Educating Exonians to speak out against violence

Genny Beckman Moriarty

Byron Hurt's visit powers a campus-wide conversation around misogyny, sexism and violence.

March 15, 2018

“The time is ripe to have fruitful, meaningful and transformational conversations about physical and sexual violence in our society.”

So spoke Byron Hurt, anti-sexist and anti-hazing activist, author and award-winning documentary filmmaker during a lecture on “Gender, Race, Hip Hop, and Football: Beneath the Surface of Popular Culture in America,” in Assembly Hall. Hurt, whose two-day visit to Exeter this past fall helped propel a campus-wide conversation around misogyny, sexism and violence, was addressing members of the Academy and the wider Exeter communities.

Exhorting his listeners to examine the “toxic masculinity” that pervades our culture to the detriment of men and women, Hurt argued: “It’s time to dig much deeper into the culture of masculinity. It’s time we ask ourselves, ‘What is it about maleness, about male culture, about the way in which we are socializing, indoctrinating and raising young boys ... [that] makes them turn into men who rape or sexually assault or emotionally abuse the girls and women in their lives?’  

"We don't have to remain silent. .. Speaking out makes you a stronger man."

Hurt’s stay included classroom visits, an assembly talk and two public evening lectures co-hosted by We the People, a lecture and film series ­­organized by three local churches in cooperation with the Academy. Throughout, Hurt urged his male listeners to summon the courage to speak out against behaviors and attitudes that are damaging to women.

“We as men and boys have the ability to change the culture of masculinity just by opening our mouths and challenging sexism when and where we see it,” he says. “We don’t have to remain silent. ... Many don’t realize we have that kind of power because we haven’t been challenged enough, and by the right messengers, about gender issues. ... But speaking out makes you a stronger man.” 

Let the music play?

After a lunch time meet-and-greet in the Latin Study, Hurt makes his way to the Academy Building to visit Religion Instructor Hannah Hofheinz’s Religion and Popular Culture class. He is courteous and curious as they make their introductions, asking questions about the students’ hometowns, sharing info about himself, and thanking the assembled preps and lowers for allowing him to be part of their discussion. 

“I first recognized the tremendous power, influence, and reach of American hip hop artists and rap culture during a trip to Japan many years ago,” he tells them to get the conversation rolling. He asks about the students’ favorite musicians, and when a few share names he doesn’t recognize, he laughs ruefully about getting older.

The kids chuckle, and then they’re off — launched into a discussion about their favorite artists, the effects harmful lyrics can have on listeners, and the role of music in their lives.

“Can music be religion?” asks a boy from Beijing.

“Listening to music that you like lets you feel free ... it transports you to another realm, makes you feel something you can’t feel in the normalcy of life” says a female classmate in response.

“It serves a purpose to unite and bond people together,” says another.

“It’s a necessity,” asserts a boy from across the table. “I need it in the shower and when I’m sleeping. Even in class, I’m singing in my head.”

Hurt murmurs words of encouragement as the students speak. Now and then, he and Hofheinz jump in to challenge or clarify their thinking. The students are thoughtful and honest as they ponder whether it’s possible to “divorce the lyrics from the beat,” in Hurt’s words.

They don’t shy away from confronting other hard questions, either. “What happens when the lyrics may be destructive?” Hurt asks them. “Can you be ok with listening and liking the sound even if the lyrics are misogynistic, maybe racist, maybe anti-Semitic or even violent? ... At what point do you get desensitized? ... Do the lyrics reinforce attitudes about the artists and their backgrounds?”

At one point, Josh, a lower from New Jersey — who, like Hurt, is both a football player and a lover of hip hop — recounts a recent conversation with his sister: “[She] considers herself a feminist but at the same time, a lot of the music she listens to is highly misogynistic. We talked about it, and hearing from her perspective, ‘I listen all the time. I enjoy the consumption of it.’ ... She was torn, loving the music but worrying, ‘it harms me,’ about her favorite artists.”

The more questions the better

For these music fans, the discussion prompts more questions than answers. As the class winds down, Josh weighs in again, musing: “When you listen with friends, it’s kind of a sacred space and sacred time. Music helps develop community ... but if it’s developed around music that reinforces terrible messages, I don’t know. ... I’ll never say there should be censorship, but we should recognize and acknowledge that it might not be what’s best for you. ...”

Before they disband, Hurt praises the students for thinking critically about such hard and important issues.

“The more questions you ask yourselves, the better,” he says. “It can really shape the decisions you make, as a consumer of music or media in general. The more you can think critically about your culture ... the more your decisions align with your values as a person.”

Getting young people thinking is Hurt’s main mission, after all.

“As [adults] who seek to educate young people, to have an impact on young people, that’s the very best that we can do,” he says during one of his evening lectures.

“We can’t change people overnight, but we can seek to help people grow and evolve, and I believe that’s what an educational experience is supposed to be about.”







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