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At the gym, a weighty difference between words and deeds

Gym equipment.

Gym equipment. Credit: Ken Spencer

I stepped into the gym at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, where I’ve been an adjunct lecturer for 30 years. About 20 students were working out.

As I began a circuit on some weight machines, I couldn’t miss the loud rap music from a small speaker on the floor next to another guy working out. The lyrics were, to my 70-year-old ears, racist, sexist, homophobic and violent. Yet, people went on with their workouts, apparently paying no attention to the song.

The music irritated me and I thought at least some of the young women and men present would share my opinion. I walked over to the young man, and said I found the lyrics offensive. I asked him to turn off his speaker, which he did without a word or fuss.

Later, I wondered whether I was correct in my prediction that some students also would find the lyrics objectionable. I decided to ask the students in my two psychology classes: “Was I justified or was I having an old-man-get-off-my-grass moment?”

The first class I polled was my group dynamics course. This class size is capped at 16, so the group’s exercises and discussions are more effective. I get to know the students personally, and the atmosphere is one where, hopefully, they feel psychologically safe to express true, unfiltered opinions and feelings. These students were all seniors and juniors 20 to 22 years old, 13 women and three men.

I was sure some at least would support my reaction. To my surprise no one did. They were not concerned about the lyrics as I described them. That kind of music is ubiquitous for them and not something to worry about. They are desensitized to it. To me, it had a jarring effect because my iPhone contains songs by mostly old (and many dead) classic rockers, not current young rappers.

My other class of nearly 20 was a freshman seminar on sports psychology. Most of the students were male. I again explained the situation — and again, no one thought the lyrics were a big deal. But my comments started a discussion to guess the artist. One fellow said, “Probably Lil Pump, I hate him.” He told me to listen to “Gucci Gang,” a song by Lil Pump, which I did. It was catchy, lewd and offensive, but not the song I heard.

So did any of my 35 students think I was right to ask the young man in the gym to shut off the speaker?

Well, in an interesting twist, they all did.

As one student put it, “Who plays music through a speaker in a gym?” Another said, “You shouldn’t have been forced to hear his music while working out, whatever the song.”

What became pivotal for them were gym norms: You listen to music through headphones or earbuds, not external speakers. So my students thought I was right to ask him to turn the music off because he was rude, not because the lyrics were crude. Context mattered to them and lewd song lyrics could be tolerated, but rude behavior was something that should always be called out.

Reader Gerard T. Seifert lives in Patchogue.