One of the things I truly love about my job is watching students figure out that they are smart; that they know more than they think they do and that they’re able to use that knowledge in meaningful ways to navigate themselves through new material. It’s almost always the case that I get more excited about it than the students do, but do I care about that? No. No, I do not.
Last week, I gave my students a copy of the Time Magazine article about CBS’s firing of Don Imus. For the assignment, I asked them to write a one-page essay about the Imus situation in which they considered popular culture, their own behavior as it relates to stereotyping or “forbidden” words or terms, and their own experiences with such things (had they ever been called something that offended them? How does how we label ourselves differ from how others may label us?). I wanted them to put some real thinking into this; this issue is a very important thing to consider when we’re speaking in public and is the thing that is most likely to get public speakers into trouble.
I didn’t get a whole lot of that strenuous thinking that I was looking for, but there were one or two flashes of brilliance. One young woman objected not only to Imus’ crass comments, but also to the fact that he was fired. While she understood that it was CBS’s prerogative to let the man go and to no longer be associated with him, she thought it would have been a more fitting experience for him to watch his sponsors pull their money and his listeners to switch channels. It was an excellent start to what would have been a top-notch essay if she’d spent some more time thinking about what she was trying to say.
Several people wrote that they were bothered by all the attention this matter was receiving in the media. They didn’t listen to Imus, they told me, and would never have even heard any of this had the news not sunk its teeth into it. A few went so far as to speculate that there’s a better than even chance that the Rutgers women’s basketball team wouldn’t have heard the comment, either; that they were too busy practicing and playing and doing things that mattered to listen to an old, cranky, blow-hard white guy with nothing intelligent to say. They thought that the best way to deal with Imus and his ilk is to tune them out entirely.
A few people – including the young man who inspired me to write this post – wrote about how sticky a subject this sort of thing can be precisely because not everyone is offended by the same thing. The gentleman in question is my only African-American student and, by the looks of him, his family is just recently from Africa; the boy is so black he’s nearly blue. He felt that he had a particular vantage point on the issue because he uses “the n-word” and admitted that, occasionally, he’s used the term that Imus used. The difference between my student using the word and Imus using the word, he argued, was not necessarily in who was SAYING the word, though; his point was that it’s the LISTENER who gets to decide when the line of propriety gets crossed. What offends him may have no bearing on me, and vice versa, and the speaker really has no control over how his or her comments are received.
What you need to understand here, though, is that I’m interpreting the student’s paper for you. He took the single most circuitous route he possibly could to get to his absolutely BRILLIANT final thought: “No one knows where the line is until someone crosses it.”
It could have been a fluke – a sort of “monkeys and Shakespeare” thing, but I choose to believe otherwise. They have no appreciation for how smart they really are…