Confronting Hateful Narratives

Published November 14, 2022

Dear Beach Community:

I grew up in the 1950s with the axiom, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I know the message meant well; don’t react to taunts or insults, just ignore. As decades have passed, however, I’ve learned that words do hurt especially when they are used to stereotype groups of people. I worry about all negative labels that demean members of religious, ethnic, ability, or sexual identity groups and am recently particularly concerned with the rise of anti-Semitism on university campuses nationwide.

There have been almost daily reports of vandalism, taunts, and physical threats enacted toward Jewish students, Hillel facilities, and community synagogues. CSU Sacramento has experienced recent anti-Semitic incidents and we had a Jewish Lecture Series "Zoom-bombed" with hateful symbols just days ago. Local threats have been amplified by words from so-called celebrities, political figures, and the anonymous social media cloud.

Our great experiment in democracy cannot succeed if we fail to follow Abraham Lincoln’s imperative, “With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in…to bind up the nation’s wounds….to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”

Hateful speech threatens our peace as a nation. It incites humans’ bad angels rather than promoting our better ones. We’re all susceptible to fear and jealousy. We have seen the results of naming a group as the “other.” This is how six million Jews and millions of other people were killed just 80 years ago as most of the world looked away. The Holocaust is a terrifying example of what happens when people are labeled as a menace, or as less-than, or as not like us. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel succinctly put it, “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”

Weak and anxious people often look for scapegoats. They turn attention away from their own inadequacies toward a mythical danger. A chilling example, burned into my memory, was the torch-carrying crowd of white nationalists marching across the University of Virginia campus chanting, “We will not be replaced. Jews will not replace us.” A sentiment, by the way, behind quotas applied to Jews trying to escape extermination by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and to quotas at American universities that limited Jewish enrollment.

The way we talk about others is potent. When we speak in vile ways, we fan the flames of violence. That’s a pernicious path. Let’s be models of free, but evidence-informed and compassionate speech at The Beach. We will disagree at times, but we must never descend into revolting stereotypes that deny our common humanity. And we must not be silent when we hear hateful speech. Despite the discomfort it may cause, it’s vital that we confront hateful narratives at every opportunity.

With hope,

Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D.