If you’re not familiar with Scattegories™, it’s a fun little game wherein all players have a common list of descriptions, a die is rolled to choose a letter of the English alphabet, and within an amount of time (determined by the provided device) all players must write a word that begins with the given letter and matches each description. Those who come up with an appropriate word that does not match that of another player get a point. When everyone tires of rolling the die for subsequent rounds (or needs to get back to work), the person with the most points wins. Unlike SCRABBLE®, wherein any word may be challenged with the simple use of a dictionary, a group’s determinant of the appropriateness of a given word, thus being legit, lies within the realm of reason—or compassion. Some may consider this in more objective terms than others, but it’s a game, and therefore subject to the subjectivity of its players.
Yesterday some students at a local Bible college were playing a game of Scattergories™ between campus activities. I happened to be in the immediate vicinity and overheard part of the game. While comparing their answers at the end of a round, one particular student offered, “knuckle sandwich.” This spawned immediate controversy. Seeing that the first word is used adjectively, it is not the thing itself, and reason, it would seem, dictates that it would have scored with the roll of an S, which was not rolled. Part of the student’s argument included the rule that an answer with multiple words beginning with the same letter is awarded multiple points (e.g., steak salad), and since the first word in these circumstances is not necessarily the thing itself, it was argued that the first word in the given answer began correctly and should be awarded a point. In the end, logic lost and compassion conquered: a point was awarded. (The letter rolled was N—#fail on two counts.) This gesture, however, did not shock me. Though many of us within the church are often sticklers for rules, even in times of fun, I’ve come to appreciate many students at this (intentionally unnamed) school for their compassion. They must adhere to so much rule and regulation on campus and in their Bible classes that they are often much more compassionate, gracious, and forgiving toward one another.
It’s the next answer that piqued my concern.
“Found in amusement parks,” was the next description in the round. Again, the students took turns giving answers. This time the student above answered, “Niggers.” What followed was a strange mix of shock, amusement, giggles, and dismay. Seeing that the answer was about to be unanimously shot down (on several grounds), the student announced, “They can be found there!” There was some verbal shuffling, but the possibility was quickly conceded and a point awarded. I could tell not all were satisfied with the democratic consensus, but it was obvious no one wanted to push the discomfort any further. So, trying to be fatherly rather than authoritative, I chimed in with a series of questions, hoping to spark a bit of conversation and reasoning on their own behalf as to other reasons why one might (should) not provide such an answer to anything similar. “Can you guarantee they may be found at all amusement parks? Can you guarantee your safety after using the word at said amusement parks? Can you guarantee your safety after calling anyone that?” Of course, my concern and implication was not and is not primarily one of safety, but I hoped to get others talking. Perhaps someone would offer that they don’t exist—that the label and idea should be so dead to us as to not be a part of our language? The response I got was, “I’d never say that word!” My response, “You just did,” was met with awkward, dismissive laughter and the continuation of the game. One student in particular maintained a demeanor of disturbance, but again, compassion (fear or avoidance?) prevailed…or failed miserably, as the case may be.
This is tough stuff. Tender hearted Bible students, all in their late teens to early twenties, playing a game and not knowing what to do with offensive language in the absence of those referenced and presence of perceived authority: What to do? What to say? Perhaps, in their minds, it wasn’t one of their own culturally offensive curse words for which they’d be reprimanded by the campus powers that be? There’s much we could discuss here in the way of appropriate action, discipline, and the like. I’m often seen more as a friend, brother, father, and/or mentor around here, but I have no official authority over them other than that which they themselves give me. So, I don’t think this would have been an issue if a member of the faculty or staff had been present—it wouldn’t have happened—but what if it had? What would you have done? What do you think the consequence(s) of your action would have had on the student(s)? Would it remedy, educate, perpetuate, or maybe even infuriate? Would it be a response or reaction? I’ll let you consider that. My mind went elsewhere.
I believe this is indicative of a deeper problem with education. I’m not sure where and at what point it begins with any given person, but at some point we learn to disconnect ourselves from our words and actions so as to claim deniability of any wrong doing. “I am not the thing. The thing is the thing. There it is, all on its own. I just put it there.” As it goes, the disconnect inevitably breaks down, but not all can see it. “I just put it there,” or some similar sentiment, brings personal involvement back into the equation. We are responsible. We must be responsible. For those of us in the Kingdom of God, we should consider ourselves to have even fewer (perceived) claims of deniability, for all we do must be seen through the lens of glorifying God and furthering the Kingdom through our mutual expression of love, in Christ, as guided by the Spirit.
This idea of deniability is, perhaps, most prevalent in our “it’s just business” mentality, wherein anything goes in the name of profit margins and efficiency with little regard for what is actually honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise in the eyes of our Lord. For those of us in the USA, wherein companies are, for all intents and purposes, treated as people and not just the “things” we claim them to be, it has become even easier to deny the part we play in the actions of the company “person.” We’re often guilty of talking out of both sides of our mouth when someone claims a company “person” is evil when we respond with something like, “The company is amoral, a mere systematic entity with no sense of right or wrong.” We quickly bring relativity into our definitions to suit our selfish needs—anything to promote deniability and the absence of responsibility. Lawsuits are so commonplace and often our initial response to any perceived wrongdoing, so we must find ways to say, “It was the company, not me. Sue the company, not me.” The company can die and the individual walk away clean—so clean that the same individual or group thereof may birth another company the next day.
So, what was going on in the mind of this student? I don’t know, but I’m going to speculate for the sake of my argument. (I’m allowed to do that because I’m the one writing!) Perhaps there was a sense of deniability because it’s “just a word,” “just a game,” or “technically valid” (we’ll get to that). Obviously, “I’d never say that word!” implies the student knows it’s not acceptable and ought not be used, that there is some stigma with the word and those who use it, but to what degree is apparently uncertain. For some, it’s okay to use it in “innocent fun” (really?) but not in “real life” (what’s not “real life?”). We sometimes place ourselves in these “hypothetical realities” for periods of time in order to get away with something we would otherwise abhor, all the while remaining in our present reality. Again, we disassociate ourselves from the thing. But we still have yet to address the deeper issue.
The more we practice deniability and our disassociation with the thing, the easier it becomes to dehumanize another person—to consider him or her (just) the thing. It becomes even easier to disassociate ourselves from the thing and the person if we begin with dehumanization. Once that happens, it becomes easier to talk about the thing about the thing (Get it?) without remorse. With respect to the student and word in question, we can only use the word “nigger” in reference to others if we believe the thing exists—even hypothetically. Once we bring one’s human dignity back into the picture—re-associate the person with the thing—we must see that this particular thing does not exist, therefore denying and ceasing the use of the thing. (Others may argue a particular people group may use the word and others may not, but I still do not find this to be God-honoring, even from a cultural perspective. I, and others much more influential than myself, say, “Change the culture.”) In the aforementioned game, the word was used because it was believed to exist—that was the argument made and the reason for the award. So, at some point there was a failure to communicate to this (these) student(s) the fullness of humanity and the purpose for which we were all made as the image of God.
Who or what is at fault? I don’t know, and we don’t need to know. Let us instead move from this point forward in lovingly educating and encouraging our youth (at the earliest age of understanding) and one another in the ways of humanity, accepting responsibility, and being the image we were created to be. Let us not wholly place the blame on the company—the collective; let us impart just, individual responsibility as participants within the whole. Let us not make a case for separating ourselves from the thing (or the thing from the thing); let us see the thing, one another, and ourselves through the eyes of Christ. We are a community, the body of Christ, individually and collectively citizens of the Kingdom of God. Let us show one another the same grace, mercy, loving admonishment, and forgiveness toward one another that is shown to us by our God.
Scattergories™ and SCRABBLE® are trademarks of Hasbro, Inc., with which I have no affiliation. Don’t sue me.