at 8:45 a.m. outside Rutgers Hillel. At first, I was hesitant to address this topic, as it was clear that so much has already been said, but upon examining The Daily Targum and the numerous counter-protests that have been planned on Facebook, I realized that a very broad point regarding hate speech on campus has been entirely overlooked in our ongoing dialogue about the subject.
But before I make my point, I would like to applaud Hillel for its tireless efforts to send a unified message against hate to the protesters and to the community at large, and to highlight the importance of the diversity that the University embodies in a manner that is both peaceful and positive in nature. I also would like to encourage every University student to follow the lead of Hillel and the Rutgers University Student Assembly, which have both worked to encourage students and supporters to wear the University's scarlet color on Wednesday as a sign of solidarity against a group who, through their extreme actions, seeks to provoke in others the hate that they themselves exude.
Having applauded the efforts of the Hillel and RUSA, I would like to move forward and begin a more far-reaching and perhaps controversial dialogue about hate speech at the University.
I think that we can all agree that hate speech can be defined as a term for speech — verbal, written and symbolic — that is directed toward a person or group of people with malicious intent. The goal of hate speech is to defame an individual or group of people, either because of membership in a particular social group or because of unalterable biological trait. We know that those who use hate speech attack race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion or lack thereof, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance and mental capacity as liabilities and flaws that can be justly ostracized.
This is the type of hate speech, speech behind which lies a malicious intent, that the University will stand united against on Wednesday. But to be fair to ourselves and those around us, we must delve deeper into this subject matter and ask ourselves some tough questions. Does hate speech run deeper than speech that is intentionally used to harm others? Is the defining aspect of hate speech the malicious intent that lies behind it or is it the malicious effect that it has upon its subjects? Does hate speech include speech that is used loosely and uncritically, even jokingly, in conversation but which is both insensitive and disparaging to its subjects? And what about the false assumptions that lie behind hate speech and may exist even when hate speech is not articulated? Are these assumptions not as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the speech that follows?
There is a reason that I ask about the relevance of the intent that fuels hate speech, the effects of hate speech and the assumptions that underlie hate speech. Depending on what we regard as relevant, we too may all be guilty of perpetuating hate, either through our intentions, through the effect of our speech or actions or through the assumptions that we hold, share and pass on to others. If we see the intention of, effect of and assumptions behind speech as relevant, we should begin to examine our speech more critically.
It is extremely doubtful that any members of the University's relatively progressive community use hate speech with malicious intent, as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church do; but it is not uncommon to overhear insensitive and sometimes hateful phrases that have a malicious effect on the subjects of the speech or see inconsiderate and untrue assumptions go unquestioned.
Examples of speech that is hateful in effect are plentiful at the University. Many students still use "retarded" and "gay" as synonyms for "stupid." No matter how mindlessly these verbal tools may be employed, the equation of these words with stupidity implies that those who are mentally handicapped are idiots and suggests a total disrespect toward members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, whose social identity, gay, is being called stupid. "No homo" is jokingly used by men in our University community to tell other men that sexual advances are not welcome, yet it also perpetuates the stereotype that gay men do consistently seek to prey on all men that they see, while also suggesting that advances made by one man on another are laughable. It is also not uncommon to hear jokes about the appearances of others. But saying that somebody looks like "trailer trash" or looks "ghetto" may also be a classist statement. By ridiculing the appearances of others, one chastises another for not meeting one's standards for superficial appearances while also showing ignorance to the socioeconomic factors that may prevent somebody from not looking like "trailer trash" or "ghetto."
Assumptions are just as dangerous as speech. Earlier this year, a Targum opinions letter ["Rutgers shouldn't get caught in open-admissions trap" pointed out that the University provides many] remedial courses. Behind this statement lies the assumption that these courses symbolize that the University has lowered its standards and now accepts anybody who can read "See Spot Run." What this assumption overlooks is that such remedial courses undoubtedly benefit many who have do not hail from schools that enable their students to become proficient in every subject area. While these courses are sure to help many students who may have not tried hard enough when presented the opportunity to become proficient in particular subject areas, they also help many students who have not had the opportunity to become proficient in some subject areas. Another example of a false assumption going unquestioned was exposed last week, when the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate introduced a recommendation that said that the Food and Drug Administration's ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men is not against the University's nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation. Behind this recommendation stood the dangerous assumption that men who have sex with men constitute a group of people who do not share a natural sexual orientation, but who voluntarily engage in a risky behavior. This assumption has been used in the past to justify far more extreme actions against these men. Luckily, the Student Affairs Committee's assumptions were successfully challenged by students and University Senators, who realized that the only thing that men who have sex with men have in common is a sexual orientation, regardless of whether or not they identify within the gay, straight or bisexual communities.
As we stand united against the Westboro Baptist Church, we need to question the intent of, the effect of and the assumptions that underlie our speech. Otherwise, we too may be responsible for perpetuating ignorance and hate on campus. A good first step to do this would be by attending "Pretty Scary Language Program" sponsored by Delta Lambda Phi, Sigma Gamma Rho and Sigma Iota Alpha tomorrow from 9:10 to 11:30 p.m. in the Graduate Student Lounge of the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus. This event will examine how the things that we say affect everyone around us, whether we realize it or not.
Ben West is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science. He is also chairman of RUSA's University Affairs Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.