Throughout much of our lives, we engage with symbols, big and small. Symbols are a source of depth and often tell stories in fewer words or no words at all. Examples vary from written or spoken metaphors to images heavy with historical weight.
The recent posting of a swastika on the wall of a residence dorm demands a serious response and reflection. While the motive is not known, it is imperative to reflect as a community. Soon after the swastika was reported, the Dean for Student Life, Suzy Nelson, sponsored an event for the MIT community. In her invitation, she enjoined us “to talk about ways we can ensure our residence halls, classrooms, and community spaces are places that celebrate kindness, understanding, and respect.”
Dean Nelson went on, “Similar incidents have occurred in other dormitories in recent years, and a student political group has reported having its posters defaced. Coupled with events that have transpired on college campuses across the country, we believe this is the right moment to listen and learn from one another.”
Last December, President Reif wrote, “At MIT, when our community is at its best, bigotry and discrimination are out of bounds, period. Diminishing or excluding others on the basis of their identity – whether race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, social class, nationality or any other aspect – would be unthinkable…Such behavior is simply beneath us – because we value each other as members of our community and respect each other as fellow human beings.”
What are the intentions behind the act of drawing a swastika? Was it intended to be a joke spurred out of ignorance and a whim? Was it the physical representation of one’s disdain for another group? Does the intention matter? The effects are disturbing and as President Rief has said, “...simply beneath us.”
As much as we try to analyze the motives behind these kinds of hateful actions, I am only left with more questions. Throughout this semester, I have been grappling with this issue and other topics related to “free speech” along with the students in Radius’s co-hosted undergraduate seminar, Language, Information and Power. When does freedom of speech infringe on the rights of others? When does it go beyond hurtful to dangerous? Wrestling with these questions is a challenge, but absolutely crucial for the entire MIT community and our nation.