Last week, advertisements began appearing at commuter train stations in the county where I live that, it would seem, blame all of Islam for the actions of violent extremists who are Muslim. Debate over the ads here in Westchester, including in the congregation I serve as minister, has centered on the question of “hate speech.” Similar debate is happening elsewhere around other current events as well, including senseless violence against our Sikh siblings, the denial of equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, and the persistence of misogyny in our political arena.
What, we’re asking ourselves, is “hate speech,” and what is the proper response of moral, loving, spiritual people to it?
I should be clear at the outset that I am not seeking a legal definition of hate or hate speech. Im not a lawyer or a judge. Rather, I am asking for a spiritual definition of it. Whether something is right or wrong has little do do with whether it is legal. (This is, interestingly, something on which the religious right and the religious left can agree–even if we differ on what is right and what is wrong.) What is acceptable in a compassionate society is a smaller set of things than what is not punishable by law.
To me, demonizing an entire group for the actions of a few is the epitome of hate speech. The impulse that leads some to vilify all of Islam because there are Muslim terrorists who justify their actions with a misunderstanding of their religion is the same impulse that makes communities protest the building of mosques and deny some among us their freedom of religion. The more we accept dehumanization, stereotypes and lies about groups of people, the more likely we are to accept violence against them–or people who look like the stereotypical images we have of them stored in our narrow minds.
Recent public debate about rape is another example of speech that, frankly, should be unacceptable to all people who seek to shape our society in an image of love and compassion. If we deem it acceptable for anyone to create a category of “legitimate rape,” we are implicitly condoning a culture in which survivors of sexual violence are stigmatized, doubted, and shamed. Women who live in fear of violence should not be verbally assaulted by those seeking to make political points with their “base.”
Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote, among other things, a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” in my faith, freedom comes with responsibility. It should be so in our society as well.
Just because certain speech is protected by the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution does not make all speech responsible speech.
If you’d like to engage in a meaningful dialogue about Jewish-Muslim relations with respect to Israel and Palestine, you’re not going to get there by calling everyone who disagrees with you a terrorist.
If you’re trying to instruct your followers on the specific ways taught by your faith to lead a moral life, you don’t need to violate my freedom of religion or make me a second-class citizen to do so.
If you’d like to open a dialogue on the sanctity of life, denigrating the lives of women isn’t an appropriate place to begin.
Those of us who believe in compassion, equality and love cannot remain silent in the face of such unacceptable hate. Our goal should not be to silence the haters, but rather to drown out their hate with our love. Where ten people show up to call a group of people nasty names, a hundred others should be present with a message of love and acceptance. Little by little, those who choose to hate will get the message.