Joining the dialogue on “More Than Words”

Towards the end of February, Jeff Garcia penned an opinion piece rightfully criticizing the so-called “More Than Words” campaign, pointing out that it favors demonizing seemingly harmless words while ignoring their context and the intent behind them. A week later, we saw a slew of pieces written in response. Brett Campbell, Gage Garretson and Jane Hornsby all spoke, their words expressing clear disagreement with the premises of Jeff’s arguments. I am not here to defend Jeff’s piece; I am fairly confident he is capable of doing so himself. Rather, I shall take part in the “dialogue” that the campaign supposedly meant to engender.

“Dialogue” is among the more common and less potent of Macalester students’ many buzzwords, although I am glad to see that the three op-eds collectively included several more of them. “Dialogue” bears some resemblance to “awareness” in its disingenuousness—generally, when a policy or campaign is meant to “raise awareness” or to “generate dialogue,” it is really meant to work towards an underlying goal, to forward an agenda under the guise of discussion. That is not to say that I believe that those behind the More Than Words are nefarious or devious in any way. In fact, I believe that we have the same end goals: a more tolerant and accepting society with little discrimination. However, as history tells us, programs instituted at any level—be it in a college or throughout an entire nation—are ultimately judged by their methods and results, not just their intentions.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the “More Than Words” campaign really does amount to little more than self-censorship, even if that may not be its eventual intent. By placing such value on the words themselves rather than their intent, the campaign does nothing to combat actual racism, sexism, classism or homophobia, all of which are real and pervasive issues. To all of the people supportive of this campaign, I ask: what exactly constitutes a victory? Is it a victory when those with hateful feelings towards a certain group of people simply use other words to describe those same people, intent unchanged? If your answer is “yes,” your understanding of racism is, at best, highly naïve—and I don’t need an American Studies degree to tell you that. Proponents argue that the casual use of these words could offend certain people, but the truth of the matter is that any word could be construed as offensive under the right circumstances. Discrimination comes in all forms, each with innumerable related words (can I still call someone “short?”). One has to wonder just how far students are willing to take this kind of pseudo-academic political correctness. Some have facetiously pointed out that the word “bad” itself could be interpreted as hateful given the origin of the word (“bǣddel” used to refer to intersexed people or effeminate men). Now, I don’t expect Mac students to fume over the word at any point—well, at least in the next 2 years or so—but it seems as if liberal arts students in general are waging a crusade against all hyperbole.

The truth of the matter is that people will simply adopt new and similar words into their slang vernacular when old ones are deemed offensive. And that words themselves can be considered too “offensive” is the key issue here. Words are simply the means by which people express ideas and beliefs. Language only exists so that we can share thoughts with one another—so that Mac students can opine in their school newspaper. To ascribe not just meaning, but deep philosophical and ideological intent to words alone is misguided. Someone simply saying, “That sounds crazy!” in response to surprising news espouses no hatred, marginalizes no people and discriminates against no group. And while words might have a history, what matters is what they currently mean. For instance, a term used to describe non-elite citizens in ancient Rome really has no relevance or power in today’s society. Furthermore, the consistent usage of words outside of their original context changes their meaning and diminishes their power. This is precisely what happened to the word “idiot.” Ironically, this sort of casual usage is exactly what Mac students are opposed to. “More Than Words” will preserve and increase the perceived power of these words, not diminish them. In the long run, this will end up hurting more people than unrestricted speech will.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the “More Than Words” campaign lies in the fact that it does not teach our fellow students to be resilient, to understand that they are, in fact, more than these words. In this regard, even some grade school anti-bullying campaigns are more comprehensive in nature. The proposed counterargument is that we cannot transform society if we continuously prepare for others’ lack of progress. But one must be realistic and pragmatic, not just idealistic. Even assuming that these words are somehow inherently offensive, if we do not teach people how to handle hearing them, we will simply allow for more to be offended by those who refuse to stop saying them. Conversely, those who intend to hurt through words will not succeed if their intended targets remain unfazed. It must also be asked: if these words may hurt someone by reminding him or her of previous, unpleasant experiences with discrimination, then is it really the words that are the problem? Or are those experiences the problematic factor in the first place?

Herein lies the key to the issue. Without racism, racist language would be powerless. The same is true for sexism, classism and homophobia. And while language is fluid and constantly undergoing change, it is a much more practical pursuit to try and solve the underlying issues. No, we will likely not eradicate racism anytime soon, but we are wasting our efforts if we endlessly play Whac-A-Mole with the offensive words du jour, ignoring the root of the issue. Macalester should educate its students about the dangers of societal and legal discrimination against any group. The school should educate us on our similarities, on the beautiful things we all share, that race, class and sex(uality) don’t determine our character, that the needless demanding of guilt and accusations of “blind privilege” accomplish nothing. Mac should no longer pursue giving ostensibly offensive words more power by putting them on the pedestal of fear.

Because, frankly, that gives me the heebie-jeebies.