When Hate Speech Becomes Accepted

Published in The Advocate, August 2, 2006 and The Witness, August 10, 2006.

Hate speech is not passive. One of the signs of an intolerant society is its hate speech, whether used jokingly or intentionally, aimed at specific groups of people. And there’s no surer sign of a society’s lack of tolerance for diversity than when this form of verbal abuse becomes part of everyday speech, and name-calling becomes an accepted norm.

Lately, a particularly nasty and shameless brand of invective has been coursing from Republicans against queers, African-Americans, and Jews. Here’s a sample of this latest brand of “compassionate conservatism”:

In an interview with Ann Coulter, author of Godless: The Church of Liberalism, on the July 27 edition of MSNBC’s Hardball with host Chris Matthews, Coulter called former vice president Al Gore a “fag,” and she hinted that Bill Clinton might be gay.

“How do you know that Bill Clinton is gay?” Matthews asked.

“He may not be gay, but Al Gore, total fag. No, I’m just kidding,” Coulter stated. And in referring to Clinton, Coulter continued, “I mean, everyone has always known wildly promiscuous heterosexual men have, as I say, a whiff of the bathhouse about them.”

Systematic denial of human rights tells people they are less than human.

Perhaps Coulter intended her words as humor or satire, but when she uses this kind of language, she’s evoking centuries of hatred in one fell swoop, and with just one word. She’s not just insulting Clinton and Gore; she’s lashing out at the entire LGBTQ community.

Let us not forget that the word “fag” comes from the word “faggot,” which is a bundle of sticks for burning. When medieval courts condemned LGBTQ people to death, they were seen as unworthy to die standing; they were instead bound and burned at the feet of the despised “heretics” deemed their betters.

And let us not forget Matthew Shepard, the openly gay Wyoming student who in 1998 was bludgeoned and left to die in near-freezing temperatures while bound to a rough-hewn wooden fence.

Or 1999, when Billy Jack Gaither, a well-respected and beloved textile worker in Alabama, was bludgeoned with an ax handle, burned, and left to die on a pile of tires because he was gay.

And some claim the Bible refers to us stoking the fires of hell.

The violence LGBTQ people face, though, is about more than physical threats. A climate in which both church and government bar us from marriage, many states bar us from adoption, and the federal government forbids our serving in the military does violence to our very sense of self. Systematic denial of human rights tells people they are less than human.

The governor can’t get away with pleading ignorance. The chief executive of the diverse state of Massachusetts — especially when he wants to be president of this diverse country — should make it his business to know about and avoid such racist language.

And lest we think this violence is an expression, however perverse, of communal sexual morality, the same kind of verbal violence — and from some of the same sources — is directed at Jews.

Devout Catholic and staunch Republican Mel Gibson, the megastar behind The Passion of the Christ, got pulled over while driving drunk at more than 80 miles an hour in Malibu on July 28 and flew into a tirade, spewing both sexist and anti-Semitic vitriol. “Fucking Jews,” he reportedly said to police. “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” To a female officer he reportedly said, “What do you think you’re looking at, sugar tits?”

Gays and Jews are easy and related targets for Christian fundamentalists who hold neither group to be “real” or full men and women, with neither adhering to true religion. Especially when the two groups overlap, both can be the target of religiously motivated violence.

Racial epithets are such a mainstay in the American lexicon that we’re often not only numb to the pain signaling how damaging and destructive such epithets are, but also ignorant of their origins and meaning.

My state’s governor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, apologized this week for using the racial epithet “tar baby” at a Republican political gathering in Iowa over the weekend while describing a collapse in a Big Dig tunnel that killed a Boston woman on July 10. He said the best thing he could do politically is to “just get as far away from that tar baby” of a subject as he could.

“Tar baby” is a pejorative term referring to African-American children, especially girls. It was used by whites during American slavery. Today, the term is often used of any sticky mess or situation, referring to the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories in which a doll made of tar was used to trap Brer Rabbit.

The grin with which someone hurls racial and sexual epithets doesn’t eradicate the epithets’ historical meaning or blunt the ways in they enforce oppressive social relations among us.

Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor’s spokesman said, “The governor was describing a sticky situation. He was unaware that some people find the term objectionable, and he’s sorry if anyone was offended.” The governor can’t get away with pleading ignorance. The chief executive of the diverse state of Massachusetts — especially when he wants to be president of this diverse country — should make it his business to know about and avoid such racist language.

Indeed, we all need to make it our business to illuminate the links between homophobia and racism. We can’t afford not to, as our enemies pit LGBTQ and African-American civil rights struggles against each other in a “divide and conquer” strategy. We can’t afford not to, when the federal government’s new HIV/AIDS program requires all public-health authorities and agencies to report the identities of HIV-positive patients, resulting in hundreds of thousands of African-Americans — straight and queer — sensing that they’re being profiled for reasons more political than epidemiological.

And we can’t say, “it’s only words.” Language represents culture. It perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that we consciously and unconsciously transmit across generations in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world.

For these reasons, liberation of a people will involve liberation from abusive language, from verbal expressions of hatred hurled at them. The grin with which someone hurls racial and sexual epithets doesn’t eradicate the epithets’ historical meaning or blunt the ways in they enforce oppressive social relations among us. Indeed, dislodging these epithets from their historical context only underscores our insensitivity toward historical injustices and arrogance toward our neighbors.

Any kind of hate speech, however the speaker tries to sugarcoat it, serves to wound and silence. These are words that end real conversation.

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