Sticks and Stones: Why words can hurt the most

Some conversations we don’t want to overhear. The ones so full of obnoxious superciliousness that your lips curl of their own accord. The conversations that fill your stomach with a raging inferno and leave you with a really good story. Some people get into fistfights. Some people write strongly worded letters.

Imagine a world full of clones. Everyone looks alike, dresses alike, has the same values and even shares the same personality. I would probably channel my inner “Twilight Zone” damsel in distress and run screaming to some no-way-out hotel room on the highest floor. It’s the bleak idea of monotony that drives me crazy. I don’t want to live in a world full of the same people; I have seen the beauty of variety, and I couldn’t adjust to a world devoid of that.

So when I heard some nasty comments barely concealed in a classroom full of Middle Eastern students, I was more than a bit befuddled. Now, I grew up in a small town, and I have come to accept that a large portion of the public is often prone to be narrow-minded when it comes to races and religions other than their own. We are only human, and we do tend to fear the unknown, whether we want to admit to this or not. But people should also have the decency to respect those around them and keep their opinions to themselves. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?

When I began my first semester two years ago, one of the first things I truly appreciated about our campus was the large number of international students we hosted. I have known Cookeville most of my life, but I had never realized how many countries our student body represented. I appreciate the variety we have on campus, and the different viewpoints we all bring to class discussions. And imagine the bravery required to be a global traveler while studying for a degree. These students are transplanted out of their home countries and cultures, and they face a hefty learning curve that comes with learning a new language and adapting to new customs. On top of all of this, they have to keep up with their schoolwork just like the rest of us. I try to keep that in mind in my classes. Is it too much to ask others to do the same?

I also understand that worldwide unrest and international threats have influenced many to put up their guard around people who they feel may represent the ideologies to which they are so wary. To that, I say, haven’t we learned our lesson from history? During World War II, did we not allow fear of our enemies to turn into suspicion of our fellow countrymen? We turned on our own Japanese-American citizens and shuffled them into our own very watered-down form of concentration camps. Why? Because we feared the homeland they had left (some had never even stepped foot on Japanese turf), and we assumed their loyalty lay with their ethnicity.

I digress. To clarify, I am not only advocating on behalf of one group of people. Diversity and prejudice can stem from any divide. Race. Religion. Gender. Body type. Yes, I am pulling all of those hot topics off the shelf. I am not saying you need to agree with these people or believe in the same principles. What I am saying is that you need to show a little more respect. I sincerely believe that one will never be able to, nor should they feel entitled to, sway another in their beliefs without first allowing that person to advocate their own views. This reverence must work in both directions, or it does not exist at all.

Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill. The comments I heard were little more than obnoxious and ignorant statements made by a jealous boyfriend. They were rude but harmless. The harm in those kinds of comments stems from the seeds they plant in the minds of those under informed and impressionable. When we say things we don’t mean, we still put out the idea into the minds of those around us. Ask any causal browser of the local news – these wildfires have a way of spreading.

When I first began this page a month ago, I worried I would run out of ideas about which to write simply because I didn’t think myself a very passionate person. But this issue – the great cultural, racial, stereotypical divide – absolutely ignites a fire in my stomach. I do not understand how one isn’t able to see the beauty in a variety of skin tones, the unique personality in each one of us, the history and upbringing that shape who we are today. There is splendor in chaos, beauty in disorder, and loveliness in imperfections. And there is an undeniable, awe-evoking brilliance in the uniqueness of our race: humankind.

So. Take warning, students. You never know when your thoughtless ramblings will find their way into the campus newspaper. There are ears everywhere…