COMMENTARY: Accepting hate speech as normal hinders engagement with marginalized groups
Since Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak on campus, there have been many representations of the protesters at the event. The so-called "witches" protested the hateful rhetoric through a performance of covering our bodies with "blood" to highlight the violence projected on historically targeted bodies. Although countless news sources have already narrativized the event, I’d like to interrogate some of the assumptions and representations formed.
To be clear, students have a right to protest without the invasion of personal space, whether one agrees with the protest or not. The protesters made it a point to listen to what this clearly misinformed figure had to say — someone who actually denied the existence of lesbians and rape culture, conflated Black Lives Matter and the Ku Klux Klan, and assumed Islam to be a backwards religion, all the meanwhile claiming his rights to free speech. We ought to question and be critical of those who have power and clout when they speak. The kind of rhetoric used to rile up and instill hate in the Rutgers community has manifested in rape and death threats — a kind of proof of the terrorizing reality following his message.
Moreover, free speech by no means rationalizes hate speech at the University. The rhetoric spewed on Feb. 9 aimed to marginalize many sectors of the Rutgers community was indeed exclusionary and violent. I do not want to live in a society where the state or individual actors have a right to enact violence freely — this includes verbal violence, which University policy "works" to address. Milo’s speech displayed the kind of power and platform privileged bodies have in claiming social and legal protection under the pretense of free speech to condone violence. Engaging in a broader discussion and asking Milo questions was not a possibility when he does not even recognize the legitimacy of black lives. Most simply put, Milo uses his homosexual identity to normalize state violence on black bodies through the guise of forward-thinking politics, using the tactic of "pinkwashing" his hate speech.
For students who think the protesters childishly spoke out, they are truly removed from a historically continuous normalized state of violence particularly inflicted on women and people of color. It’s perhaps easy not to recognize daily microaggressions if it does not particularly affect you, but to deny it is a kind of imagination created altogether. I want to attend a school where critical thinking versus hate mongering is not the main debate. Rather, it’d be more productive to interrogate how students can better access education and the discourse around it. But the latter may prove difficult since the University has gutted funding from humanities departments that foster critical thinking. As a suggestion, the core curriculum can set up a requirement for all students to take a course in one of the area studies during their first semester of college to relearn the effects of bigotry.
Although the event succeeded in displaying a faction of the student populous’ outright prejudices, the administration has a responsibility in issuing a statement recognizing the importance of protecting the community from sexual and racial discrimination as per Title IX and University policy. While the administration is so ready to follow a strategic plan promoting diversity and endorse a “Revolutionary for 250 years” campaign, it does little to support students’ empowerment or open up channels of communication through transparency measures.
So when violent rhetoric is normalized as a kind of legitimate speech where no one is expected to speak up, how can we engage with what was already meant to exclude? Instead, we interject by making our bodies visible in a way that cannot be ignored. We contest the hate by affirming that black lives do matter. We interrupt a kind of madness, comparable to that of the Third Reich, before it is commonplace and history repeats. In our community, first and foremost, everyone has the right for their humanity not to be in question.
Meryem Uzumcu is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in planning and public policy and women's and gender studies.
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