COLUMN: I-Guilt program: Think different

By Lally Gartel

A few times walking to class on the Quad these days I’ve noticed the word “bigot” spray-painted on the walkways.

Then I saw a poster outside the Union with the same word on it, asking me three questions. Do I say “that’s so gay?” Do I call people and the things they do “retarded?” Do I look twice at interracial couples?

Well, I do one of those things. The sad truth is that, yes, sometimes I call people and the things they do retarded. I immediately felt guilty and politically incorrect.

In my hopeless self-loathing I decided to look into I-Change (the campaign’s name) and its ruthless leaders. Begun by the Illini Union Board this semester, the I-Change campaign is not just about political correctness.

In addition to bigotry, the campaign hopes “to eliminate stupidity, rudeness, ugliness…”. It also has other posters, which you can download from the I-Change Web site, which is accessible from the Illini Union Web site. These posters, entitled ‘Rude,’ ‘Ugly,’ ‘Stupid,’ and ‘Bigot’ do a lot of soul searching for the campus. “Do you throw trash on Green street?” the ‘Stupid’ poster asks, already knowing the answer. “Do you think all fraternity guys are drunks?” echoes the ‘Ugly’ poster, knowing that you are in fact both ugly and stupid.

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In a certain sense, it’s good to guilt trip the masses. But the ironic thing I’ve noticed this time is that, while there have only been a few ‘Bigot’ posters actually put up around campus, it has increased the uses of both the words “gay” and “retarded” pejoratively. This is in a mostly ironic sense, but nevertheless, bringing up the red stencils with friends incites a hefty “that is SO GAY,” followed by ironic laughter.

Unfortunately, unlike the word ‘sucks’ in the late twentieth century, no amount of overuse of the word ‘gay’ will make it acceptable to use it negatively. And I don’t see it dissipating, even with the charges of bigotry.

The nuance in this campaign is that the IUB has the right idea.

It’s good to jar people into the realization that they are rude and intolerable. But in some sense the campaign is also hyper-judgmental about certain things which are not definitively politically incorrect. Stephen Pinker, a noted psycholinguist, notes that terms like “retarded,” previously acceptable in the medical community, were themselves euphemisms for harsher terms like “idiot” and “moron,” which were at one point themselves euphemisms for other terms.

This is something Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill,” in which we must continually pick new words because existing ones become mired in and tainted with whatever negative connotations their colloquial use entails. However, the word “retarded” itself can refer to things other than the mentally disabled. It has a literal meaning, ‘slowed,’ which I don’t think is unacceptable in private use any more than I think the words ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’ are unacceptable.

In the end, the campaign has its heart in the right place. Certainly it will be met with accusations of “cultural Marxism” and yet another attempt at politically correct “liberal” censorship.

But it’s true, we shouldn’t litter on Green Street, we shouldn’t think that engineers have no social life, we shouldn’t run in front of cars and buses on the street and we shouldn’t cheat on tests. I’m not sure if there is any way to meaningfully communicate these things, though, and I’m not sure a red-on-black guilt trip is going to do the trick.

If thousands of dollars were being spent on this campaign, dollars that I pay to attend this university, I probably wouldn’t support the campaign. But it looks like this is a relatively low-key, low-expenditure campaign, so I’m interested in seeing it develop.

Looking at people’s reactions as of now, however, I don’t have much hope that this campaign will (generally) attract anything but ridicule.

Lally can be reached at [email protected].