Tuesday
Mar022010

How I'm feeling about Hate Speech

I’m deeply grieved that elements within our community have recently chosen images and ideas like Klan hoods, “Compton Cookouts,” nooses, and words like “lynch”, as symbols for their contorted expression. I believe it is necessary to speak loudly and point to expressions like this and call them what they are: they are attacks. They undermine African Americans’ freedom and power by presenting a dim but unmistakeable threat to their collective well-being and safety.

These recent events on U.C. campuses also bring a ring of indifference along with them. ‘It’s not just simple racism’ is one common response; I’ve heard arguments that we’re living in a more complex time. People ask more complex questions about who is speaking, what they mean…is one expression an echo of the other, or a critique of it? Is it satire? And of course we should look at our own personal stake in societal racism, finding the sources of our own fears and pretenses. With these complexities in mind, a few members of our community have written note that exchange concerns about racism for concern about freedom of expression. One blogger was worried about the possibility of giving too much weight to ignorant words…thinking we could better minimize hate speech by denying it the attention that it seems to seek.

Yes, hate speech is complex, but it is also simple. In the end, I feel there is no need to capitulate or “complicate” our response to it. Implied and symbolic threats like this are fundamentally different from ordinary “invective”, or any other outburst of negative feeling. They subvert and terrorize a whole group, affecting the group uniformly, with one violent and easy stroke. The seriousness of the problem is not in layers of meaning or intention, but in the real effect of the expressions: their easy success in pushing that threat across a whole community. What we need in response to it is simple, too: we need public outcry. Know history. Know the meanings of words, do not forget their most damaging uses. Recognize the horror of what it means not to feel safe. Threats that are based symbolically on a real history of atrocity cannot stand. If we’re looking for a just society, we have to fight for a common commitment to equal protection. Safety from random threats of violence, safety from collective punishment, is a part of that commitment.

I would urge that those who oppose the imposition of hate speech not to respond with ambiguous shame, or by turning back to everyday life, in hopes that it will pass. Instead, talk and write about what is happening. What is done and what results from it. Seek clarity about your beliefs and those of others.

Thanks for reading. Please consider writing your own note or blog about this…and be active, rather than passive, in the conversation. Peace!