Assistant professor of English
When Maya Angelou visited the University Aug. 24, she quoted Terentius, the Roman playwright: “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.”
That statement has resurfaced in my consciousness frequently over the last few weeks. His message may strike us as illogical; after all, our response to great acts of violence frequently categorizes them as “unthinkable” or “inconceivable.” Given Angelou’s insight and the political climate in our country though, I think we must interrogate our impulse to compartmentalize violent impulses as something other than quintessentially human.
As a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University, I departed campus perhaps 10 minutes before Steven Kazmierczak opened gunfire in Cole Hall, killing five people and injuring 21 before taking his own life in 2008.
For the remainder of my time at NIU I watched a community reel at such a gut-wrenching act of violence, the fourth deadliest university shooting in U.S. history.
While I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand Kazmierczak’s actions, I also believe there is great danger in dismissing him as a monster or unhinged demon outside of humanity.
To do so relieves us of our duty as human beings (and a community, society) to find ways every day to seek the essential humanity in all people and emphatically call into question any behavior that even remotely hints at violence.
On Aug. 26 the University and Board of Regents made a tremendous stride by adopting a large-scale diversity plan.
As the only university with a board-approved diversity plan in the Commonwealth, students, faculty and staff have a great deal for which to be thankful and the changes will benefit us all.
However, this has all been slightly tarnished by the fact that one of the University’s staff members received a death threat the very next day for helping get this plan passed.
The issuance of this threat was in objection to the provisions made in the diversity plan for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. To have such a wonderful, progressive moment marred by threats of violence is not only unacceptable, it is outrageous.
The foundation of university life is the creation of a community where differences are not only accepted, but embraced.
No matter our differences, each of us is human above all else. This may sound touchy-feely and trite, but it remains an immutable truth, and we must remind ourselves of this continually.
Too frequently it seems we are encouraged to believe groups of people with different beliefs or ideas are not like us.
By allowing ourselves to believe this, we allow a chasm to form: a chasm that sets into motion dehumanizing entire groups. It doesn’t take much for some people to threaten or perpetrate violence over opinion.
How often do we offer inherently biased, blanketing statements about entire groups of people? Women, Christians, Muslims, Gays, African Americans – can you recall a time in recent history when you’ve heard someone say something like, “The problem with blank is…”?
Is it possible that such statements are ever accurate? Highly unlikely.
In a country of this size with its many regions, cultures and traditions, it is not possible to live without differences. Sometimes these disagreements are minor, other times profound.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to have one’s deeply-held beliefs challenged or to witness policy being enacted that does not perfectly align with those ideals, this is the compromise of living in a democratic society.
We are all human and must learn to grow together and discard any tactics that marginalize or intimidate others.
I wish to add I have no desire to dwell on the negative here. The University is making amazing strides.
Nevertheless, a death threat to one of our own serves as the ultimate “teachable moment,” wherein we can know great work has been done.
I hope each of you will see this as a call to action. How will you elevate the public discourse?
What steps can you take to send the message that violence is never the solution? This is a serious mission.
Let’s take Angelou’s words to heart and embrace the ideal that there is no difference so great that it occludes our essential humanity.