COMMENTARY: Room should be made for 'sober dialogue'

On Tuesday, March 27, Rutgers held its presidential symposium with the goal of “Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom." This year’s panelists consisted of former attorney generals and chief justices as well as distinguished professors, deans, directors, members of the Anti-Defamation League and leaders of several religious communities. Each speaker shared his or her best practices to combat hate, while still preserving the First Amendment. With a rise in the rate of hate speech and hate crime on college campuses in the United States, this conversation could not have occurred at a better time. After networking with experts on the topic and learning their best practices, members of the Rutgers community were ultimately able to load their tool belts and toolkits with the best tools our country’s leaders have to offer to help alleviate a national problem. 

Among this year’s keynote speakers included former United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Between his banter about his uptight Secret Service agents and the Yik Yak chatter about his grand motorcade arrival when he visits his children at their college campuses, Johnson was easily relatable and as humanly down to earth as possible. But, feelings and emotions began to "sober up" once he shared his four guiding principles to combating hate while preserving the freedom and liberties of others. 

These four guiding principles are tools that I urge every one of us to keep in our belt. Johnson said that we must first remember that no one is born to hate. In fact, he stressed that love comes naturally. Hate, on the other hand, is inherited, learned and obtained. Hatred can be passed down through generations and can also mold one's perception of the world at a very young age. As such, it can also impact an individual’s problem solving skills and lead to critical consequences. Second, we must remind others to tolerate and celebrate diversity. We must utilize diversity to learn things that we do not know. Ultimately, this results in the ability to bring about change in an instance where injustices are evident. Third, those who know the mistakes of history prevent it and those who do not cause it to repeat. So often we hear that we should learn from our mistakes, yet so many times we allow them to repeat anyway. It is important that we stay attuned to history and the decisions of our political leaders simultaneously as we are a nation that should seek to grow and not remain stagnant. Last, law enforcement must be able to strike a careful balance. I urge the members who protect our community and nation to find a balance that is fair to the First Amendment, yet, truly protects those targeted by hate speech and crime to ensure their safety and alleviate the effects of trauma. This includes ensuring that justice can and will be served to those families that are forever hurt by acts of trolling, hate publications, hoax calls, bullying and threats of violence. There is no room for that in this society. 

Moving forward, Johnson took the conversation a step further after graciously accepting a question from an audience member in regard to the most critical tool she could have in her belt as a college student. A Rutgers student asked, “How do I, as a woman of color, respond to hate comments and bigotry here at Rutgers?” He answered with a warm smile, which I feel eased the concerns of many. Johnson replied, “As a college student, the best thing you can do is to arm yourself with education and sober dialogue." We should not use the language, stoop to the level or convey an equal amount of toxicity to those who perform acts of bigotry or commit hate speech. We must use our resources wisely to rise above and respond with dignity. Johnson’s words earned powerful nods of agreement among the audience, even I began to nod. But, just as I began to write his advice on the corner of the program's agenda, I could not stop myself from thinking the obvious. Sometimes our own leaders, members of the media and even friends get carried away in the heat of the moment and subconsciously fail to use "sober dialogue." We have witnessed this on the news, during interviews and even firsthand in our own living rooms. It is evident that when we act on emotion, we may subconsciously engage in dialogue that ultimately creates an even bigger problem than the one we started with. In a volcanic rush of emotions, sober dialogue seems out of reach. We need to make room for that.

Laura-Ann Ali is a Rutgers Business School senior majoring in marketing. 

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