It has often been said that people who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. In a forum on March 20, run by political science professors Dr. James Hedtke and Dr. Jolyon Girard, on the history of hate symbols, the subject of remembering and re-teaching the past came up as something that, as citizens, we all need to be responsible for.
Throughout the course of history, symbols such as the swastika and the burning cross have had several meanings. The swastika used to be a symbol of good luck and prosperity before it was adopted by the Nazis and became a symbol of racial oppression and intolerance.
According to Girard, over the years it is important to teach the past so that everyone is aware of what meanings symbols have taken on so that we understand the potential offensiveness that our language has. He recounted a situation in an elementary school recently in which racist symbols were sprawled on the walls. A reporter interviewed a fourth grade girl about her feelings about them only to find out that she had no idea what they meant.
Some people might say that they are using the swastika with its original meaning. However, “To our people, in a world where the Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of people, that symbol represents everything that human people are supposed to fight against,” Girard said. “You have to wake up each generation to what has happened in the past. If not, you get a sense of cultural amnesia.”
Hedtke said that any type of hate speech is a form of systematic intimidation that leads to the deprivation of rights of an individual or a group.
In light of the recent events in Xavier Hall, several discussions have ensued in an attempt to understand the acts of the vandals.
According to Hedtke, “A person calling another person a name gives that person a sense of belonging. It makes them feel as if the person they are taunting is not one of them, making them feel more powerful. It is the act of dehumanizing an individual and it begins simply by the use of a name.”
With the implications of hate speech having the possibility to provoke unthinkable actions, one would think that there are severe legal ramifications for the use of such terms.
Hate speech is the only form of speech not protected by the first amendment. However, the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942 decided that “any offensive, derisive, or annoying word” addressed to any person in a public place will be considered “fighting words.” Legal action can be taken only if the “words have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.”
According to Hedtke, most hate speech codes at colleges and universities have been struck down as unconstitutional. A student can be charged under the college code of conduct for defacing property and could be punished with anything from a warning to an expulsion.
At Cabrini, the major problem, according to faculty and staff, with punishing hate speech offenders, is the reticence of the students to name the offenders. Without students standing up for what is right, things may never change and possibly get out of hand.
According to Girard, “You live in the environment you create.”