Sunday, June 12, 2011

Being Serious for a Minute Here

A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of the British TV show Top Gear in which the three presenters drove cars across the American south. At one point, they thought it would be funny to write “inflammatory” slogans on their cars to try to get each other killed. It was all going quite hilariously until they stopped for gas in Alabama. While things like "NASCAR sucks" and "Hilary for President" only seemed to tick off the locals, the phrase, in hot pink no less, "Man-love rules OK" got them chased out of town by Good Ol' Boys throwing rocks at the cameras. It was really quite scary, and I was shocked and appalled that this kind of thing could still happen in America. I shook my head sadly, thinking the South really hadn’t come all that far from they days when they used to kill Civil Rights workers rather than give up segregation. And a little part of me felt smug—southern rednecks might react with violence to people who are different to them, but surely us Midwesterners would never do such a thing.

Ha. Was I ever wrong.

This weekend, a friend of mine was assaulted in the Midwestern college town were we both went to grad school. I don’t have all the details, but his assailant called him “fag” before beating him unconscious. Now, this was, of course, quite a shock. You hear about hate crimes on the news, but rarely do they happen where you live, and even rarer still, to someone you know. You really feel like you have no way of understanding how such a thing could happen. Sure, sociologically we might offer ways to understand such violence intellectually, but still, it doesn’t make sense. What could possibly be wrong with someone that they’d think causing gross bodily harm to someone who is different from them is an acceptable form of behavior?

I told my mother what happened to my friend, and she was shocked, too. She attended grad school there in the late 70s/early 80s, and couldn’t believe something like this would happen there. “It was always such a tolerant place,” she said. In a way, she was right. The town has for a very long time had a reputation in the state as being the place where all the wacky liberals live. It’s a pretty fair assessment.

But the town isn’t quite the hippie utopia my mother remembers it to be. Obviously, the world has changed a great deal in 30 years, but, aside from that, the downtown area of that town isn’t all that safe at night anymore. If I used to be out on campus late at night, I’d walk home through there because you’re supposed to walk through well lit areas, right? Well, imagine if those well lit streets were full of drunken, rowdy undergraduates intent on becoming even more drunk and rowdy. That many people that drunk is a really scary thing. Another friend of mine once said that he felt safer walking through unlit, deserted streets than he did walking downtown at night. And he was only half-kidding.

I am by no means a prohibitionist, but, given the right fuel, some people find it easy to let the inner monster out. Of course, I don’t know if my friend’s attacker was a college student, or even if he was drunk. And I’m not trying to detract from the main issue here: that we live in a culture where someone could even think of doing such a thing to another human being. But I do know that such extreme drinking (really, what these kids are doing goes beyond binging) leads to extreme behavior, including acts of violence such as hate crimes or sexual assaults. Colleges are not taking the right measures to encouraging responsible drinking in their students, and until they do, the situation will get worse, hurting campuses and communities.

As I said before, the real problem here is that, to a certain extent, hate crimes and other such behaviors are encouraged by our culture. It’s a lot like the fury over Sarah Palin’s cross-hairs after Congresswoman Gifford was shot. As much as I dislike her, I seriously doubt Palin actually wanted someone to shoot Democrats, but when you say such extreme things, there’s no guarantee that someone won’t take you literally. And right now, we’re living in an extremely “us versus them” climate. Are teachers and unionized state employees really our nation’s greatest enemies? No, of course not, no matter what your political beliefs. But the rhetoric being used implies because of them, and others that certain groups dislike for various reasons, our very lives as we know them are at stake. This kind of talk is intended to drive people to desperation. And it is therefore no wonder that some do react violently.

I am hopeful, however, that things will change. This morning, a friend of mine from high school, who, to my knowledge, doesn’t know my friend who was assaulted, posted the following statement of Facebook, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing:
“‘They will know we are,lo Christians by our LOVE..’ ...so let's all stop with the looking down on others because of their race, sexual orientation, nationality, parental status, marital status, income, education or what-have-you. Jesus didn't look at that, so why should we??”
Whether or not you agree with the religious aspect of it, you have to admit that’s a pretty positive statement. I found it particularly encouraging, because, before change can actually occur, people have to want things to change. And it sounds like people do.

By the way, my friend is out of the hospital and has tons of people taking care of and supporting him. You may now return to your regularly scheduled asininities.

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