Students’ unintentional ‘hate speech’ encourages prejudices

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    When the Rev. Fred Phelps and his congregation picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard in 1998, carrying signs that read “God hates fags” and “Matthew Shepard rots in hell,” most Americans reacted in outrage. And rightfully so.We live in a culture that preaches tolerance.

    As educated college students, we pride ourselves in being open-minded. Through years of schooling, we have learned to accept, or at least tolerate, those of different races, creeds, sexual orientations and abilities.

    We would never participate in hate crimes, as did Phelps and his band of bigots. Or would we?

    Sadly, American society is fraught with the same hate crimes it so deliberately denounces. And college campuses are among the worst places for these crimes.

    You witness it every day while walking to the University Recreation Center, sitting in The Main or perhaps even in your place of worship. Often, you are the perpetrator.

    “That’s so gay.” ” She’s so retarded.” We hear and speak these words every day and think little of them. “It’s just part of our culture. We don’t mean anything by it,” we tell ourselves.

    These idioms are ingrained in our society. We blurt the words out of our mouths and do not give them a second thought.

    There is a term for such phrases – hate speech. Yes, hate speech. It is the most subtle and prevalent form of hate crime in our nation and schools, and we take part in it every day.

    The American Heritage Dictionary defines hate speech as speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

    Take a moment to think about what phrases such as “That’s so gay” or “That’s so retarded” really mean. We always associate these phrases with something negative.

    What we don’t do is remember that there are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and mentally retarded people in our midst who have to put up with these negative connotations every day. Whether these people admit it, it hurts. How could it not?

    Imagine living in a world where there is a subtle prejudice against your sexual orientation or disability hidden behind a guise of tolerance and acceptance. Imagine what it would do to your sense of self-worth.

    Every time we utter one of these phrases, we are committing a hate crime. In America, we are hypocrites. We preach tolerance and, at the same time, degrade those who are different than us.

    It’s time we fess up to our discriminatory actions and stop trying to justify comments that eat away at other’s self-worth. It’s time that we put an end to everyday hate crime.

    You can start with yourself. Next time a phrase such as “That’s so retarded” spurts from your mouth, stop and think about what it means. By critically thinking about our own words and actions, we can stop this unintentional hate speech.

    Once you have made the conscious decision to stop, help others out. When you hear a friend say something such as “That’s so gay,” tell him or her how hurtful such phrases are to people with differing lifestyles or disabilities. This will help your friend critically think about his or her words as well.

    It is through these small steps that we can reverse the tide of this subtle hate speech on campus and in our nation.

    We have the opportunity to realize the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. who so poignantly proclaimed:

    “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

    Let’s make that day today. Let’s stop the hate.

    Matt Messel is a sophomore sociology major from Omaha, Neb. His column appears every Thursday.