Looking Hate Speech in the Eyes

Erin McDaniel ’15
Assistant Opinions Editor

In recent weeks, one of our neighbors in the world of proudly progressive liberal arts schools – Oberlin College – has been deeply enmeshed in a scandal involving racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti around its Ohio campus. As part of its response to the threatening displays of discrimination around campus, the school’s administration canceled classes for a day and held an all-school meeting to discuss what had happened.

Members of the community, both inside and outside the organized forum, expressed many of the same emotions – fury and shock chief among them. This response mirrors that of members of the Smith community during our own experiences with anonymous hate speech last year and also calls to mind how members of my high school community reacted to a series of anonymous homophobic writings around campus during my senior year.

Generally speaking, all three of those aforementioned academic communities are proud bastions of progressiveness and inclusivity. As such, the institutional responses from all three were meant to highlight that shared fact of identity through open dialogue and direct address of the incidents at hand. Smith and my high school, to their credit, managed to facilitate those kinds of conversations while managing to avoid – or mostly avoid – handing over power to the perpetrators.

Oberlin, however, took an approach not uncommon in the realm of unexpected and controversial situations across the country: administrators canceled school in order to let students talk about, and cope with, what happened on campus. They effectively put the brakes on campus life, even as reporters charged in from all sides and pressed for increased conversation both on and off campus. They told students that, by pausing to talk, they were actually creating forward momentum in solving the problems at hand.

That approach is deeply misguided. It tells those who would anonymously terrorize others by viciously calling out their race, religion or sexual orientation that such actions will be rewarded by attention. It sends the message not unlike the one communicated in mainstream media after tragic gun shootings: the more disturbingly misguided your actions appear to the outside, the more newspapers will plaster your face on the cover – or the more institutional, not to mention social, disruptions will be facilitated by authority figures.

In effectively bringing the Oberlin campus to a halt, those in charge of the campus eschewed strength in favor of impulse: instead of addressing the problem head on as many times as necessary while still ensuring that life on campus went forward in the face of anonymously-afflicted adversity, administrators instead encouraged members of the Oberlin community to address the problems at hand only after running and hiding. Such a response represents a botched attempt at teaching a lesson.

There are very few good times in life to run and hide from the problems that hail you. A time like this one at Oberlin – when a cowardly person seeks to raise him or herself up by anonymously tearing others down – is emphatically not one of those rare occasions. Instead of allowing the aggressors to bring life on campus to a halt so that the aggression could be dissected, members of the Oberlin community should have sent a vastly different message: we are above you, and we will carry on with our lives despite your utter disrespect for our humanity.

In the endless struggle for equality and compassion, no matter the victims in question, such resolve in the face of attempted suppression is the only effective way forward. Oberlin, for its part, now owes its students a boldly emblazoned path forward.

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