We live in a heterosexist society that largely creates homosexuality as deviant to maintain its undeserved privilege. All of the agents of socialization are dedicated to promoting this imbalance of power on a systemic level. This translates to discrimination in housing, employment, marital rights, medical coverage, and can lead to acts of violence. This kind of bias is socially constructed and is maintained by language. We have a tendency to underestimate the value of language but in truth what we choose to communicate forms discourse and this maintains our disharmony in worth and value.
When we use phrases like “that’s so gay,” we are necessarily attributing negativity to homosexuality and yet many continue to understand such common colloquialisms as not necessarily prejudicial. Calling gay and lesbian relationships “lifestyle choices” while continually using language that sets heterosexuality as the norm reifies difference.
There are those that are not content to employ what have become universal standards of “othering” in reference to homosexuality. The Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church are renowned for their vicious hatred of gays and lesbians. They proudly bare placards with the words “God hates fags,” and have gone as far as to claim that the Iraq war is a punishment bestowed upon America for its tolerance of homosexuality. In the United States this kind of language us protected as it is deemed free speech.
Recently the Phelps family were denied entry to Great Britain.
It was their goal to protest the production of the “Laramie Project” which details the life and death of Matthew Sheppard. Matthew was a gay man that murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998 as a direct result of homophobia.
On their website, the Phelps declared their intention to protest by publishing the following message:
“God hates the Queen Mary’s College, and the fag-infested UK, England, and all having to do with spreading sodomite lies via The Laramie Project, this tacky bit of cheap fag propaganda masquerading as legitimate theatre.”
The government of Great Britain rightly determined that this was hate speech and therefore counter to the proliferation of a free society. This is a concept that so many fail to acknowledge.
There is a clear difference between hate speech and free speech. Expressing dissent against the tyranny of a government or an individual dislike of a person does not necessarily lead to violence and “othering”. When lesbians and gays are referred to as fags or blamed for violence that is no way their fault, it forms the foundation that legitimizes the social stigmatizations that they must deal with on a daily basis. Not all speech is free; there is a cost and this must be recognized.
I fully support the government in this regard and wish others would have such courage to declare such language unacceptable. The ideas that are promoted by hate speech allow people to benefit undeserved privilege. Those that are not targeted by hate speech are in no position to judge exactly how harmful their language is. It is like a straight person declaring that something isn’t homophobic; if one does not exist in the body of the marginalization in question, you simply do not have the experience or the right to make a declaration based in negative harm.
We are an interdependent species and therefore the actions of the individual affect the lives of the community. Governments have enacted various laws to counter act the tyranny of the majority and I see no harm in mandating that hate speech be outlawed. Why should one individual exist with the right to continually place the life of another in jeopardy by encouraging hate based in supposed difference?
Though the Phelps were banned for their homophobic language, hate speech is not only directed at the gay and lesbian communities. White racists have used language to attack people of colour vehemently for generations. When one can compare a human being to an ape, or announce that blacks have the smallest brains thereby conferring on them the status of a childlike mentality; it reduces life chances. Announcing that blacks have larger genitalia than any other group is meant to characterize them as necessarily hyper sexual beings. This is not the language of observation; rather it is the expression of power.
Challenging hate speech is a necessary part of dismantling the privilege knapsack. If we can agree that language is how we express and perform discourse, permitting the perpetuation of hate is to tacitly approve hierarchy and social imbalance. For a society to be successful it is necessary to acknowledge that we need both positive and negative freedoms, i.e. the freedom to and the freedom from.
Ideas that minimize an individual cannot flourish if people are not granted the tools to perpetuate their bigotry. Some would argue that by instituting any regulation at all to free speech that we risk turning into the mythologized society made famous by Orwell in 1984. Yet there is a difference between restricting hate and restricting all thought. The limitation of one does not necessarily lead to the other.
In our consideration of what is acceptable we need consider what kind of society we wish to live in. Do we believe that continually constructing the most marginalized members as somehow deviant increases the concept of equality that we claim to whole dear? If we cannot legitimately claim that hate speech ads any value and is inherently damaging allowing it to continue only symbolizes our commitment to a hierarchy of beings. We either believe that all people are created equal or we don’t.