Sticks and Stones and Rhetoric


Sticks and Stones and Rhetoric


By Evan Cohen

Eleven years ago, I played in a band that rehearsed in a basement downtown. On one side of the basement was an illegal two-bedroom apartment that the landlord slapped together with drywall. My friend Matt lived there with a roommate. I didn't know anything about the roommate other than that he was black.

One afternoon, my bandmate, George, and I went down to rehearsal early and checked in on Matt. We were in his room talking about the then non-hit TV show, Homeboys in Outer Space. George was saying that it was a low rent rip-off of the Britcom, Red Dwarf. I chimed in with "It's more like Red Nigger!"

Matt hissed at me, "My roommate's home, stupid!"

Oh shit. I was going to die.

I never felt so low in all my life. I began to shake, and clenched my suddenly churning bowels to keep them from releasing. "Oh my god, he's gonna kill me!"

"Relax," George said.

We heard our drummer Michael walking down the basement steps. Matt opened the door and I walked out as quickly as possible. I didn't see the roommate. Thank god. Hopefully he didn't hear anything.

We played for two hours and I almost forgot the sickening feeling in my gut. As we were packing up our equipment, George said, "You have to apologize."


"You have to apologize to Matt's roommate."

"But maybe he didn't even hear me say it!" I pleaded. "Like, what if he didn't hear anything and then it makes it look ten times worse!"

"You have to apologize."

Oh shit.

I slowly walked across the basement to the apartment, wondering if I'd soon have any teeth left. I knocked on the door, hoping that he was gone. The roommate opened up the door. "Yes?"

"Hi. I just... well... I want to apologize for something I said earlier in Matt's room, and I just want to let you know that I'm sorry if you may have been offended."

"Okay," he said, and shut the door. I then ran upstairs and out of the building.

Matt didn't talk to me for a long time after that. He would eventually tell me that relations with his roommate from then on were pretty awkward. We continued to rehearse there, but I never saw the roommate again. So what did I learn?

When I think about this incident, I still feel uncomfortable. Had Matt's roommate not been home, or even existed, it wouldn't have been an issue. It would have been just another comment. The difference was that I got caught, and all things considered, I got off pretty easy. I think that, worst of all, what I said wasn't even funny.

If you think I'm going to say that I learned my lesson and don't use language like that anymore, you're wrong. I still use "inappropriate" language, so much so that when the same word was symbolically banned by the NYC city council, I got half a dozen e-mails from friends saying, "So what are you going to do now?"

But I know when to say certain things and when not to (when I don't forget, of course). I know context. I don't speak the same way to my professors as I do to my friends, but I don't believe that certain words should "belong" to certain groups and not others. Language and humor shouldn't have limits. What's key here is the intent behind the words, and more so, behind actions.

Words were big news recently. For two weeks, pundits brimming with self-righteous indignation discussed whether Don Imus was within his bounds to refer to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." His defenders said that he was paid to be inappropriate and was just earning his paycheck, but he was ultimately fired.

On the afternoon of Monday, April 16, while the cable news channels were reporting the increasingly unbelievable details of the Virginia Tech massacre, Oprah was airing the first of a two-part town hall show all about Don Imus and the pain words can cause. I tuned in for about two minutes and it all seemed so silly. What caused more harm, three words on a radio show, or a mentally disturbed college student armed with two legally purchased firearms?

Before the shootings in Blacksburg occurred, Matee Ajavon of the Rutgers team said, "This has scarred me for life." I think there are 33 families who would take issue with that statement, not to mention the survivors who will suffer physical and psychological trauma for years to come.

We're quick to jump on people who say the "wrong" thing, whether it's Michael Richards' meltdown in a comedy club, or Joe Biden referring to Barack Obama as "clean." But does calling them out solve the problem? There are local politicians and police officials all over this country who would never use those words in public but who harbor true hatred. I'd be more worried about their abuses of power than what I heard on the radio.

So the next time you hear something that rubs you the wrong way, stop and think. Who's saying it, and what's the context? What was the real intent? Who is it really hurting, and what how does that hurt fit into the greater scheme of things? Words are just that, words. Actions cause real damage, but actions can also heal. Choose your action.


Original Source: Columbia Spectator
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Evan Cohen




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Evan Cohen, “Sticks and Stones and Rhetoric,” The April 16 Archive, accessed July 16, 2024,