The Daily Illini

Don’t lend Main Quad preachers your ears

By Gregory Caceres, Columnist

Several free speech issues have recently struck the campus, from “Trump-chalk” to Palestinian-Israeli tensions, and most recently the return of our friendly neighborhood Main Quad preacher.

Spring has decidedly smacked us in our collective face with beautiful weather, budding flowers, birds chirping, prospective-student tours and religious sex-ed.

George Edward Smock, Jr. commonly known as “Brother Jed,” is back, and I await in anticipation to see how our campus will react. More importantly, I await to see how it won’t react.  

The University’s Quad is a symbol. A symbol of learning, of ambition, of nature and of intersection between peoples — it reflects the beauty of all thereof. Most outwardly the Quad is a symbol of free speech; it’s a public space unlike any other, allowing for a literal soap-box and bullhorn, right alongside the Girl Scouts and their Thin Mints.

In keeping with the traditions of the Quad, free speech is beautiful, and we all know it. But then the dreaded questions arise to disrupt the picture: how much is enough? How far should people be allowed to go with what they say? How can we educate people to better voice their opinions? How do we ensure our Quad’s picture stays pretty?

Ideally, students would just walk past such speech and supersede such questions. There’s no need to listen, and no need to succumb to flashy signs and demeaning statements.

Student tours will likely steer clear of such incidents of “ugly speech.” But they shouldn’t. Coming in as a freshman, right around my third week of school, I saw the Quad preachers for the first time. I thought it was a joke. I thought some sort of satirical commentary was involved, like a promotion for a musical or a secular protest. I had no such luck.

Walking up to a crowd, gathered around signs advertising hell and the wrath of God as the primary message, I was very afraid, confused and angry — there’s nothing much to do in that situation but watch in silence. Fight against it? Sure, I tried, but to no effect. It was a big culture shock to see my faith represented that way, and I wish I had known about it before settling in at the University. The brochures and stock photos hadn’t prepared me for that.

Equally scary, confusing and anger-inducing was the prevailing reaction to Brother Jed’s affront. It’s easy to lash out, to look at open-air preaching and want to tear down the signs and push it all away; but what happens then? The self-proclaimed goal of drawing a crowd is accomplished.

See for yourself, Brother Jed’s website lays it all out: he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s got a very specific strategy in mind, detailed in a feature length video called “Five Stages of A Crowd.”

Stage one is “the hook,” and the preachers excel at it. Students should be very careful of it. They should tread more and more carefully each time they see that flame-engulfed sign, because every time I’ve seen it I’ve seen the accompanying crowd of people, united together in their hate for the provocative speakers. The beauty of the Quad is overtaken by a loud, bloated and magnetic collection of hate and anger.

Spring should carry with it that sensation of life, not of the dead and dreary spirit that comes upon such a gathering. In the end, the only power that open-air preachers have is the power that you, the students and target audience, give them. They’ve got their fundraisers and financial partner plans — a convenient “$26 in 2016” through Discover, Visa and Mastercard — but the only sustainable way they can keep on like this is if students listen in.

Free speech is great. Absolutely be engaged in open discourse, respond to others’ opinions with yours, be an active and challenging citizen of the world. Just don’t incline your ear to what you know is damaging, both unto you and unto others.

Brother Jed may be a joke to some, but he and his impact are serious. From someone who knows how tempting it is to mock, leave the mockery out of it. Brother Jed may be a source of information to some, but he and his message are twisted. Go literally anywhere other than Jed’s fold for a Christian outlook, even the most watered-down teaching would be better than that of the famous Quad preacher.

If in fact our campus is strong enough to walk away from the angry soapbox, then everything changes. For one, Jed won’t be here anymore. Let’s hope so, because that Quad — neither uninformed nor spoken down to — is a space worth fighting for. It’s a beauty we should be willing to lay down arms for.

Gregory is a freshman in DGS.

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