Like many, I was angered and ashamed that students at my alma mater, the University of Mississippi, disrupted a performance of "The Laramie Project" Tuesday night with gay slurs and other hateful behavior. Here are my thoughts about moving forward.
Update, 10/5: UM’s Bias Incident Response Team released a report on the events of October 1 [Read it here]. The committee’s investigation could not verify specific comments or the students involved. The actions of the football players also remains unclear. No disciplinary action will be taken without further information, but the university and athletics department announced plans to promote dialogue about respect and civility.
Yesterday, in a matter of hours, the story about the Ole Miss football players and other hecklers who interrupted Tuesday’s student performance of “The Laramie Project” leapt from the The Daily Mississippian to Twitter to the front pages of USA Today, ESPN.com, Huffington Post, Slate, and Yahoo.
The rapid transmission of news doesn’t always lend itself to thoughtful reaction. Neither do the 140-character increments in which we form and express opinions these days. By the time I’d gotten my thoughts together this morning, I was already on the back end of the story. That’s just as well, because I believe this is the most important time for an honest conversation about what happened, what it means, and how we learn from it. Here are my contributions:
<1) If we can’t prevent hateful actions, we can at least prepare for them. Of the things that draw the most national media attention to Mississippi, hatred is probably only second to hurricanes.
I can’t help but note the irony that a hurricane — or tropical storm, to be precise — threatens to rain on Ole Miss’s football game at Auburn tomorrow. After all, hurricanes and incidents of bigotry bear a striking metaphorical resemblance:
Both arise from a confluence of atmospheric conditions. Their likelihood can be predicted, but not how, when, and where they pop up. Both hit with furious intensity, bringing everyone and everything nearby to a halt. But once the skies clear, the attention fades, and those on the ground must begin a long, slow process of recovery.
Just as we cannot stop hurricanes, we may not be able to prevent hateful words and actions in the future. But we must find a way to rebuild that leaves us better prepared to limit the damage next time around.
2) The institutional response must place education above all else. The hecklers’ behavior most likely reflected cultural norms they acquired from their communities and social environments. It’s no big shock that many parts of the South (or the country, for that matter) still do not respect differences in sexuality. Being gay carries an even greater stigma in the locker room, a hyper-masculine setting that brings young men into close physical proximity and contact. The insensitive statement “no homo” is basically a watchword at every level from high school to the pros.
So long as the billion-dollar college sports industry maintains the charade of the “student-athlete,” we must seize this opportunity to teach. In an open letter circulated yesterday, Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork promised to do just that: “We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential.” It shouldn’t stop with athletes, though. The university must foster a climate in which every student feels respected — and understands how to respect others.
3) Bad PR isn’t fun, but that shouldn’t be the issue here. Too many reactions around the state have complained exclusively about the national media overblowing a local story. I have no doubt that this news went viral because it fit a preexisting narrative about Ole Miss and Mississippi. The same goes for the recent national furor over segregated sororities at the University of Alabama. The South, and Mississippi in particular, is still America’s avatar for bigotry and ignorance. It’s more likely to make national news when we confirm stereotypes than when we challenge them.
Yes, it’s a double-standard, but let’s please keep it in context. This form of prejudice is not remotely comparable to the homophobia on display in the auditorium, or, for that matter, being depicted on the stage. “The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming student who was bullied, tortured, and murdered in 1998. The play has spread a message of love and acceptance to millions of people in thousands of venues around the world. Had the players and other hecklers at Ole Miss chosen to listen rather than speak, Mississippi might have taken another stride away from our retrograde reputation.
4) If a slur was shouted in a forest, and nobody was around to hear… As a university and as a state, we must be honest with ourselves. What would our response have been if the national media hadn’t gone into a feeding frenzy? Or if it had happened at Mississippi State? Or at a high school? Or to anyone other than football players?
The rules of damage control commanded the Ole Miss administration and athletics department to make a quick and harsh denunciation. There will be public efforts for remediation and education, and those who were involved will certainly be penalized. Would we have done the same — with a critical SEC football schedule looming — if the story had been confined to the pages of the DM? I like to think so. But if not, we deserve all of the things the country is saying about us.