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Stereotypes and Censorship

Sandra M. Chung

People are entitled to believe what they want to believe, and for the most part they can say what they want to say. However, they are not entitled to endanger or restrict others without their consent or a very good reason. I like to think the MIT community is intelligent enough not to take anything in the ghetto party e-mail seriously, but I can’t say that e-mail doesn’t stir up a lot of ugly feelings and tense issues.

Set aside for now the fact that sexism, ageism, sizeism, and myriad other harmful -isms persist on this campus, and they receive much less attention than racism. Consistency in addressing such a nebulous problem as prejudice seems to be too much to ask. Because of the most recent uproar over affirmative action, racism is currently the most fashionable -ism to discuss. Any discussion of racism is a discussion of words. And any discussion of racist words involves stereotypes.

Words themselves have no power. People give words power by reacting to them. A “ghetto” is a section of a city occupied by a minority group, and “booty” is something pirates reap from a captured ship; yet a “ghetto booty” makes you think of something else entirely. Similarly, stereotypes are innocuous without the power of human prejudice. Nor are they merely an invention of prejudiced bigots. A stereotype is an abbreviation, a shortcut the brain takes because it thinks the general information is useful but it knows we don’t have the time to learn every single detail about every single thing. Stereotypes can be useful; for example, when I’m alone at night in a deserted alleyway and a big guy in a hooded sweatshirt happens by and waves, I don’t take the time to get to know him better before I make the reasonable conclusion that he’s probably dangerous and that I should get the hell out of there. Stereotypes are not always baseless either: people who visit MIT expect to find that the students are good with computers. Stereotypes can help, and stereotypes can hurt. We can’t function without stereotypes and yet there are times when we ought to do our best to ignore them.

Granted that stereotypes are hardwired into the human psyche, how can we express the distinctive qualities that make our population distinct, while avoiding the tendency of others to identify us by those traits? Who gets to choose which qualities we should be proud of, and which ones we should downplay? Should we stop listening to hip-hop, or for that matter any other music that can possibly be a negative depiction of a particular demographic group with a specific identity? Should I stop wearing my skimpy Pocahontas Halloween costume because no real Native American ever looked like that (and I don’t have a single drop of Native American blood anyway)?

Can we filter information without suppressing voices? Can we have diversity without discrimination?

We’re in the dangerous position of knowing what we want (a fair world), but not knowing quite how to get it. I can find a specific example of something that offends me, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a law so well-worded that it specifically forbids the things that offend me without creating other problems or offending other people. And just because I don’t want to hear it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. To echo a point made by Margaret Cho last Friday, many of the statements that make me uncomfortable are the very ones that I need to hear because they reflect some element of truth that I must confront so that I can accept it or endeavor to change it. The same thing may offend me and flatter you. If we banned everything that offended anybody, we’d be very ignorant, and very bored.

So no, censorship is not the answer. Censorship at any acceptable level is just a Band-Aid, a treatment for the symptoms and not a preventative measure, and it can cause more problems than it solves. For example, how do we determine which person or persons should have the power to impose his or her judgment on everyone else? Assuming a human being harbors no racial, political, or other bias is just as dangerous as believing that a scientist is perfectly objective. There is not a single “fact” in your head that has not been filtered through the minds of at least one, but probably thousands, of human beings with their own conscious and unconscious biases. Therefore, censoring the words is like trying to eradicate tuberculosis by treating the cough. The cough is a product of the illness; a real cure must not merely treat it, but prevent it.

Still, we turn to censorship and rule-making, because it’s easier to police and legislate than to appreciate and respect each other. When something is offensive, the knee-jerk reaction is to say, “You can’t do that.” But knee-jerk reactions are no foundation for a stable, harmonious society. The only solution I can think of is to create a society of people who think about how their actions impact other people, who desire above all that those impacts not be harmful.

Sandra M. Chung ’04 is secretary of Pangaea.