Because we live in a culture in which strength often has gone mistaken for weakness and weakness often mistaken for strength, let's pinpoint the strong and the weak from that uneasy theater Tuesday night at the University of Mississippi.
The strong would be the actors who continued with the play despite the heckling from the callow audience members, including football players, about their body types and sexuality.
The weak would be the football players, other athletes and other hecklers, and strangely, it's the football players who should -- or will -- know the other side of the very construct.
The football players, other athletes and others who used gay slurs and mocked female actors' body shapes during the performance of "The Laramie Project," the play about the murder in Wyoming in 1998 of the gay 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, merely joined the pack. That's easy, common, gutless and indistinct. That's a weary old story of human mediocrity.
The difficulty, authenticity, guts and distinction on Tuesday night in the pretty college town all belonged to the actors, who carried on. As the Ole Miss junior theater major Garrison Gibbons tweeted on Wednesday, "'Laramie Project' is back in action tonight.'' His hashtag read "#revived."
As Gibbons told Dan Wolken of USA Today after taking on heckling even during the funeral scene, "Even though it was a negative event, it made us positive this is why we need to do this show because we need to open the minds of people on this campus, not just athletes. I don't want to see them being punished, that's not doing anything positive."
That right there would be the man in the room.
What's odd about the boys is that the football players among them might carry around rare knowledge of plights akin to what the cast took on. At least some would figure to hail from prep programs in football-centric towns where they were the ones who went out on the field while certain others sat in the stands or went about town peddling derision about their earnest efforts. They themselves might have grumbled about this reality before they mindlessly went out and heaped it on somebody else Tuesday night.
And if they don't know yet, how they do figure to know soon. They happen to play football in the Southeastern Conference, the world's foremost harbor of the accepted, day-to-day scrutiny of collegians playing football, of cultures where losses sway town-wide moods and cause vacuous allocations of blame.
They're the ones out there; they're the ones risking the public fury; they're the ones who take the occasional justified criticism and the more common useless sputum. If they manage to get to a day when some schlub on the radio or some anonymous drool pit on the message board leaves them irked and resentful because of ignorant disregard for their exertion, and they manage to rethink their night at "The Laramie Project," then that will have been another nifty trick of the great force we call college, where people are supposed to become less dumb.
Those who don't are all set to reinforce the stereotype, unmerited in general, of the dim, Narcissistic football player.
That's the far, hidden horizon. Here at the outset, we have the sounds familiar anymore in these matters. We have the loud recoil at the faded, brainless "f-----" slur. We have the gay issue overriding others as the issue of the moment, meaning it occludes the anti-female barbs that also damage society. We have the outstanding 21st-century response from the university administration, including: "On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty and our staff, we apologize."
We have the references to Ole Miss' general history, which are just a bit too cheap. There come occasional hissy-fits from fans who fret most on how a suspended absence of any of those unnamed players might affect the bowl prospects, which does lend some levity. We have people calling for suspensions of first-semester athletes, which even as a gay person I would not support, opting instead for some sort of novel tack involving enforced reading or dialogue or chronic theater attendance. (Some of those guys could use some chronic theater attendance.) All the good strains are familiar and historically surprising and sometimes even moving.
The stage we need to reach, and the one with the best chance of good effect, is where we belittle the hecklers and uphold the heckled, where we know the difference between weak and strong.
Those sitting in an audience joining in patently stupid derision of those on a stage represent the weak. Those who can withstand this kind of poison, stay upright and move along?
Those would be the strong.