David Ceasar: Finding responsible rhetoric

Five words.

That’s what greeted GW’s early-risers on Monday morning. That’s what brought the mass media machine of our nation’s capital to Foggy Bottom. And that’s what ignited ethnic and political tension on another college campus, in the wake of serious conflict afflicting other schools in weeks past.

Jewish, Muslim and Christian students with differing perspectives – both among and within the groups – opined over Columbia University’s decision to host the president of Iran. In Middlebury College in Vermont, College Republicans garnered bad publicity for posters featuring vivid photos of terrorist acts with the line “Never Forget” in the center. At our own university, a freshman in a Fulbright Hall election got flak for placing an image of Adolf Hitler in his campaign posters.

The flyer ridiculing a robed “typical” Muslim man shocked the campus multiple times this week. On Monday, the community was horrified to see hundreds of these papers posted around campus. And on Tuesday, many were even more surprised to learn that these fliers originated not out of hate, but rather from a leftist group siding with the Islamic community who wanted to discredit a student organization – the GWU Young America’s Foundation.

“HATE MUSLIMS? SO DO WE!!!” These five words in 72-point font illustrate how easily attention-grabbing speech can often have dire consequences. Meant to be flashy and reel the reader in, visuals like this too often become the message instead of the device to bring one to the message. The flyer’s creators said their work was intended to mock GW’s chapter of YAF, but the satirical hate speech absorbed the focus of the document.

The First Amendment protects contentious speech like this, of course, but what the responsible political expressionist must appreciate is that with the constitutionally guaranteed right comes a civically expected responsibility.

Being part of a mature and thoughtful citizenry should command the speaker to evaluate the consequences of his message before communicating it. Free speech has its limits; most everyone has internalized the clichéd principle of falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater. Why, then, not subscribe to a similar level of restraint in political rhetoric?

The Students for Conservativo-Fascism Awareness assert in their letter to the GW community that “this creative political action was part of a rich American tradition of raising awareness.” Though its means were misconstrued (and arguably deplorable), the group undoubtedly achieved its end. Knowledge of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week – a national event sponsored by ultra-conservative activist David Horowitz – rapidly permeated campus.

At a community gathering Monday night, Muslim students questioned the YAF’s plans for the week of awareness. Despite the pressing need for civil discourse between the opposing groups, hostility spurred on by the fliers’ inflammatory nature marred the meeting at times. YAF President Sergio Gor, a senior, condemned the fliers. Interrupted by boos and swarmed by impassioned Muslim students afterward, Gor didn’t get a fair shake.

Middlebury College, the liberal arts school in Vermont, was in an eerily similar situation in mid-September. Their College Republicans chapter hung a poster in the student center mailroom that had such images as the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and the hostage crisis in Iran, according to reports from The Middlebury Campus newspaper. Critics said its message of linking disparate historical examples of tragedy by the common thread of Islamic extremism was meant to incite hostility. (The poster, ironically, was printed by YAF’s national organization.)

Sophomore Andrey Tolstoy, in an op-ed to The Campus, could very well have been writing about the creators of the fliers at GW: “(The College Republicans attempt to incite panic and muddle our understanding of the political challenges facing America, not to mention carelessly promoting racist – and, more importantly, false – generalizations about . Islam.”

These words unfortunately ring hollow in Middlebury, in Washington, in any city or college campus across the United States, if the polarizers refuse to recognize the responsibility connected with freedom of speech. These activists must mull over how to present the facts of their position in a sober fashion.

When extremist propaganda hides the deeper meaning one is trying to relate, the message can get lost. Confusion and anger ensues.

Simply hanging up a flashy poster or uttering a provocative thought without a reasonable regard for its impact is wholly irresponsible. In an age in which information is but a click away, doing so is more destructive now than ever before. Pandering to the masses through extremism might put the limelight on your issue, but it is at the expense of not only your target but also of the notion of civil discourse.

The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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