Last Thursday, the two worst preachers in America showed up on Penn’s campus. As far as I could tell, they failed to convert a single student to the word of the Lord. In fact, the vast majority of students in the gathering crowd preferred to openly make fun of them and heckle from the sidelines. Guys draped in pride flags and girls armed with Bible verses got massive rounds of applause from the crowd, while the preachers were repeatedly jeered at and booed.
The supposed “men of God” never really changed their strategy beyond switching from homophobia to racism to sexism and back, spouting the same bigoted slogans about women in kitchens and Sodom and Gomorrah, while failing to garner a single sympathetic ear. The only thing more embarrassing than their repeated failure was their lack of self awareness. They grinned and chuckled as their attempts repeatedly failed. They almost seemed to enjoy it.
By now you probably realize that Brother “Ross” Jackson and his partner-in-crime Brother Aiden weren’t really missionaries at all. Their “mission,” if they had one, probably had more to do with the prominent donation button on their website than anything related to getting a student to pick up a Bible. But where these men failed to spread their faith, Penn’s coalition of the marginalized succeeded.
We cheered in support at the queer, Muslim and POC students that stood up to Jackson, and we treated the counter-protestors and dissenters like heroes. The impulse to turn the crowd away from Jackson and starve him of attention was well-intentioned, but misguided. What our community did that day was a great, powerful thing, and any shame we feel about it is undeserved. In fact, we should beam with pride.
The counter-protesters had the recurring message that onlookers should stop paying attention to Jackson’s entourage and move on with their day. It was classic playground philosophy: If you ignore a bully, they’ll probably go away. Their thinking was reasonable, but I argue it was misguided — even though their very presence at the protest was what turned it positive in the first place. It was exactly the attention we gave Jackson that allowed us to reclaim the event for ourselves.
On the surface, ignoring Jackson’s misogynist clown act makes perfect sense. He’s an ugly bigot doing ugly and bigoted things, and what he wants is attention. It seems obvious not to give him what he wants. But take a moment and step in a younger, more vulnerable student’s shoes. Imagine you’re, say, a naïve freshman like myself, and you run into a protester like Jackson spitting homophobic vitriol. If he’s the loudest voice in the room, that’s the message you’re going to get about the Penn community: Everyone here might not be hateful, but hateful messages will go unopposed. “Failing to give him attention” isn’t very different than being a silent bystander.
What I saw last Thursday was a different thing entirely. Jackson’s voice might have been the central one, but it was not the loudest one. He was drowned out by counter-protesters holding signs that said “LOVE” in bold letters and brave feminists bouncing inflated condoms right in front of his face. The message was clear: Penn’s community is stronger than his bigotry.
Of course, not everyone in the crowd was so loving. There were definitely people in the audience who enjoyed the verbal scuffle more than the politics of anti-oppressive love. More troublingly, there were definitely students who secretly agreed with Jackson’s hateful message. This speaks to some deeply problematic veins of Penn’s culture, and they’re challenges that we have to actively assault every single day. But notably, those voices were mostly silent that day. If those who agreed with Jackson learned any lesson on College Green that day, it was this: Even if politics of oppression were tolerated before, they won’t be for long. At Penn, the space for the reactionary is large and deadly, but it grows smaller every day. Our voices during times like these make this clear.
Don’t feel guilty for rubbernecking, and don’t be afraid to care. When hate appears and we stay silent, defenders of the status quo win. Attention is the platform from which the most powerful counter-attack can be launched, and it’s a resource that we’d be fools to waste. Jackson doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of our caring about his satisfaction. After all, in the end, he’s just a doofus with a sign. And he’s not very good at his job.
AARON COOPER is a College freshman from Morristown, NJ, studying cognitive science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Aanarchy” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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