In 2001, a 12 year old girl in Michigan named Tempest Smith committed suicide to evade her Christian roommates taunting her Wiccan beliefs.

A very sad story, to be sure. Some of you may recall a negative attitude on my part towards Wiccans and Pagans, not so much because of what they believe but because most of the ones I meet are annoying as hell. Judging by her first name, I suspect that Tempest was either born into the religion or born into a screwed up family that turning to the Wiccan faith is a more-or-less logical course of action. What ever the case, I had a lot of goofy ideas when I was twelve and mistreatment on the basis of either thinking differently or just being different strikes a chord with me. The girl was named Tempest*, for crying out loud, she had enough problems without her classmates piling it on.

A guy by the moniker of Electric Angst** wrote an article on the subject in 2001 that I stumbled across. He points to the (erroneous) account of Cassie Bernall at Columbine being killed for professing her faith in Jesus Christ and wonders why the Smith case hasn’t gotten the same amount of attention.

I will argue, though, that the death of Tempest Smith by her own grief-stricken hands has not received as much attention because of a desire to filter intolerance out of view in our society. Rather than remind America that someone can still be treated as less than human for holding a different faith, a different lifestyle, or otherwise divergent from the norm, it is much more comforting to simply ignore the issue.

To acknowledge that Tempest Smith’s classmates were exerting cruel psychological torture on the young woman with the hymns their church had taught them would be to indict not only the school children, but the hymns as well. To make this tragic event public knowledge would be to put a mirror to the face of the majority, forcing them to see the intolerance in their own eyes, crumbling their arguments that it no longer exists.

I just don’t think that this is accurate. Matthew Shephard, for instance, got a lot of attention (much more than Miss Bernall) as the kid killed in Wyoming for being gay. James Byrd and (erroneous) reports of a surge in the burning of black churches for their share of attention. I didn’t even remember Bernall’s name, but I surely remember the names of Byrd and Shephard.

Why knows why press covers some stories and not others. One big difference between Smith and the others is that Gay and African-American advocacy groups and Christian conservatives have substantial press machines that Wiccans lack. Another issue is that Byrd and Bernall were murdered. Smith, on the other hand, was taunted with Christian hymns. As one that was taunted in junior high (and married to someone that was taunted far, far worse) I don’t wish to minimize the psychological impact, but it’s not exactly the same.

I don’t believe at all that we, as a society, sweep egregious cases of discrimination and harassment under the rug. I actually think it’s the smaller cases that we often overlook. It’s not black men being dragged behind a pick-up truck, but the nickel and dime discrimination of a job opportunity lost, a DWB, or a promotion denied. One of the reason that we are often quick to minimize the impact of these things are because they’re so hard to nail down. It’s often unconscious and there are often rational reasons that the discriminator can give.

The good news is that this represents progress. The downside is that the it’s the last ten or twenty yards that are always the toughest.

* – As luck would have it, Tempest is the online name of one of the main characters of my last November Novel, the revision of which keeps getting interrupted. But what makes a cool online handle is not a cool thing to name your daughter.

** – Electric Angst is cool neither as an online handle or, gawd forbid, a birthname.


Category: Newsroom

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4 Responses to Tyranny of the Majority?

  1. Peter says:

    One of the more interesting bits of research in Freakonomics showed that young black people with stereotypically black first names such as DeShawn or Faquisha tend to be poorer and less educated than young black people with more conventional first names. It would be interesting to see if there’s any such negative effect produced by having a hippie or New Age-y name like Tempest or Peace.

  2. Abel says:

    I think the fact that Tempest committed suicide isn’t necessary a reflection of taunting but probably a young girl with other (mental?) issues. That doesn’t necessarily reflect on her religion or upbringing but simply that taunting affects people in different ways.

  3. Barry says:

    When you say roommates, do you mean classmates? I’m trying to wrap my brain around how a 12-yr-old could have roommates, unless maybe she was at a boarding school or something. Even allowing for that, how a Wiccan girl could have uber-Christian roommates at a boarding school wouldn’t make sense…

    And I agree, while being taunted is a fact of life for many, many people (myself included), I can’t imagine a situation where a kid would commit suicide because of it, if there were adults around that could be brought in to assist. These kinds of things don’t happen in a vacuum, there are indications that attentive parents, teachers and others should be able to see before it gets this far.

  4. trumwill says:

    Y’all are right that taunting is not sufficient for what this girl did. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that without the taunting she would be alive with us today. You’re too right Barry about attentive guardian-types. The things that teachers and administrators saw and gave the implicit okay on makes me somewhat angry to this day.

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