The week following the publication if my “Don’t Free The Jena Six” column has been a fascinating learning experience.
As expected, the column generated a wide range of responses ranging from people agreeing with me to people being hostile toward me.
In particular, the response of postgraduate student Lester Washington intrigued me.
He wrote a strongly worded rebuttal in the Collegian Monday to my article asserting my family and I were racists. My first reaction, as it would be for many of you, was anger. He was insulting me, and even my family. Those words sounded like fighting words.
However, I realized that it would be a shame to ignore his criticism and just assume I was right. His statement that I didn’t understand how blacks felt about the case was very intriguing.
While I have studied the history of racial conflict in America, I didn’t understand it on a personal level. I’m not from the South and I’ve spent large portions of my life living in places like Colorado where there is limited racial diversity.
Instead of holding a grudge against Lester, I decided to try and figure out what I had said that had provoked such a strong reaction from him. We met and chatted for awhile and I came away with a new understanding of the Jena Six issue.
I stand by the original point of my first column in saying that the Jena Six still need to be punished regardless of whether they were incited to crime. However, I learned from talking with Lester what I had said could have been presented in a fairer and less offensive fashion.
For instance, my use of the word “colorblind” struck him as offensive because he thought that I meant that he should ignore his black heritage.
However, when I said colorblind, I meant that I wished for a society where skin color was not a factor in getting a job or getting justice from the court system.
Sadly, I didn’t know that I was writing from a white perspective because race is never discussed except in distorted media coverage. I was talking with my friends, and none of them could recall having a chat like the one I had with Lester.
It’s time for that to change.
While it was nice to see the campus motivated to debate over profanity, free speech is about much more than that. My discussion with Lester exemplified the best parts of free speech.
Instead of stereotyping each other, we got to see each other for who we really were.
He saw that I wasn’t racist after all, while I realized that my column on the Jena Six used only logic and book knowledge. I missed the human element in the Jena Six case because I didn’t know anyone who could feel what those black students were feeling.
It is imperative that we have honest discussions with people who have different upbringings than our own. Talking with a black man from Louisiana like Lester taught me far more than watching CNN and talking with my white friends.
Sadly, unlike Lester, some of my critics had a far less conciliatory reaction to my column. I received a warning from two black students who threatened me and told me to stop writing because I was “pissing a lot of people off.”
Our goal when interacting in a public forum should never be to hush debate, but rather to promote an open and beneficial exchange of ideas.
If our right to free speech means anything, it means that we can discuss many topics that are considered taboo.
I challenge you to intentionally start a discussion of a controversial issue with someone who disagrees with you.
You’ll probably be surprised at how much you learn and how much the other person appreciates that you reached out to them.
Ian Bezek is a sophomore economics major. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.