VAKULSKAS: Speaking out is everyone’s responsibility


Recently, a friend of mine made a half-joking, half-serious comment about a fellow Muslim student and how it was sometimes unnerving to have him in class.

I know this particular student better than my friend does, and he is incredibly sweet and kind. So I was upset, but sadly not surprised, to hear my friend make a judgment based purely on the student’s religion.

We all are too often faced with situations like this in our daily conversations. Though prejudiced language against Muslims is an especially hot point of contention right now, people from all sorts of marginalized groups are subject to it.

In previous articles, I have stressed the importance of open discussion and the disadvantages of avoiding certain topics and language. I maintain that this is true, and particularly as students who have access to an environment filled with conflicting viewpoints and new ideas, we need to be able to talk about everything. We need to be able to discuss things with people who are different from us and explain why we don’t agree, challenging our own values. College is a hub of contrasting points of view, and we need to take advantage of that.

However, in order to participate in the discussion, we must be respectful. It comes down to the plain old rule: don’t be mean. Consider the effect your words might have on others.

In one of the schools my research lab works with, there is a poster encouraging kids to think before they speak. The word THINK is an acronym, inviting the students to ask themselves five things: is what they are about to say true, helpful, inspiring, necessary or kind? If not, they should probably consider saying something else.

I think this is constructive advice for anyone. We need to focus on improving our own respectfulness before correcting others. Despite this, we also have a responsibility to speak up when someone does not “THINK” before they speak.

And as much as students need to combat disrespectful language, it is just as important to be respectful in doing so. A guide from reminds us that although it may be intensely satisfying to meet hateful speech with righteous anger, this could actually be counterproductive.

There are extreme situations that call for a sharp retort, but most of the time furious responses will only reinforce bigotry. As a teacher quoted in the guide confirms, “That just throws up a brick wall, and anything else I say will be lost.”

Keep in mind, too, that sometimes ignorant speech is just that — ignorant. A person who says something seemingly cruel may genuinely believe what he or she is saying and have no intention of being offensive. Sometimes, people just need a little education on the topic or the chance to be exposed to a different perspective. Give the benefit of the doubt when possible.

Regardless, the most important part is to say something. When biased language is met with silence, it is a signal that such statements are permissible. In truth, it can be harder to speak out in a group of friends than with a stranger. No one wants to be that person who takes a joke too seriously or ruins the fun, but we have to stand up for those who might be afraid to stand up for themselves.

In the end, I mustered up enough guts to tell my friend that the Muslim student is a perfectly wonderful person and that I wasn’t happy to hear judgment like that. It made me uncomfortable, sure. But I figure as weird as it made me feel, it would have been much worse if I’d been the one toward whom the statement was directed. It’s simple: it is everyone’s responsibility to create an environment of dignity and respect.