I don't normally agree with conservative demigods Rush Limbaugh and William Bennett, but I find myself nodding my head in agreement when they say college speech codes are worthless. Fortunately, lawsuits pending against other colleges have deterred the University of Arizona administration from seriously considering speech codes. Why am I so much against them? Well, before I go into that, let me relay an incident that happened to me last week.
I got into an argument with a guy I had known for about a year or so. Now anyone who knows me can tell you that it's easy to get into an argument with me. Heck, I'm the opinions editor, I'm supposed to be opinionated. Anyway, the argument was pretty tense. I had known the guy for a year and we were never great friends, but we had always been cordial and never fought. He even came to a couple parties at my house. In the middle of the "heated discussion," I left the room to get a drink from a water fountain. While I was outside, the guy stomped around the room and said he was going to hurt the "fuckin' jew-boy." He later apologized for the incident, but I couldn't get it off my mind for the rest of the day.
I'm not asking for your sympathy. I'm not going to bemoan how I've been a victim of anti-semitism. I guess the incident . well, it just took me off guard. For a year, I'm "Jon" to this guy. We never exchange an ill word. We talk to each other at parties and on campus. But then in one instant of anger, I suddenly become a "fuckin' jew-boy." The incident makes me think back to whenever I've talked to the guy. What was he thinking about whenever he interacted with me. Did he think to himself, "He's pretty cool for being a kike?" Was I ever "Jon" in his eyes, or have I always been a stereotype?
The problem with speech codes and political correctness in general is that they merely prevent words from being said. Kike. Wop. Chink. Nigger. Spic. Bitch. These words hurt. When you hear them, you cringe. When you see them up on bathroom walls, you look away or you write over them. When they are directed at you, you feel like you've been stabbed in the gut. But we have to recognize that they are only words. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
What is important are the attitudes that cause people to say such things. Speech codes like those instituted at college campuses across the nation only prevent the words from being said, but they can't prevent the thoughts from being thought. Ban hate speech and it will only manifest itself in more sinister, unexpected forms. If the words aren't being said, one might even believe that the university setting is an Eden immune to the bigotries of the outside world. Then again if you listen to the whispers and backroom talk, you may hear completely different stories.
Personally, I'd rather know what people really think rather than avoid dealing with offensive words.I can't help but recall a passage from the Autobiography of Malcolm X which he talks about the difference between the conservative"wolf" Barry Goldwater and the liberal "fox" Lyndon B. Johnson. Malcolm X writes, "In a wolf's den, I'd always known exactly where I stood; I'd watch the dangerous wolf closer than I would the smooth, sly fox. The wolf's very growling would keep me alert and fighting to survive, whereas I might be lulled and fooled by the tricky fox."
By the time people get to college, a great deal of their values, morals and belief systems have already been shaped by their parents, friends and the environment where they grew up. Racism, sexism and all the other hate-isms are taught, people are not born with them. But when one sets foot on campus, he or she is separated from their old enivornment and forced to become their own person. They truly begin to think on their own and can come to terms with their own prejudices. That's why frank, open discussions on such issues like racism should be valued. That's why as opinions editor, I have no problems running the recent group of letters condemning homosexuality. The letters speak more of their authors rather than the group they are attacking. Discussion and open debate may not provide quick and easy solutions, but they might cause people to reconsider their prejudices. At the very least, in a discussion, a bigot might have to come face-to-face with a "fag" or a "spic" and realize that they are dealing with flesh-and-blood individuals and not some stereotypical group.
Speech codes deny that there is any bigotry on campuses and only increase the tension. If someone hates African Americans or homosexuals, they should have the right to voice their opinions. By doing so, they do us all a favor by showing us whatkind of person they really are.
I don't need to waste time dealing with bigots. If the guy who called me "jew-boy" ever wants to explain to me why he made the statement, I'd be glad to sit down and talk to him about it. Who knows, maybe the next time he gets mad at me he might call me "that fuckin' Jon."
That would be a start.
Jon Burstein is a journalism and political science senior. His columns appear every Tuesday.
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