Think Before You Talk, a new, freshmen-led campaign to reduce the use of derogatory words like “gay” and “retarded” in everyday conversation, is a praiseworthy attempt to tackle an important issue. We particularly applaud the initiative for its focus on language, which we agree can needlessly foster hostile attitudes that have no place on our campus. We urge the campaign to consider tweaking the popular one-size-fits-all approaches to addressing Duke cultural issues and to continue thinking creatively.
Think Before You Talk has many positive features and could potentially have a strong impact. The use of nasty language is sometimes related less to malice than one’s upbringing, or the groups with whom an individual has previously associated. As the campaign’s founders point out, international students may be more prone to use derogatory words simply because they heard them once or twice and are not aware of their offensive nature. In these cases, awareness is crucial—and even simple posters and stickers can go a long way.
But it is important to recognize that the initiative has its limitations. Any student attending Duke in the last few years must have come across a similar poster campaign addressing another cultural concern—“Who Needs Feminism?,” “Breaking Out” and Blue Devils United “Day of Silence” are a few examples. While these kinds of campaigns raise awareness, they rely on the attention of interested passersby and thus can self-select for people already sympathetic to the cause. As more and more campaigns of a similar nature emerge on campus, their leaders run the risk of over-saturating their target audience.
This phenomenon places an larger-than-usual burden on student leaders to think outside the box. Campaigns that attract interest in an innovative way—particularly those that engage students directly—will be more successful than their more conventional peers. Posters are a good way to attract initial interest, but more active participation through discussions, lectures or workshops help ensure the message doesn’t get lost.
Think Before You Talk has made a good start in having students sign a pledge to reduce use of derogatory language. This pledge should be a cornerstone of the campaign, perhaps with the addendum that signatories commit themselves to speaking out when friends use derogatory language. After all, real change is likely to occur only when use of derogatory words becomes sufficiently socially unacceptable. Students could also be encouraged to give feedback—perhaps through videos or written testimonials—on how use of the words has affected them negatively. The more personal the campaign becomes, the more effective it is likely to be.
None of this is to diminish the efforts of the campaign’s founders. That such an important and timely initiative came from freshmen is yet another reminder that no Duke student is too young or otherwise unqualified to lead. Complaining about societal ills is one things—doing something about them is another.
All told, then, we celebrate the leadership of those behind this campaign and urge them to continue refining and improving it. Duke will benefit greatly from their call to think.