Verbal harassment can lead to anti-gay violence

BY GUEST OPINION | JUNE 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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“Hey, fag with the skinny jeans, why don’t you-—”, a group of men yelled at me from a teal green Honda Accord which accelerated down Gilbert Street at a speed almost certainly against the law. I was walking toward the Pedestrian Mall on a Friday night last fall.

My first instinct when subjected to verbal drive-by insults of this nature is usually to yell back, “Boy you sure showed me,” as if to emphasize how absolutely juvenile it is to publicly harass strangers. Nevertheless, I don’t yell retorts because, well, it really is childish. Instead, I normally shake my head and just move along disapprovingly.

But the reported brutal assault of a gay man on June 10 in downtown Iowa City reminds me that such verbal abuse extends well beyond the realm of immaturity. It is stupid, dangerous, and should not be tolerated.

I’m not gay; I am friends with several people of various sexual preferences, though, and I have no problem with their respective lifestyles (it’s their life, after all). So why was I yelled at that night? It was because I was wearing skinny jeans, apparently. Evidently, dressing in a particular manner is reason enough for some people to warrant being screamed at and called vulgar names.

Any kind of verbal abuse is bad enough, but verbal abuse that attempts to target groups of people on the basis of stereotypical behavior and general appearance is particularly bad. The reason has to do with a problem regarding incomplete knowledge.

Verbal abuse that picks on particular groups on the basis of superficial data such as dress and body language propagates the prevalence of judgment without justification. When verbal insults of this nature go unfettered, society slowly becomes fragmented into various factions of people who begin to view themselves as separate (and usually superior) sorts of beings from their fellow humans. It becomes easy to view others as falling into an identifiable category, individuals who may be recognized by their general adherence to the group’s aesthetic.

And because this cultural association is so strong, many individuals in a particular group are often afraid to move themselves beyond the group aesthetic for fear of being ostracized or being made the unfortunate victim of their group’s verbal (or, as with the man this past week, alleged physical) abuse. This results in the acceptance of abusive language and leads to the acceptance of hate speech, which eventually culminates in violence. Violence begets hatred begets retaliation. And the cycle repeats indefinitely.

Abusive language that targets people on the basis of perceived group adherence needs to end. It’s barbaric, ignorant, and dangerous for everyone involved (including, in a particularly unpalatable way, those who fall outside any particular group). It is especially dangerous and stupid to make verbal insults with incomplete knowledge; and that’s just what all insults toward strangers are: uninformed and grossly stereotyped.

Joshua Jarrott is a UI junior majoring in philosophy.

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