We’ve all heard it: sticks and stones may break my bones and whatnot. And, yes, we’ve all heard the twist (but words will hurt me!). But, I’d like to add another entry in the age-old sticks, stones and words volume, and that is this:
Sticks and stones will break people’s bones when you use your words to hurt them.
I don’t pretend to be overly clever; you probably get what I mean. But, if you’ll oblige me, I’d like to spell it out plainly, simply and crudely: violent words beget violent actions.
Always, you ask? No, not always—but usually. And the more violence is infused into certain semantics and the more widely accepted those semantics become, the more likely it is that those violent words will become violent action.
What am I talking about? Good question. Basically, this post was promised by my last. The last post, if you’d like to read it, talks about my frustration with the hateful language flooding Web 2.0, especially on comment boards. This post was supposed to be about anti-Muslim language (and it still is), but it hopefully serves a broader purpose: to remind us of the potential, if not inevitable danger hateful/violent language presents.
You may ask why I seem to be using “hateful” and “violent” interchangeably. It seems that way because I am. I’m hard-pressed to find a difference between language that is full of hate and language that is violent. When someone says they hate black people, for example, they hate them, they’re a cancer on society, etc., etc., it’s reasonable to infer that that person wishes black people would go away (either be eradicated through violence, legislated into servitude, sent back to Africa…whatever). And when the hateful speech of one person reaches someone who wishes to take that speech literally—hears “black people are a cancer on society, they should go away” and thinks, “They are literally a cancer. They literally are ruining people’s lives. I need to kill that cancer. I need to save people’s lives,”—violence is born. And so, to me, the hateful speech is violent speech because, even if the original speaker is not directly calling people to violence, when they tow that line of hate speech, they are (I think knowingly) inferring that violence is an acceptable reaction.
Maybe Frank Schaeffer, former user of hateful/violent speech and recent guest on the Rachel Maddow Show can put it more clearly:
“Like many writers of moral/political/religious theories my father and I would have been shocked that someone took us at our word, walked into a Lutheran Church and pulled the trigger on an abortionist. But even if the murderer never read Dad’s or my words we helped create the climate that made this murder likely to happen.
Angry speech has become the norm in American religion from both the right and the left. Words are spoken which — when taken seriously — lead directly to violence by the unhinged and/or the truly committed.”
“And so people like me are responsible for what we said and what we did and the way we raised the temperature on this debate out of all bounds.
But I also think that pretending that you can call abortion murder and Tiller the baby killer, etc., etc., etc. and that these words don’t have an impact is crazy. So this is what helps unhinge a society, talking like that. And I apologize and I will apologize again. I am sorry for what I did.”
So, first of all, Schaeffer has a new book out, which is perhaps why he’s pushing this idea so hard. But, I think his argument is just as sound as it is self-serving: Pretending that you can say extremist, hateful things on a huge public scale and be innocent to the violence that ensues is “crazy.” Did Schaeffer pull the trigger on Dr. Tiller? No. Is he “responsible for they way [he] raised the temperature on this debate and…help[ed] unhinge a society, talking like that”? Yes. And so, in my opinion (and I think Mr. Schaeffer’s), speech that is hateful often incites violence, which is why I’d like to use “hateful” and “violent” interchangeably.
Whoo! You still with me?
Now to the meat:
I would like to use a few comments from a CNN message board as an example to the kind of hateful/violent speech that’s being used against Muslims. Keep in mind, like Mr. Schaeffer, these speakers of hateful/violent speech do not always understand the implications of what they’re saying. By “these speakers,” I mean lay people who post on CNN comment boards. By “these speakers” I do not mean the very public and powerful figureheads who preach this kind of speech from their pulpits, TV networks or radio shows. “Those people,” I think do know what they’re doing. “These people” may not, which is a major component of their danger. They do not recognize the violent rhetoric being used against them. They do not understand that they are a pawn being used to do the often anticipated, perhaps even intended dirty work of “those people”. And if they do understand it, then they just suck, I guess.
That being said, let’s dig in. These comments are from CNN’s newswire article called “World reacts to Obama Cairo speech” June 4, 2009.
This gem’s from “Dave”:
“Reminder, Candy 9-11 was caused by Islamic murderers who killed thousands of “innocent” decent Americans. Question, why did Obama hide his Muslim heritage during the election?”
By positioning “Islamic murderers” who killed thousands of “”innocent”, decent Americans” with the seemingly unrelated question: “Why did Obama hide his Muslim heritage during the election?” Dave is making a connection between 1.) Obama and Islam and, by association “Islamic murderers” and 2.) Muslim people and “Islamic murderers.” I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to infer, as well, that Dave is pitting “innocent, decent Americans” against those with “Muslim heritage” (who are, being Muslim, easily associated with Islamic murderers somehow).
Of course, Dave could also simply be arguing that if Obama thought Islam was such a peaceful religion, why did he hide his Muslim heritage during the election? What, if being Muslim is not inherently tied to “Islamic murderers”, would Obama want to hide? If this is the case, though, Dave is overlooking the obvious reason Obama would need to (though I don’t think he did) “hide” his Muslim heritage: non-Muslim Americans like Dave are afraid of and often hate non-Juedo-Christian religions, immigrants and brown people. And, because of 9-11, as Dave seems to point out, the scapegoat of choice right now is the Muslim community.
But enough about Dave. Meet Dave the truth teller (wait, what? I don’t know if it’s the same Dave, but take a look):
“Muslims have shown that they are not willing partners in peace. They are little more than barbarians.” (Dave goes on to reference Star Trek, so who knows if this is a joke. Even if it is, it isn’t funny.)
So, this one is a bit more straightforward. “Muslims” are not willing partners in peace. “Muslims,” he says. Not “most governments of the Middle East”—Muslims. “They are little more than barbarians,” he scathes. Well, if we know a basic thing about war, it’s that in order to kill your human enemy, you need to make him less human. Saying that Muslims are “little more than barbarians” and “are not willing partners in peace” does just that. They aren’t human like you and I, so let’s kill them. (I’m sorry if this is getting upsetting. My stomach is churning, too.)
On that note, let’s stop. Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time on comment boards knows the examples could go on forever. People refer to Barack Obama as “Barry” instead of Barack or Obama, and they’re not just doing it to be cute. It’s an easy way to show disdain for him and, indirectly (though I feel it’s pretty direct) disdain for the brownness or Muslimness of his name. It’s disdain for his choice to return to his full name after using “Barry”—a passably white name—as a young adult.
Or when these commentators use the President’s middle name, Hussein. Again, they’re not being cute. They’re not all doing it because, “come on, it IS his middle name, isn’t it?”. They want to conjure up images of Sadaam Hussein on the one hand and Muslim names on the other. They want to “otherize” him, “otherize” the Muslim and make it easier to hate and incite violence against an entire group of people. (This isn’t supposed to be a defense of Obama, per say, it’s just another relevant example.)
In summation, this hateful/violent speech is a real bummer. While people have the right to free speech, they don’t, in my opinion, have a right to avoid responsibility for their words.
And on that note, I would like to say this to my fellow Americans, and my fellow Christians especially, who post these incendiary remarks: knock this shit off. Stop the hate speech, the bullshit, the inferred calls to violence. Look carefully at the words you type, understand their implications, and know your responsibility. The words you use are sticks and stones.
And eventually, you’ll have to answer for the blood on your hands.