By Misia Lerska '20
Disclaimer: Hateful rhetoric is not acceptable in any form and I hope that this article can be a step towards eradicating problematic speech in a more effective way.
“MAUDE: I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They are so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?
HAROLD: I don’t know. One of these maybe?
MAUDE: Why do you say that?
HAROLD: Because they are all alike.
MAUDE: Oooh, but they are not. Look. See—some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals—all kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this, and allow themselves to be treated as that… Each person is different, never existed before and never to exist again. Just like this daisy—an individual…”
In 1971’s Harold and Maude, Maude tells Harold that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are unique, but who allow themselves to be treated as part of a generalized group. Recently, I’ve noticed that Wellesley’s culture has turned us all into categories. You are defined by a single characteristic—White, Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, straight, progressive, conservative, white moderate, libertarian, Marxist, capitalist, kind, mean, good, or bad—instead of being a multidimensional, complex individual.
While these categories cannot be ignored, we have become a campus that erases identity by clumping people together based on labels. With the intention of fighting systemic discrimination and stereotyping, we are perpetuating the very ideas that we want to eliminate. We categorize people depending on their accent, the color of their skin, or one conversation in which they might have misspoken. We create standards of behavior through these categories and lose empathy for people when they don’t fit our expected standards. Yet nobody in this world is simply good or bad; we are all both at the same time. The only difference is our upbringing and our cultures. Plural.
Given these different cultures, it is wrong to assume that most people on this campus have the same political views. Different households breed different outlooks on life; nobody is born speaking hateful rhetoric. Prejudices such as racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all learned and can be unlearned. I think most of us can safely say that we don’t hold all the same views from when we first came to Wellesley. Sadly, the way people most often change their views on this campus is through shame. What do you mean you don’t think X? If you don’t believe X, you can’t be part of this group. Anybody who doesn’t believe X feels awful about themselves because they feel that their beliefs hurt others personally. This leads to outspoken people further echoing each other, and fosters silence and shame in many who are afraid to say something wrong.
This shame directly impacts our community. Those who do not fit the mold are excluded, shunned, and morally condemned. Perhaps never having had bad intentions, they hate this school because of how isolated they feel. Most of us contribute to this kind of categorization by telling our friends I hate them so much, they’re so racist, she’s so privileged. People agree with this gossip and bond over shared hatred for others. Gossiping about people in that way perpetuates the belief that we are morally superior to others. Even if someone may have admitted they were wrong, they are left feeling bullied, depressed, and erased. I know that few people on this campus have the intention of hurting others, but if we want to call ourselves the moral activists of tomorrow, we cannot let our actions contradict this.
The only way to resolve this kind of emotional gap is through open and understanding dialogue—something that is missing on our campus. We have to let go of our assumptions of others. People mirror each other’s emotions; if we act with kindness, we will likely find kindness in return. If we enter conversations ready to convince people that they’re wrong, they will probably do the same to us. We should be seeking truth and justice, not self-righteousness. Let’s reevaluate our goal. If our goal is to attack people we disagree with, fine. But if it is to convince people to be on our side, we need a different approach.
There is a tough conversation to be had that does not need to be rooted in anger. Even though some might be more stubborn than others, it does not make them evil. We are all at school, we are all learning, and we should all be allowed to make mistakes. Let’s stop resorting to passive aggressive actions through emails and social media. Let’s write articles and make art. Let’s speak directly to those we disagree with. Let’s let go of the crippling fear that we might be wrong. Let’s expect the best from people and from ourselves.
In writing this, I do not excuse racist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise hateful speech. Such things are never acceptable and I cannot hold marginalized people responsible for teaching others why certain language and actions are problematic. The point of this article is to give people the benefit of the doubt and realize that everyone is capable of learning and bettering themselves. When I look back on who I was even four years ago, I hardly recognize that person. By my senior year, I’m sure I’ll look back at first-year Misia in embarrassment. But I shouldn’t hate her. And I shouldn’t treat her the way Wellesley has treated so many students who have made mistakes and held unpopular views.
I acknowledge where my privilege lies and admit that I can never fully understand another person’s experiences nor how their identity impacts those experiences. What I am saying is that everybody deserves exactly that: the benefit of the doubt. Nobody knows what it’s like to be someone else, so let’s stop comparing our pain. We all experience our own hardships, and it should not be controversial to say that everybody deserves respect. There will always be a “what if?” An accent means you’re foreign, but what if this foreigner went to American schools while growing up abroad? White signifies privilege, but what if this white person grew up in a low-income neighborhood? Nobody is the same. You can never dismiss a person’s experience based on external factors. Generalizations never work, so don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I write this article to make one point: stop judging and start caring. About everyone. We should not tolerate hate, but that does not mean we must become hateful people ourselves. It may be difficult to bear this responsibility because responding to hate with kindness feels unnatural, especially if we are dealing with systemic oppression. But if we react to hate with more hate, then what does that make us?
From April 2018 issue