I get it. We want to denounce ignorance in the strongest language possible. And this world offers plenty to denounce.
Long before a photograph of four UWBros beneath a bedsheet reading ‘Western Lives Matter’ started making the rounds on social media, frustration was mounting over the state of race relations in this community. Students scribbling their ignorance on bed linens was only the latest example.
Thanks to a generational reawakening on race relations – sparked, in part, by the Black Lives Matter movement – society is becoming more likely to speak up about incidents like this. That is a good thing. But with this reawakening comes a responsibility to the language around it.
In the days that followed the bedsheet incident, it was difficult to ignore the number of people – including a statement from the university – immediately branding the actions, and, in turn, the individuals, as racist.
Maybe these students had pure racist intent in their hearts – I don’t know. If they did, shout it from the rooftops. But if they were simple fools, then we need to pause. What blurs by in that instant, as we speed to label someone as racist, are countless opportunities to inform, educate and create change.
That should be our mission.
To argue or to educate? If we want to argue, then our current environment is conducive to it – polarized sides, enflamed rhetoric. Nothing shuts down the conversation like calling one side racist.
But if we want to educate, then we need to reserve instant judgment and look for ways to expand the conversation to those who don’t get it. Preaching to the converted does us no good.
Also, when we label ignorance, naiveté or downright moronic behaviour as full-blown racist, when everything that is an affront to our intelligence is called racism, then what is left to brand the truly vile? We are elevating ignorant, childish acts too high, thereby lowering the bar on truly evil intent.
I ask similar questions of a political discourse which feels the need to compare everyone to Hitler. Just in the last week, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, British Labour Party politician Hilary Benn and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte were all compared to Hitler. But, assuredly, as dangerous, unhinged or dunderheaded as these individuals may be, they don’t even stroll past the neighbourhood Hitler occupies.
Going straight to Hitler is not hurting the target, it is lowering the bar on Hitler.
In my previous life as a reporter and editor in the U.S. South, I met evil – Klansmen, politicians, law enforcement, those who took pride in intimidating, tormenting and limiting opportunity of minorities in their communities. I saw them describe with pride the hatred in their hearts. It was a frightening experience. When I hear ‘racist,’ those are the faces that pop in my head.
I wager these UWBros do not measure up – I could be wrong. What they did display, however, was a stunning unawareness for postsecondary students of the world around them.
Black Lives Matter is an important movement with the possibility of setting an agenda for the next generation. Its supporters do not want it to go the way of previous movements, like Occupy Wall Street, which fizzled once adopted more broadly. I understand the pushback of having the name co-opted – everything became ‘Occupy _____’ for a short time in 2012. And now where is it?
When someone says ‘All Lives Matter,’ the movement feels demeaned much the same way veterans of the U.S. Civils Rights Movement felt betrayed when they saw Muhammed Ali’s legacy used to sell computers or Martin Luther King Jr.’s likeness hawking cell phones. When the symbol of the struggle is compromised, you feel compromised.
But we need not go from zero to racism so quickly. By opting for what sounds right in the moment – as well-intentioned and cathartic as it is – we are empowering the truly loathsome among us and obscuring our mission of combating this ignorance through education.
This is a university community, not social media, talk radio or cable news; we have a larger responsibility to inform, educate and create change when these moments arise. And that can only be done by continuing – not halting – the conversation.