*Photo Credit: Unsafe Place Staff
On Monday, September 18th, the bigots came to town. A handful of demonstrators, toting inflammatory signs and a few clueless children, set up shop outside of the Towers dorm complex. These demonstrators were of the Christian fundamentalist sort, their signs covered in obscene slurs targeting gays, feminists, and Muslims.
Needless to say, these demonstrators, while few in number, were surely not going to go unnoticed. It wasn’t long before a massive crowd of students assembled on the steps into Towers Lobby, waving Pride flags and chanting slogans of their own. One particularly creative student brought his trumpet, with which he provided brassy exclamations for each statement from the counter-protesters.
It makes sense that Pitt students would be bothered by the presence and the rhetoric of the hateful outsiders on their campus. After all, regardless of one’s political or religious beliefs, sensible people should all hopefully realize that saying “Feminists are whores” and that gays should burn in Hell is unacceptable and vile.
But this is where the counter-protesting students took a wrong turn. Simply being disturbed by the demonstrators is not the moral test by which I judge these students; that would be setting a patronizingly low bar. No, it is the response of the student body that my judgement is based upon, and I believe they failed. Miserably.
For as long as I can remember, myself and others in my generation were taught to stand up for others when they were being trampled upon. “Stand up to the bully for the little guy.” “Say something when someone is being offensive.” So on and so forth. This is an admirable thing to do; in fact, this was very often the topic of a lesson in church. There’s a good reason why even non-Christians have heard of the Good Samaritan.
Unfortunately, because of this lifelong programming, many people have failed to learn to apply the reverse of this rule: sometimes, it’s better to just ignore the hate.
See, for a child to confront a bully, or for a kid to jeopardize his social standing to call out his friends’ ignorance, it takes courage. It takes a willingness to humble oneself and defend the weak from the strong.
Now examine the situation on campus. A small group (no more than six or seven) armed only with mean signs and a warped sense of righteousness came onto a notoriously liberal college campus to make themselves heard. Against them was a mob of angry students, amassing into such a crowd that it completely halted the pedestrian traffic from class to class. There was nothing courageous about waltzing outside your dorm and sticking a middle finger in someone’s face until they go away.
Nor is it courageous to express pro-gay, pro-feminist, and pro-Muslim beliefs on an American college campus. Rather, even implying that you wouldn’t express such beliefs would be a bolder move. While these students are probably convinced that they spent their day bravely standing up to the powers of evil, that could not be further from the truth. In actuality, they spent their time virtue signaling by shouting down a few wackos, after which they celebrated with a self-congratulatory dispersal into their newfound egotistical righteousness.
So what should these students have done to pass this “test of character”? Simply put, the students who passed were the ones who walked on by without giving the demonstrators’ nasty bigotry the time of day.
I’ll admit it: I am expecting a lot from my fellow students. I understand how it is extremely upsetting to see people speaking with hate about you, and how being treated as less than human can elicit such a passionate response. If I were to walk past a sign that said such deplorable things about Jesus as the signs said about Muhammad and feminists, I would be royally miffed. However, I believe that university students, especially ones at a school like Pitt, should be held to a very high standard of behavior, a standard wherein students account for the context of any offense and are capable of showing self-control and even forgiveness. In other words, turning the other cheek.
Let’s consider these demonstrators again. Given their extreme beliefs, what do you think they were expecting to see when they started their protests? I’ll clarify: what did the protesters, who see colleges as cesspools of moral depravity and unfathomable sin, expect to see at the college itself? The answer is very likely what they did see: a horde of students screaming gay pride slogans and sticking middle fingers in their faces. I’d go so far as to say that this is not merely what they expected to see, but rather what they hoped to see.They will undoubtedly go home even more convinced of their worldview than the aforementioned self-righteous students will. And even more depressingly, they will likely tell their fellow fundamentalists exactly what it is that they wish to hear: American universities and cosmopolitan living are both just as degenerate as they imagined.
Now consider what would have happened if students took the alternative route. Say everybody just walked past the protesters, leaving them to their own insanity. Even if students felt obligated to act, what if they decided to protest silently with dignity, rather than scream and curse and rant?
This is a highly counterintuitive notion, and, quite frankly, it may very well not be the right way to go. But what would that have said about our student body? Would it have said that we are so unintimidated by bigotry that we do not even need to respond? Would it have said that the protesters’ worldview was so beyond the pale that their words serve as their own rebuttal, that there is no need to say what we already know to be true? Would it have said that the “evil sinners” of the college campus are really compassionate individuals who own the same value and dignity of everyone else? The answer, I hope, is self-evident.