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I recently moved in with a friend who I’ve known for almost a decade. Turns out he uses a lot of homophobic slurs and insults. He also says racist stuff and badmouths pretty much every minority group you can think of. I had never seen this side of him until we became roommates, and now I’m really disturbed. I pointed out how offensive this was, and his response was, “They’re just words,” and that I should lighten up. What do I do?
Your friend’s answer of “They’re just words” is similar to punching someone in the face and then saying, “They’re just hands.” Words are powerful and can be used to hurt or comfort, just like hands can be used to hit or hug. Next time he uses derogatory language, you could just call him an “ignorant racist dumbass piece of shit,” and if he gets upset, remind him that “they’re just words.”
Words are not “just words.” Words are power. Words are living symbols of expression. Words can cause you to feel angry, even violently hurt. They’re supposed to. Even if we realize that words are “just words” — sounds made by our mouths and larynx — those sounds convey ideas, and those ideas convey meanings, and meanings convey a very real power. The world is made up of words. We think with words, we communicate with words, and we translate our experience into language so we can understand and express it. Words are meant to be powerful. We made them that way for a reason, so that they can give meaning to our life. That’s why there’s an undeniably physical quality to hearing words that are meant to be hurtful, insulting, and cruel. You feel them; you don’t just hear them.
If this man weren’t your friend, and instead just a stranger you overheard insulting people, it would be much easier to call him out on his ignorance and then walk away, freeing yourself from ever having to deal with him again. But the fact that he’s your friend — and, for better or worse, your roommate — complicates the situation immensely, because you care about him.
When you witness someone you care about brandishing hatred and prejudice, it’s not just the words that sound ugly. It isn’t just the insulting, cruel, and mean-spirited nature of the language or ideas that’s upsetting. The sadness you feel isn’t limited to the pain his words caused you directly, nor is your compassion limited to what you feel for the targets of his abuse. The painful and complicated feelings that arise when someone you otherwise love is participating in hate and prejudice is a sadness that comes directly from seeing another’s psychological ugliness so prominently displayed. You may feel angry and disgusted, but deeper than the frustration, and even deeper than the hurt, is a penetrating sadness, and perhaps even pity.
Since this man is your friend, you want him to be the best he can be. You want him to be a good person. You want to see the highest aspects of his self take the lead and direct his behavior. You want him to be someone you can feel proud to call your friend. But when you see him wallowing in his weakness, in his prejudice, and in his small-mindedness, it hurts. It’s like seeing someone you care about get sick and wind up in the hospital at the hands of their own vices. You wish you could find a way to convince them not to live like that. You want to show them how they’re hurting themselves and the people around them in hopes of helping them see another way of being. It’s very hard and painful to see someone you care about be less than the person you know they can be.
Out of all of humanity’s shortcomings and faults, prejudice is the most damaging and amplifies our most destructive capacities. Prejudice is a disease of the soul that distorts the world and poisons the heart of the infected person. Prejudice not only cuts one person off from those around him, but cuts that person off from himself. Prejudice attaches itself to the lowest and most fear-based emotional impulses, and feeds off a person’s vitality, directing all his valuable energy into his least constructive and most profane modes of thought and action. To see someone suffering from extreme prejudice is to see a human enveloped in darkness — and it’s often a progressive condition, getting worse and harder to shake the longer it has power over him.
It hurts to see your friend succumbing to his own prejudice. It hurts to watch as he loses track of his own spirit and trades it in for a superficial kind of power and false superiority. You want to help him and save him and stop him from dwelling in this blindness. As hard as it may be to try to find compassion for him, you just try. Try to understand why he is what he is. Do not excuse his behavior, but try to comprehend his confusion — not to accept or dismiss it, but to locate it, so you can try to heal what he is suffering from.
Realize that you might not be able to save him from this. Understand that there is only so much you can do. And be warned that he may try to bring out your own worst behaviors as a result of your engaging with his. You must hold very firmly to your own integrity and your own openhearted convictions. Remember what is really at stake: The anger and hate that he projects can easily overtake you and infect your heart as well. Do not sink to his level.
The best you can do is tell your friend that you love him, and that he sounds awful when he talks like that. Tell him that being a racist makes it impossible for you to be true friends with him, even though you still care about him. Tell him that you’re embarrassed for him. Tell him that you’re afraid for him. Tell him his ignorance makes him sound like someone you know he isn’t. Tell him that you know he’s a better person than this.
No matter what, let the horrifying experience of seeing your friend’s darkest and most deplorable qualities reaffirm your own commitment to living your life without prejudice and hatred. Let this unfortunate interaction help motivate you to examine your own soul for even the smallest signs of bigotry, bias, discrimination, and narrow-mindedness. Make sure that what you see in your friend is what you never find in yourself. And if you do find it inside you, work tirelessly to heal it. You might not be able to get through to him, but you can get through to yourself. Be the person you wish he was. Unite yourself with your own best vision of humanity. Unite the people around you with a shared vision of possibility. Unite everything. Divided we fall.
Photo by Brian McManus