Ah, the preachers in the plaza. Good times, right?
It’s interesting that they have become a fixture on campus, the biggest negative effect of having a free speech zone at this university. They come so often that it has become ritual. By now, most people recognize them and choose to ignore them and simply pass by. Others, mainly freshmen like myself, approach them, joining a crowd of other curious or bemused students.
This is how I found myself in the afternoons last week, huddled with others against the cold, watching the back-and-forth between the religious zealots and students like cats at a Ping-Pong table. The rhetoric of the week’s guest, “Brother Jed”, was nothing new to me, and did not surprise me in the least. For those who didn’t see, it was standard fundamental bigotry; anti-gay, anti-abortion, everyone is a sinner, etc.
What interested me the most was the reaction of those in the audience.
Some people came to observe and drifted curiously along the outskirts of the crowd. Other students made the mistake of taking the man’s hate speech seriously, and would attempt to argue and reason with him (in vain, of course), only to walk off in a huff. The majority of students, however, chose to embrace the spectacle of the situation and engaged in heckling and ridicule. This is the part where it started to get out of hand and where we as Rams should strive to improve ourselves.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with heckling, especially when it comes to bigots who use our free speech zone as a free pass to spread hate. I will admit that I even engaged in some myself. However, there is a notable distinction between heckling and ridicule. Most of the heckling was geared at what the preacher Jed said, not at who he was. Their taunts targeted mainly the extreme beliefs he was loudly espousing, and often people would speak up simply to point out the holes and contradictions in his dogma. This kind of heckling is fine; in fact I would encourage it so as to discourage other extremists to come speak here. Heckling only crosses the line when it breaks down into personal attacks on the speaker.
Things got out of hand in the Plaza when some students started ridiculing Brother Jeb personally. They started targeting him as a person in their jeers, rather than his “sermon.” One person in particular said nasty things about his wife. Several students upped the ante later by posing for photos with Jed’s accomplice, an unnamed woman who held a sign reading “You Deserve Hell.” One girl even made off with that sign in the later afternoon (though I will admit I took a perverse satisfaction to that). This is where I believe student interaction crosses the line from harmless entertainment to immature aggression that is below us Rams.
This kind of interaction is not okay and is not indicative of what makes us Rams. We’re supposed to be caring, compassionate individuals whose words and actions represent the best our community has to offer. When you ridicule someone’s words, you are only challenging what he is saying in the moment. Conversely, when you ridicule someone on a personal level, you are challenging their identity as a human being.
To attack someone’s identity is a far more antagonistic move than to attack their words, and can do much more harm to an individual. Moreover, taunting them physically, through posturing or other means, is also very aggressive and could land you a lawsuit if you get carried away. Stealing goes without saying. Although stealing the Hell sign was a great way to send a message, it was still wrong. While I’m not advocating for empathy towards these individuals, surely we can shrug off the hateful vitriol of a fundamentalist that ultimately will have no effect on anyone.
This criticism isn’t coming from some place of concern for the feelings of Brother Jed, but out of attention for our reputation. I don’t care if Brother Jed and his accomplice were hurt or offended by the student response. They were saying equally awful things to onlookers and probably receive similar treatment in other places around the country. I’m sure we’ll all be happy to see them go and stop abusing the privilege of our Free Speech Zone. However, we will be no better than them if we can’t show our “guests” human decency and courtesy.
Please Rams, let’s not stoop to their level.
Sean Kennedy is an undeclared freshman. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.