One of the greatest things about being a United States citizen is the protection of our civil liberties, particularly those contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that guarantees our rights to free speech, of free press and the right to assemble peaceably. This is something that I support with complete conviction–although there are times when this challenges my other dearly held beliefs. It’s frightening how close I can come to being a total hypocrite about the right of free speech for people who don’t (in my opinion) deserve it.
One of the greatest things about being a United States citizen is the protection of our civil liberties, particularly those contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that guarantees our rights to free speech, of free press and the right to assemble peaceably.
This is something that I support with complete conviction–although there are times when this challenges my other dearly held beliefs. It’s frightening how close I can come to being a total hypocrite about the right of free speech for people who don’t (in my opinion) deserve it.
My early training in this life-long struggle (my attempts to tolerate and respect the opinions of others) began close to home in the heated discussions I had with an ostensibly well-intentioned and deeply principled older relative, a man who was easily able to intellectually and morally justify racial and cultural intolerance, as well as generally asinine but basically inoffensive and inflexible opinions on every single subject you can imagine.
While you can rationally disprove such statements as: “There are 56 miles of small intestines in the human body,” or “No one ever plays tennis–tennis courts are a waste of valuable land,” you can imagine that it might be pointless to play the logic card against anyone willing to insist that this is factual information.
He sometimes espoused other, less benign “truths” that were hateful and hurtful, also unwavering in their conviction. Prejudice comes from an incredibly unrelenting position of fear and ignorance.
It took a long time for me to realize that I had to listen respectfully to opinions that I disagree with–even when I disagree to the point that I am affected personally, emotionally. This is where my moral dilemma trigger starts kicking in. Why should I be respectful to someone who is promoting intolerance, something that I consider to be morally objectionable? Because if I don’t, then I am intolerant.
I used to see a man in downtown San Francisco waving homemade signs covered in a lunatic scrawl, preaching through a megaphone. His message? All women are evil, corruptors of men–harlots and deceivers, backed up by plenty of Bible verse, fire and brimstone.
He would shout at the women passing by, demanding shame and repentance, hurling insults. To get past him, I would grit my teeth, walk fast and repeat, “Everyone has the right to free speech. Everyone has the right to free speech,” until he was out of my sight, my hearing range. Honestly? I didn’t want to protect him or his rights. I wanted to yell at him, to punch him … to shut him up.
Recently, I was proud and gratified to see people–all over the U.S., specifically in Portland, on and around the PSU campus, in the Park Blocks–using their First Amendment rights to speak out against the passage of California’s Proposition 8, a ban on the right of same-sex couples to legally marry.
The local demonstration provided an overall positive message. Although Prop 8 passed, which to me is nothing more than legalized discrimination, it passed by a much narrower margin than similar measures in previous elections–indicating that tolerance and the support of civil rights are continuing to gain momentum. Free speech in this case was used to rally support and continue enthusiasm on a cause that will need it in years to come.
I need to hear this kind of positive message from time to time to be reminded that, according to my convictions, all free speech should be encouraged.
Another recent demonstration near the campus tested this principle. On Monday, Nov. 24, a traveling ministry based out of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., a group that calls themselves “God Hates Fags,” picketed in protest of PSU’s Queer Resource Center. The QRC organized a peaceful counter demonstration; there was no incident of conflict between the two groups.
This, in theory, is a perfect example of free speech in action, and therefore I should be terribly pleased by the whole thing. Right? Well …
I am very proud of the members of the PSU group for taking the higher ground in this situation.
Responding to the God Hates Fags group in any other way wouldn’t change their minds or their message; it would very likely instigate a confrontation (something that the WBC fanatics deliberately try to provoke–it gains more attention and can often be the basis for the lawsuits which are a major source of funding). When the WBC’s hate mongering goes up against an intelligent and rational opposition, they look even more insane by comparison.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this sect’s message of loathing. What they hope to accomplish is truly a mystery. What they do manage to accomplish is to offend and alienate almost everyone. According to the WBC’s Web site, God also hates the United States, France, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, divorced people and firefighters … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The first time I read about the group, it was in the American Civil Liberties Union newsletter I receive as a member. The ACLU was working to help the Westboro Baptist Church to sue for the right to picket U.S. soldiers’ funerals, with the message that their death was God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
Upon reading that the ACLU was going to bat for this group, my first reaction was not satisfaction about the right to free speech being protected. I wanted to un-become a member of the ACLU, an organization that was created to protect what I consider to be one of our most significant freedoms.
After some thought, I realized that I absolutely had to accept the challenge of supporting an organization that defends the people whose ideas I despise. That’s the whole point, as detestable as it sometimes seems.
There’s a part of me that would be delighted to bully the God Hates Fags group completely out of existence–legally or not. I’d honestly be glad if they were publicly humiliated and then arrested every time they showed up anywhere, for any reason.
It’s the same part of me that wants to silence every voice that speaks from a self-righteous, narrow mind. It’s the part of me that I have to keep in check, no matter how unfair or wrong it might seem–because it’s the thing that makes me like them. It’s intolerance.