By Edgar T. Wilson
Nov. 27, 2014
When I was growing up and could only relate to other children as protagonists, one of my favorite shows on TV was “Boy Meets World.” Watching that show was like chewing bubble gum for me: simple, enjoyable, and easy to spit out when I was ready for a new flavor. And while many (well, most) of the show’s more serious lessons went right over my head, there was one episode that has stuck with me.
The episode “Teacher’s Bet” centered on whether young Cory could be a more effective teacher than Mr. Feeny. Hijinks (predictably) ensue, until the moment where Cory tries to teach a lesson on the prevalence of intolerance by directing ethnic slurs at his classmate. At the time, I didn’t know what the words meant, but I could tell from the silence of the other students, and the reaction of the one being targeted, that something really offensive had just been uttered.
But the thing that has kept that episode in my memory all these years later isn’t the hilariously dated concepts of “cool” on display, or that Cory got away with his Profanity as Education method; it was the profundity of the point he made, that when we see injustice, all of us should get upset.
After all, aside from Shawn’s reaction, the silence was one of my primary clues that the language had just gotten serious. It may be an old television trope, but it is one that is frequently mirrored in real life: after an offensive, confrontational gesture, most of us just go silent and watch.
As Cory rightly observes, silence condones injustice. There exists a slur against every race, ethnicity and religion in this world, but until mine is the one being targeted, it is easier to say, “That’s not right, but I don’t really have a horse in that race.” The fallacy here is that I must be the target to respond and defend the group under attack. Regardless of the target of injustice in any form, we all become victims.
The truth is, the only real difference between me and a victim of racism, sexism, or any other prejudicial assault is a choice of words—so why should we react differently?
It is a natural tendency of people to want to fit in, and to fear doing anything to break that fragile homogeneity. As soon as someone’s off-color comments, jokes, or flat-out offensive words come out, we all lose the security of group identity, because how each of us reacts could set us apart, making us a new target. Silence does nothing to change this; it just gives the power away. Speaking up, on the other hand, ends victimhood immediately, and defends the entire group. Instead of leaving everyone feeling threatened and wanting to avoid negative attention, it puts the attention back where it belongs, and creates an opportunity for the instigator to change his or her own behavior.
By the numbers, everyone is likely to be a part of a disadvantaged group by some measure or other; waiting to be singled out and personally victimized only makes it easier for prejudices to survive. That reflex that makes us go quiet empowers the forces of oppression, while even a simple, “Hey, that’s not cool” or “That is crossing the line” sends a lifeline to everyone who hears it and is afraid. Fear, after all, is what turns ignorance into hate, and it also turns bystanders into silent spectators. Words—and the people who abuse them—only have the power we give them, and responding to negative words takes some of that power away.
Edgar grew up in small-town Oregon before going to Amherst College. His proximity to Smith College and Mount Holyoke College opened his eyes to the gaps — racial, gender and ethnic — that exist in this country, and pushed him to switch his major from communication to conflict resolution. He has since worked abroad in several Southeast Asian countries, which deepened his interest in the field. He is now a writer and blogger. He can be reached for comment by email.