As students of a liberal arts college, we are all familiar with the complications of language; by the time we have finished our first semester, we are conscious of how each word has enough baggage within disciplines that using a word requires a new awareness. Think of how many classes you have taken where it is necessary to dissect our understanding of “nature.” We are confronting the challenge of intention versus interpretation.
Yet the second we leave the academic realm and enter the social realm, things change. The baggage of language is ignored as intention becomes the point of contention and interpretation is sidelined. Is it that we are all the same? That the Colgate uniform standardizes not only our shoes but also our individual identities?
My first semester freshman year I had a professor joke that by the time each Colgate class graduates, we all look the same. We often forget that behind 2,800 popped collars are 2,800 different experiences shaped by being an ‘invisible’ minority – those dealing with mental health issues, those with different socio-economic status, those in the queer community and those in religious communities to name a few. It is for us, the 2,800 individual experiences that we need to bring the consciousness of intention versus interpretation into the social realm.
You didn’t get hot peppers on your Rogers sub? “That’s so gay.” Have a physics test tomorrow, a sociology paper due Monday and last night the Jug was the Jug? “I’m going to kill myself.”
These are all pretty standard expressions to hear at Colgate, and have the common objective of saying times are rough and things are bad. It’s easiest for one to dismiss the ramifications of their comments by simply saying, “You know what I mean,” just as it’s easiest for someone who disagrees to try and shut the speaker down.
But what happens next – we condone constant reinforcement of negative attitudes towards marginalized groups, we allow ourselves to be part of an environment where people are uncomfortable being themselves and we set a precedent for further negativity as even inanimate objects become objects of hate.
Last week a mattress covered with homophobic graffiti was found outside of the “rainbow room”– what is supposed to be a safe, secretive and secure place for LGBTQ students on campus. We could ask if finding a mattress with the words “danger,” “AIDS,” “diseased” and a skull on it in such a convenient location is necessarily an act of homophobic aggression, or if it is just a bad turn of random events laden with a lack of consideration. But instead, I want to focus on why the mattress is an issue regardless.
I spent my first three years at Colgate in the closet. As a student at Colgate whose falls into one of the many invisible minority groups on campus, I felt threatened by the Colgate idiom. I saw a mattress covered in slurs, overheard a conversation in line at the Coop or even just hung out with friends and was acutely aware of the words used. I may have been able to see their intention, but it was my interpretation that shaped my experience. Each off-the-cuff remark fueled a step deeper into the closet. Moments in public spaces where everyone “got it” and felt no need to protest created the idea that there was a real Colgate idiom – and that it meant I had no place or support.
We are a body made up of individuals with unique experiences and identities. The Colgate Campus Life Survey has shown us that there is no common Colgate experience. It may be that the thickest thread of commonality lies in our experiences of discomfort in situations where intention clashes with interpretation, as words without thought have lasting impacts we cannot see.