Words can inspire good, and they can incite hatred. We’re seeing a lot of the hate rhetoric lately, and it’s getting dangerous.
Over the past year, especially in the health care debate, we witnessed an unpleasant, even shocking polarization in Congress and in the American electorate—a polarization that early on stopped being a debate if you understand a debate to be a contest between competing ideas. May the best idea win! Instead, the contest became a rancorous fight between people, with opposing human beings—not ideas—being criticized, stereotyped, and vilified.
It wasn’t enough to argue against a particular proposal on its merits or against its deficiencies. Rather, some felt they had to skewer and deride the people who made those proposals. Too soon it all began to make no sense. While good and thoughtful people might certainly oppose President Barack Obama’s proposed health care bill on its merits, some opponents felt the need to escalate the debate by accusing the president of leading us toward a totalitarian society. It was not enough to accuse the president of leading us in a leftward direction. The language escalated to “socialist” and even “communist.”
Then, not satisfied, these labels provoked enough opposition to the legislation, words like “fascist” were thrown around, which makes no sense at all. Communism and fascism, after all, are polar opposites. Yet those words invoked memories of World War II against fascist regimes and the subsequent Cold War against communism, striking mindless fear in the hearts of those who believed such absurd charges to be true.
More recently, we have seen Glenn Beck, Fox News commentator, take on Rev. Jim Wallis of the antipoverty organization Sojourners. I don’t mean that Beck took on the idea of antipoverty activism or the strategies employed by an organization such as Sojourners, whose mission is to “articulate the biblical call to social justice.” I mean he took on Rev. Jim Wallis himself, comparing him to the devil, and promising that “the hammer is coming…and when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night, over and over.”
This perhaps makes for good television, evoking a violent and threatening image. Do I think Beck is threatening bodily harm to Rev. Wallis? Of course not. But I do worry that such provocative and incendiary language might sound to a less than stable person like a call to arms—real arms against Rev. Wallis. Putting select congressional districts in crosshairs (as is done on Sarah Palin’s website) or showing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi burning in flames (as can be seen on the Republican National Committee’s website) does nothing to curb this flirtation with violence-inspiring “I’m-going-to-take-you-down” politics.
We’ve seen the same sort of thing at the international level, and around a different issue. Some conservative Christian groups have taken it upon themselves to “educate” those in Africa about the evils of homosexuality. Consider what’s going on in Uganda. There, people claiming to be scientists made appearances throughout the country and even before the national legislative body warning about threats to their children from homosexual predators, and calling acceptance of homosexual people a Western plot to undermine the families of Uganda. The hateful rhetoric had its effect—a proposed bill that would apply the death penalty to those convicted of homosexual relations. Only then did American conservative Christians feign shock that their words would lead to such draconian laws. Why, they had intended no such awful thing!
In Southern California, when someone is careless with a campfire, which then gets out of control and burns thousands of acres of land and countless homes, they are held accountable. Just because you didn’t intend to burn down trees and homes doesn’t mean you are not responsible for its happening. We hold them accountable for the very real damage that they’ve done, whether or not they intended that damage.
Similarly, words matter, because they can be as combustible as a match in dry underbrush. Incendiary words, whether spoken on TV, or in a town hall meeting, or halfway across the world, can incite hatred and even violence. When that violence occurs, it’s not good enough for those who have incited it to claim no responsibility, because they never intended it. They need to be held accountable.
I know whereof I speak. I have been the target of such incendiary criticism. Dehumanizing someone is the first step in making it acceptable to “take them down.” (Think “holocaust” here. Hitler’s first step was to dehumanize and demonize the Jews in Germany.)
When Anglican archbishops called me and people like me “lower than the dogs” and asserted that when I was consecrated a bishop “Satan entered the Church,” those words give the crazies all the reason they need to take this to a violent level. I required full-time security in 2003, and wore a bulletproof vest for my consecration. A year ago, state police arrested a man on his way to kill me—complete with MapQuest maps to my house, pictures from the Internet (across which the man had scrawled “Save the Church! Kill the Bishop!”), and a sawed-off shotgun and ammo sitting next to him in the passenger seat.
These are not idle threats. Incendiary language has real ramifications, giving such imbalanced people the notion that such actions are warranted and acceptable. The polarization in this country, with this increasingly violent language, is taking us down a road we do not belong on. People need to be held accountable for their words when their rhetoric incites people to go a dangerous step beyond verbal hyperbole.
If you spread the sparks of dehumanization and hatred, then you have to own the wildfire you have had a part in causing.
The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is IX Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress