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Assumptions incorrect

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, November 1, 2005

When Ashley Williams, in her Oct. 31 letter, “Understanding Sensitivity,” quotes one line from a seven-minute performance out of context in such a way that morphs its true meaning into something hateful, I try to believe she does so accidentally rather than maliciously.

The comedian she mentions brought up Rosa Parks to segue into a broader theme – the willful self-segregation of many students (of all backgrounds), rooted in anxiety toward people they perceive as different. This performer is hardly the first to notice that many students reflexively cling to social circles of similar backgrounds as themselves. Sadly, an alarming percentage of Americans are still ensnared in a “separate water fountain” mindset. This was the comedian’s point Thursday. He was illustrating ironically the sad absurdity of this phenomenon.

As a fellow performer that night, I feel obliged to defend him, since I also delivered material that some found offensive. My material dealt thematically with language – more specifically, the most taboo words in English, and how our culture has gradually grown numb to them. This numbness to problematic and abusive words seemed like a perfect object for satire. I delivered the routine (during which I fired off these words in all their forbidden glory). The crowd exploded with laughter, one of the best responses of the show. I felt a rush of relief, because everyone got it. They understood the actual point I was making. Well, apparently everyone didn’t get it, because I, like the other comedian, was approached after the show by people who found the bit hurtful.

Again, these well-meaning patrons missed the point. I wasn’t “spouting” hurtful language; I was making observations about language and the damage words can cause when used carelessly. Likewise, the other comedian wasn’t being racist, but pointing to the anxiety upon which racism is rooted.

Still, the vast majority of the crowd laughed – not out of insensitivity (or lack of gall), but because they understood the true intention of these “crude” observations and recognized the reality that they illustrated.

Williams might have easily assumed there was another, less scandalous interpretation than her own – rather than quickly deciding that this performer was ignorant or bigoted, and that an audience of nearly 200 Notre Dame students was equally bigoted or too cowardly to stand up to prejudice. But this interpretation wouldn’t have fit nearly as conveniently with the rest of her letter, would it?

Brian Berrysenioroff-campusOct. 31