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When hate speech becomes an accepted norm

by Rev. Irene Monroe
Hate speech is not a passive form of public speech. And one of the signs of an intolerant society is its hate speech, whether used jokingly or intentionally, aimed at specific groups of people.

When this form of verbal abuse becomes part and parcel of the everyday parlance and exchange between people, we have created a society characterized by its zero-tolerance of inclusion and diversity, and where name-calling becomes an accepted norm.
Lately, this Republican political era of “compassionate conservatism” has brought forward a field day unabashedly displaying a no-holds-barred attitude when it comes to passionate invectives hurled at queers, African-Americans and Jews.

In an interview with Ann Coulter, author of “Godless: The Religion of Liberals,” 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 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.”
Perhaps Coulter intended to be funny or satirical, but her remarks are not only directed toward Gore and Clinton, but also toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Coulter is taking a swipe at Gore, Clinton and the entire LGBT community in one fell swoop and with just one word.

Let us not forget that the word and image of “fag” derives from the word “faggot,” meaning “bundle of sticks for burning,” and LGBT people were supposedly righteously burnt at the stake in medieval England.

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 tethered to a rough-hewn wooden fence.

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

And it is claimed that the Bible refers to us as “stoking the fires of hell.”
However, the real hell we LGBT people confront from this type of name-calling and stereotyping is a societal disparage of sexual relations between people of the same gender where both the church and government ban us from marriage, adoption and serving in the military.

But the hate speech doesn’t just stop with LGBT people. Jews are also a target.
Devout Catholic and staunch Republican Mel Gibson, the megastar behind “The Passion of the Christ,” got pulled over on July 28 for drunk driving 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? ... What do you think you’re looking at, sugar tits?”

Animus toward Jews is not new, and it dates back as early as the Jewish Diaspora between the 8th-6th centuries BCE, and as late as Hitler’s attempted genocide of European Jewry.

The relationship between homophobia and anti-Semitism is that Christian fundamentalists target gays and Jews for not adhering to the “true” tenets of Christianity. Christian fundamentalists also target gays and Jews because the two groups can overlap in terms of personal identity and can be the target of religiously motivated violence.

Racial epithets are such a mainstay in the American lexicon that their broad-based appeal to both blacks as well as whites have anaesthetized us not only to the damaging and destructive use of epithets, but also to our ignorance of their historical origins.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney apologized recently for using the racial epithet “tar baby” at a Republican political gathering in Iowa while describing a collapse in a Big Dig tunnel that killed a Boston woman on July 10.

“The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig, just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can,” he said.

“Tar baby” is a pejorative term referring to African-American children, especially girls, and was used by whites during American slavery. Today, the term has come to depict a 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.

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.” How could a man who is the governor of the diverse state of Massachusetts and who wants to be president not know this?

The relationship between homophobia and racism is shown not only in how LGBT and African-American civil rights struggles are pitted against each other, but the relationship between homophobia and racism will also be shown in the federal government’s new HIV/AIDS supposed prevention program mandating all public health authorities and agencies to report HIV-positive patients. It’s a program in which African-Americans — straight or queer — will ostensibly feel profiled.

Language is a representation of culture, and it perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, religion and sexual orientation that we consciously, and unconsciously, articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves, the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

The liberation of a people is also rooted in the liberation of abusive language in the form of hate hurled at them. Using epithets or slurs especially jokingly, does not eradicate their historical baggage, and the existing social relations among us.

Instead, using them dislodges these hate-filled words from their historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustices done to specific groups of Americans.

They allow all Americans to become numb to the use and abuse of the power of hate speech, despite the weight these slurs still have.

And lastly, hate speech thwarts the daily struggle many of us engage in — simply trying to improve human relations for all.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, public theologian, and speaker. She resides in Cambridge, Mass. And can be contacted through her website at www.irenemonroe.com.

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