A Different Kind of Story
I want to talk to you about something that has been on my mind for some time. Something, in fact, that a number of you have expressed concerns to me about. It has to do fundamentally with how we treat one another, how we use language, and the kind of community we want to be. A warning: I won't be talking to you today as children, but as the young adults you are fast becoming. Some of the things I will broach are difficult to talk about, but it's important for us to talk about them for that very reason.
Let me begin with our words. Words have an extraordinary power. They have the power to inspire, to move, to give comfort and solace, and in poetry and prayer, to lift us up, to make us whole, and remind us that we are not alone.
However, just as words at their most beautiful have the power to bring us back to our better selves, they also have the power to hurt and to harm, to demean and to degrade.
As an English teacher, I believe that an education in the proper use of language should be one of the principle aims of school, and I care deeply about how you use language. I am not simply talking about the ability to write with power, to speak with precision, or to give creative expression to what you see, feel and experience – as important as those are. Nor am I talking simply about politeness or civility, the ability to express your own views with nuance and a proper respect to those who may hold different, even incompatible views, from your own.
As His Majesty King Abdullah II has argued in an essay about civic engagement, “Towards Democratic Empowerment and ‘Active Citizenship’” – an essay that every student at this school and in Jordan should read -- the respectful give and take of ideas is the very lifeblood of any community built on the democratic ideals of respect and dialogue. The last few weeks saw voting here in parliamentary elections, and the exercise of the vote is important. But there is a deeper form of citizenship that involves deliberation, discussion, listening, and an openness to compromise towards which we should strive. That is why we ask you to practice listening and discussion in your Harkness discussions and humanities classrooms, in Model United Nations and Jordan Model Parliament, and it is one of the reasons why His Majesty founded this school.
Writing and speaking: the ability to engage in respectful dialogue – these are important. Equally important is how we use language: informally, every day, in the dorms, online, in conversation and yes, even when in conflict with others, with our friends, peers and classmates. It is through language – how we speak and increasingly in how we write and text and post online – that we create ourselves, create our relationships and friendships, and ultimately create our communities. This is true of small communities like schools, and it is particularly true of King's since this is a co-educational school that quite deliberately brings together young people and adults of all nationalities and cultures, faiths and backgrounds.
Some schools, it is sad to say, have become places not simply of unkindness but of cruelty – places where slurs and stereotypes are used to belittle and to demean. Let me give you a few numbers:
- Anti-Muslim, anti-Arab harassment in the US and across Europe are on the rise. A recent article in the Guardian reports a rising tide of Islamophobia across schools and universities. 55 percent of Muslim students surveyed by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), report that they have been bullied or belittled because of their faith. Degrading and denigrating comments about Arabs – particularly young Arab men – have become in many countries both acceptable and a part of the political mainstream. By a simple accident of birth and a fair complexion I move through airports and across borders with speed and ease. I am immune to the heightened scrutiny, suspicion and sometimes harassment that my friends, colleagues and their families sometimes endure as they travel, but I am ashamed that this increasingly has been their experience. This hostility is largely driven by ignorance, by sometimes willful misunderstandings about Islam, by distorted news reports and media caricature -- issues beautifully addressed by His Majesty in his speech before the United Nations last week.
- At the same time anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise. Jokes about the holocaust, graffiti in the form of swastikas, Nazi salutes, threats of violence against Jewish students – all are regularly reported in schools.
- I could not find accurate statistics for this part of the world, but 50 percent of students in the United States in grades 7-12 report having experienced sexual harassment of some kind: unwelcome touching and physical contact; crude and obscene comments; insults, name-calling or slurs about their sexuality, their physical appearance, or their gender. Girls are twice as likely to experience this as boys, and gay students have been a particular target of harassment and bullying.
- Racist language, directed against young people of every color and complexion, is almost everywhere one looks. Numerous Premier League footballers have been disciplined for explicitly racist and anti-black remarks and gestures, as have the fans of many clubs across Europe. The Egyptian author Mona Eltahawy, an outspoken, sometimes ferocious advocate for human rights, describes racism as “the dirty secret of the Arab world” and documents many examples of the mistreatment of black Africans in the Arab world. An entire lexicon of slurs has been invented to demean and dehumanize those of African heritage, the most ferocious of which is the "n" word . I hesitate to refer to this word in public and apologize for doing so. But I suspect you may have heard it, and it is important for you to know that this word has a long and terrible history of which many of you may be unaware. In the American context – in the American south where I grew up – this word is, quite rightly, taboo, because it is deeply bound up with that country's 400-year history of slavery, legal segregation, disenfranchisement, systemic injustice, violence and vigilantism in the form of state-sanctioned intimidation and murder. The African-American legal scholar Randall Kennedy has written an entire book on this word; he calls it “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.”
- Online bullying and abuse of various kinds is a scourge, a virus, a plague. An extraordinary 88 percent of teens say that they have witnessed people being cruel online. Let me say that again: 88 percent of teens say that they have witnessed people being cruel online. Can this possibly be true? Does that number accurately reflect the experience of the students sitting in this room? There have been reports of students using social media to target and harass individual students, going so far as to create specific sites or groups for that very purpose (if you have seen the film The Social Network you will know that Facebook had its birth in fit of misogyny as a way to rate the looks of and to demean young women. I am pleased that Facebook has since evolved beyond this). Some students have been subjected to steady barrages of teasing and nasty text messages. Still others have been humiliated by the posting of mean-spirited photos and videos. Because of the sheer volume of invective and abuse to be found on the internet, the scholar Timothy Garton Ash recently called it “history's biggest sewer.”
I do not know why there is so much online cruelty or why our online behavior can be so thoughtless. Perhaps it is because of the impersonality of the medium, because we are not present to see the harm our words and posts inflict on others. Perhaps it is because so many social media platforms allow us to hide behind a pseudonym or to speak anonymously through platforms like YikYak, concealing our identities and thereby avoiding accountability. Perhaps we are emboldened to cruelty because we can hide behind the larger group.
I do not know. But I do know that these acts hurt. What none of these numbers can possibly tell us is the impact meanness has on students who are treated in such a way. Students who are subjected to harassment and bullying feel helpless: they feel friendless and alone, they retreat from social interaction, drop out of school, fall into sadness. I know you know this, but let me say it: no student at this school – no, no student at any school – should ever be made to feel this way. Ever.
Some of you may have heard the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I concede that words are not equivalent to sticks, but there is a powerful relationship between words and the breaking of bones. Playful banter can easily become teasing, teasing can become unkindness. Unkindness can escalate into harassment and cruelty, cruelty into physical bullying, bullying into violence, violence into reprisal, reprisal into further acts of violence and hatred. And so the cycle begins. That’s how history works. That’s why words are consequential. History tells us – and I invite you to test this hypothesis – that in every country and every community where vulnerable minorities – whatever their color, race, or religion – are subjected to hateful speech and verbal harassment, legal discrimination and violence are not far behind.
Here is the good news. It does not have to be that way. You have the power – in how you speak, what you post, and the manner you interact with others – to stop this and to create a better and very different world.
When His Majesty spoke at the United Nations last week about the fight against terror, hatred and intolerance, he concluded by saying:
“Perhaps the central and most vital battleground…of our generation is the mind. The despicable, damaging ideology of hate, murder and self-destruction spread in crash courses online and elsewhere, must be confronted with a counter-narrative of hope, tolerance and peace.”
“A counter-narrative of hope, tolerance and peace.” It is up to you to write that narrative. You will, I know, be the authors of a very different kind of story than the one I have just told – a new story of hope and peace. That is a great challenge and heroic calling, and I know that you can accomplish this, because I believe in your fundamental goodness.
How might you begin doing that? You can begin in your classes with study, reading, discussion and scholarship.
As students, we can study the world’s religions as expressions, not of hatred, but of the human striving for grace, community and transcendence. We can remember, and mark, the anniversary of the Amman Message, first issued in November 2004 by His Majesty King Abdullah II and ratified by clerics throughout the Arab world. We can heed its call for interfaith toleration and acceptance between the great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and extend that message's noble spirit of inclusiveness and generosity to all religious faiths represented in this room: Hindu, Buddhist, and those who may be uncertain of what they believe.
In English and Arabic we can study the secret power of language as both a force for good and ill. We can celebrate the writers and artists who use language with grace and beauty and who have given voice to exclusion and human suffering. And we can learn to cast a cold and clinical eye to speech which seeks to manipulate us, to deceive us, to blind us from our shared and common humanity.
We can become students of the media – of its distortions and caricatures, particularly its distortions of this part of the world and the peoples who live here – and when we leave this campus we can represent the Arab world with poise and dignity and aid others in understanding it, as so many of our graduates are doing on university and college campuses throughout the world today.
We can study the history of racism, oppression, colonialism and exploitation, and perhaps most of all, make a study of the brave men and women, of all races, backgrounds and nationalities, who have confronted injustice and said: enough, no more.
Most importantly, we must embrace kindness. We must be good and true friends to one another: not simply to our immediate peer group but to everyone here, and not simply in our face-to-face interactions, but online as well. We must acknowledge our own capacity for cruelty and have the humility and courage to confront it. We must stand up to those who are mean and we must stand beside those who are mistreated or bullied. We must open our hearts to the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the homeless and those in want. That is the history, the recent history, of this kingdom, as it has opened its borders to millions of refugees. As citizens and residents of this country, that is something you should take great pride in, and it serves as a model for all of us.
I have spoken at some length, and I wanted to thank you for listening to me. I hope that you will think about what I have said today. I hope you will talk about what I have said, with one another and with your teachers. Most of all, I hope that together we can write a different kind of story, one of hope and peace and acceptance, and realize His Majesty’s vision for this school, this region and the world.