By Paul Graves
Hate speech and fear speech are alive and active in North Idaho. They seem to scream a desire to impose their particular mix of far-right politics and religion on certain institutions in our communities — like libraries, schools, city councils and county commissions, not to mention our state Legislature. It’s past time that we who are alarmed at their destructive tactics speak up to counter their extremism.
“The best criticism of the bad is to practice the better.” This bit of wisdom is one of the core principles of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. Admittedly, to practice the better may be the best criticism of the bad, but it isn’t the only criticism available, or sometimes needed.
As an elder who usually tries to practice the better, I have times when my contrarian impulses move me to push against a trend that I know is unhealthy to individuals, to our community and to our nation. The hate-speech pattern we hear almost constantly these days is one of those trends that needs to be strongly, consistently challenged.
But we need to be strategic and courageously gracious as we challenge those whose fear and/or hate result in anti-LGBTQ+ speech, or against whatever group of “others” they choose to rant about. The mass shooting in a gay club in Colorado Springs, Colo., is only the latest in an epidemic of mass shootings that seem to be the consequence of hate speech.
But it won’t be the last. That’s pretty much guaranteed as long as political leaders on the state and national levels, extremist TV and radio commentators, election deniers or ordinary citizens let their heart-fears stir the “hate pot” until another act of violence happens in our country.
Too many speak hate, while too many others stand in complicit silence.
Hate speech is actually protected by the First Amendment. We know that — even when we think the First Amendment argument becomes an excuse for unbridled verbal chaos. Yes, proving that hate speech is actually responsible for violence (like the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on our Capitol and democracy) is difficult to prove.
Still, we who believe there is a connection between hate speech and violence on groups or persons marginalized in American society need to stop standing around with our mouths muzzled. If you believe in free speech, then don’t let the hater-speeches shut you up.
Your right to speak, in whatever forms you are ready to use, is not only available to you. Consider it a responsibility you need to exercise. Freedom of speech is “free,” but it isn’t cheap. Part of the cost of that freedom is being responsible, accountable, for what we say and how we say it.
The people who speak hate — and try to legislate hate — don’t seem willing to take responsibility for their “freedom.” They dismiss their moral obligation to respect those whose lifestyles, identities, beliefs or opinions are contrary to their own. They seem to conveniently put their moral compasses in a box and definitely don’t “practice the better” for all persons.
Geraldine DeRuiter writes the “Everywhereist” blog. Recently, she spoke of people who welcome free speech, but are victimized by abusive speech. Abusive speech impacts us all in different ways.
Perhaps her distinction between free speech and abusive speech is helpful. So how can we move toward free, responsible speech while we challenge abusive speech? Here are a few suggestions:
• To address hate speech, we need more constructive speech to counter the hate speech.
• Before you speak, do your research and be sure to get your facts accurate.
• We need to take seriously that tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all.
• We need a new generation of digital citizens, empowered to recognize, reject and stand against hate speech.
• We need to connect with larger groups that advocate justice and compassion, so we know we’re not solo voices in the wilderness.
My contrarian inclinations are not simply because I’m an elder. They’re inflamed because I’m a human being who is tired of being reluctant to make waves. I’d rather be criticized for seeking a better alternative to hate speech and the violence it can spawn, than be a mob-member of the silent majority.
Each of us needs to decide what “better practice” we want to choose to criticize “the bad.” Please decide, and then get practicing.
Get contrarian about making our communities better.
Paul Graves is a retired United Methodist pastor and longtime Sandpoint resident, where he served on the City Council and as mayor. He also works as a geriatric social worker, serving as “Lead Geezer-in-Training” for Elder Advocates, a consulting ministry on aging issues.
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