A little respect and recognition needed

Nothing can excuse violence, but a more considerate society would likely prevent future tragedies.

I was on my way back from a spring break trip with my parents when I heard about the events at Red Lake, Minn. My dad said to me, “Did I ever tell you that when I taught in Nebraska, 30 years ago, there was this fat kid that everyone made fun of? I found out that one day a few months after I left, he climbed the grain elevator and started shooting at people.”

He hadn’t told me this before, so I did a little research. My dad also contacted some residents. We discovered he wasn’t remembering everything correctly. There was an overweight child everyone made fun of, but he didn’t start shooting from a grain elevator. His sister died under suspicious circumstances after ingesting too much soap. Around the same time, someone did climb the grain elevator and shot at people, but it was a grain salesman involved in a sex scandal. So what’s the point of bringing these events up now?

This isn’t meant to excuse those who commit violence – nothing can – but we are all sadly mistaken if we think we play no part in creating an environment that allow acts of violence like these to happen. Judging others isn’t natural; it’s something we’re taught.

Our society is far too obsessed with intensely private things, while at the same time, sex is all over the media. We shouldn’t glorify sex, but we shouldn’t vilify it either. As a person is not infringing on someone else’s rights, he or she should not feel ashamed of sex. Yet there are all these euphemisms and ways of pretending in polite society that kinky things just don’t happen. People are made to feel dirty about body parts associated with sex – a Cosmopolitan magazine survey in February found that 53 percent of women are uncomfortable using the word “vagina.” It’s a medical term, but for some reason, women are more comfortable saying “below-the-belt area” than referring to a body part as what it is. Some people have been beaten to death in this country for violating sexual norms.

What is this? Why do we perpetuate societal norms that make people feel bad about themselves? Has anyone actually stopped to think this general lack of healthy feelings could have contributed to the violence in our society? I think many homicides are committed by people who want to die themselves.

Take violence in schools. After the Red Lake incident, my cousin in New York recalled an incident from approximately 10 years ago. “One of my classmates brought a gun to school, because he was anticipating a fight with a rival crew after school. Well before the 3 o’clock bell rang, someone of authority found out there was a gun in his locker, and my weird funny bio lab partner was suddenly carted off by security folk … 3 1/2 years later, this guy graduated with the lowest grades in school … No one knows what became of him. What can we do to reach out to a kid like that?”

We like to pretend gangs and school shootings only happen in other states and people are only beaten to death in other communities. But they’re not; they’re in magnet schools in New York, they’re in rural Nebraska and they’re here. Why? Again, it goes back to acceptance. We’re too quick to accept intolerance and not quick enough to accept difference.

When I was in sixth grade, it became clear no matter how hard I tried to fit in, I was never, ever, going to be able to do it. So I made a decision the summer before junior high. I wasn’t going to try anymore. I wasn’t going to care what people thought. Lo and behold, I discovered people only have power over you if you let them. But it wasn’t easy. And it still took courage for me to stand up for others I saw being made fun of, because their abuser could always turn on me.

People who’ve never spent a school year being teased daily don’t know how much strength it takes to stand up for yourself and others. Not everyone is that strong. I can see how someone who didn’t have that strength when he or she realized he or she was never going to fit in could easily turn to violence or become a bully. It’s no mistake that most of the school shooters have been young men. I think in addition to the intolerance in our society, a large factor in the school shootings and other forms of violence in this country is many men are still taught to repress their feelings.

So what can we do? Feeling guilty isn’t enough unless we can channel that guilt into change. Many groups on campus are trying to do just that. This month, the Queer Student Cultural Center and the Aurora Center for Education and Advocacy spoke for transgender people who had been silenced by violence, and Al-Madinah Cultural Center presented Islam Awareness Week. Yet, if you were to read this paper’s op-ed pages in recent weeks, you would come to believe those two groups are irreconcilable. This doesn’t have to be the case. People don’t have to go unrecognized and feel ashamed.

Next week, the National Residence Hall Honorary and the Residence Hall Association will hold Recognition Week, a five-day program when they’ll recognize the hard work and often underrated efforts of student volunteers, student staff members and professional staff members that have sought to create a better on-campus environment.

I’m not so naive as to believe that simply recognizing someone can change the world, but it can change that one person’s world. Proper kudos can go a long way. And if nothing else, it’s a start.

R.R.S. Stewart welcomes comments at [email protected]