Recent events involving young people at UC San Diego and university campuses around California have elicited news reports, blog comments and strong personal reactions from the Governor, legislators, university administrators, students on campus and the public at large. Clearly many people are uncomfortable, and in blogs and conversations they are displaying concerns and asking questions, including:
What’s so wrong with stereotyping and making jokes about people based on their race, gender, ethnicity or culture, if it’s all in “good fun”?
Why isn’t it acceptable to display suggestive cartoons, photos, or televised broadcasts that highlight perceived or actual differences between people of different backgrounds?
What makes attempts at humor regarding racial, gender or cultural differences or ethnic characteristics troubling to some, but acceptable and even defensible “free speech” to others?
Each of these questions deserve to be considered, not only regarding the events at UCSD, but because they have some relationship to other troubling events, including the disappearances, assaults, rapes and murders of young women in our community. There are some who worry that, at some level, these events are interrelated, and represent a spectrum of dehumanizing behavior starting with jokes and taunts, but ending with something much worse.
The terms “hate crime,” “hate motivated behavior,” “race-baiting,” and “political correctness” are being used in discussions about events at UCSD. Yet there are those who insist (often anonymously) no crime has occurred since no one was physically injured, and that people are “too sensitive” in their responses. It’s even opined that, because an African American was tangentially involved with the planning of the “Compton Cook-out”, no harm could have been done to other African Americans.
But consider substituting “sexual harassment” for “hate motivated behavior,” or “rapist” for “racist.” Few people today would tolerate lewd or violent behavior directed at women. Now imagine if a woman assisted a man in the degradation, assault or rape of another woman. Would that make the behavior any less heinous or more acceptable?
The act of dehumanizing people based on their color has lead in the past to the castration and lynching of African Americans. Dehumanizing women has lead to their assault, rape and murder.
Historically, heterosexual women, gays, lesbians and people of color have experienced a spectrum of behavior directed at them that is very similar to what has occurred on campuses this year. It may start with jokes based on their appearance or behavior, which can lead to other unwanted comments should they object to the jokes. Depending on the progression, it may end with assault, groping, rape or worse. These events are part of a dehumanizing attitude toward “the other”- someone perceived as different and less worthy of respect.
But how does this proceed from simple “joking” to physical violence? What is occurring? The problem typically begins when a person, race or cultural group is singled out as “different” from the norm, whatever that norm might be. There are many norms to choose from: Female/male; person of color/Caucasian; Christian/Jewish/Muslim; heterosexual/homosexual; native English speaker/immigrant English learner. Take your pick.
All of these classifications bring up issues of “the other,” and we have all heard related jokes where people become the punch line. But when people perceive they are being laughed at, rather than being invited to share in the joke, the laughter of the group can be seen as a dominating or even threatening act, rather than unifying behavior.
Moreover, creating or reinforcing stereotypes may lead to homogenous isolation. Once someone chooses to ignore the complexity of human differences, they then can more easily choose to associate only with people who look, talk, think etc. “like us,” and may refuse to interact with those who look, speak, dress, or otherwise appear different from the norm created around themselves.
Troubles escalate when those differences continue to be exaggerated for comic or other reasons, but the humor is used to isolate, rather than entertain, those who are perceived to be different, further excluding them from the community at large.
Finally, if there is a power imbalance- perceived or real, political or physical- the humor may quickly disappear, and be replaced by fear, hurt feelings, escalating emotions, and real conflict leading to physical violence.
What happens if a member of the “different” group expresses hurt, responds angrily, or asks for the behavior to be stopped? They may succeed, but they may also be labeled as different once again, for lacking a sense of humor, being overly sensitive, or wanting “special” or “preferential” treatment, e.g., to not be singled out and stereotyped by the other group.
The irony is, this “special” designation was first distinguished and imposed upon them by those creating the initial discussion. In the UCSD case, the mostly white students who organized the “Compton Cookout” designated another group (African Americans) as being separate and different. Then, when those “other” students protested, they claimed it was all just a joke. But who was the intended audience? Were they laughing with, or at, their fellow students?
Finally, there is another reason this behavior is so upsetting to parents and educators: stereotyping is anathema to a place of higher learning. An important goal of universities is to create a safe environment for young students to develop intellectual rigor, curiosity, explore new ideas, and learn academic discipline.
To be blunt: stereotyping displays a certain degree of mental laziness. Stereotyping demonstrates that someone has stopped thinking of other human beings as complex, interesting, unique and talented people and individuals, and is more comfortable placing them in a “box” to be labeled. And we all know the labels: Queer. Straight. Asian. Black. Latino. White. Chick. Nerd. Jock. And worse.
Labels make it easier to engage in dehumanizing actions, speech and, at the extreme, physical violence, including assaults, rapes and lynching. The perpetrators no longer distinguish that they are dealing with another human being- they are dealing with a predetermined stereotype in a defined box.
When people think of themselves as inherently different from their fellow student, their office colleague or their neighbor, they are more likely to treat them differently in “thought, word and deed.” And that is the concern we are facing today, not only on the campuses around California, but on the jogging paths around our reservoirs.
That’s the extreme degree of stereotyping. It is the potential for a slow march to dangerous behavior- not crude attempts at humor- that many of us are opposed to on and off the campus.
It can lead to degrading, dehumanizing and sometimes deadly behavior with devastating consequences not only for the victims and survivors, but for their families and friends.
So when rapes, assaults, murders, disappearances and other crimes disappear once and for all from our region- then, let’s all have a big cook-off, and share some laughs together. But until then, let’s take these concerns for what they are: realistic worries that when one person or group is reduced to a joke or term or anything other than “fellow human being,” we all should be concerned, and strive to treat one another a little better.
Lori Saldaña is a state assemblymember representing the 76th District.