Friday, August 04, 2006

Mel Gibson, hate speech, and media

The Stoning of the Drag Queen, graphite on paper

I swore to myself that I wasn't going to join the furor over Mel Gibson but Rev. Irene Monroe tied the subject to hate speech and how name-calling has become mainstream:

Hate speech is not a passive form of public speech. And one of the signs of an intolerant society is its hate speech, whether used jokingly or intentionally, aimed at specific groups of people. When this form of verbal abuse becomes part and parcel of the everyday parlance between people, we have created a society characterized by its zero-tolerance of inclusion and diversity, where name-calling becomes an accepted norm.

Lately this Republican political era of “compassionate conservatism” has brought forward an unabashed no-holds-barred attitude when it comes to passionate invective hurled at queers, African-Americans, and Jews.

In an interview with Ann Coulter, author of Godless: The Church of Liberalism, on the July 27 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with host Chris Matthews, Coulter called former vice president Al Gore a "fag,” and she hinted that Bill Clinton might be gay.


Let us not forget that the word and image of fag derives from the word faggot, which is a bundle of sticks for burning, and that LGBTQ people were supposedly righteously burned at the stake in medieval England.

And let us not forget Matthew Shepard, the openly gay Wyoming student who in 1998 was bludgeoned and left to die in near-freezing temperatures while tethered to a rough-hewn wooden fence.

Or 1999, when Billy Jack Gaither, a well-respected and beloved textile worker in Alabama, was bludgeoned with an ax handle, burned, and left to die on a pile of tires because he was gay.

And some claim the Bible refers to us stoking the fires of hell.

But the real hell we LGBTQ people confront from this type of name-calling and stereotyping is a societal disparage of sexual relations between people of the same gender, in a society where both the church and government bar us from marriage, many states bar us from adoption, and the federal government forbids our serving in the military.

According to the National Mental Health Association, gay teens hear "anti-gay slurs such as 'homo', 'faggot' and 'sissy' about 26 times a day or once every 14 minutes." Why aren't schools stopping this verbal abuse? Or worse. Almost a third of "gay youth had been threatened or injured at school in the last year alone!" Unbelievable! Can you imagine such a situation today for African-Americans? For Jewish kids? Just for being who they are? Well, maybe. And yet our society turns a deaf ear especially to bigotry and bullying that targets gays and lesbians--child or adult. Shame, shame.

More shameful, gay news media report Georgia's Republican candidate for attorney general compared gay teens to pedophiles. Where are traditional media's outcry? The local newspaper story? A candidate for the state's top law official doesn't understand who the overwhelming majority of child molesters are or the difference between a pervert and a gay or lesbian teenager! Is this conservative ignorance and bigotry to the tenth power or what? And what about the media's complicity by not reporting homophobic McGuire's remarks? I checked Google News a minute ago and not one U.S. non-gay news media outlet (except for Christian news) popped up in search results. Maybe later.

OTOH, if you've seen the news about Gibson (how could you miss it?), you've heard the anti-Semitic, sexist, vain, and profane spew that Catholic conservative Mel drunkenly gushed at police officers during his arrest. But I hadn't heard Gov. Mitt Romney's tar baby remark. Rev. Irene comments in response:

The relationship between homophobia and racism is shown in how LGBTQ and African-American civil rights struggles are pitted against each other by our enemies. It also appears in the federal government’s new HIV/AIDS supposed prevention program, which requires all public-health authorities and agencies to report the identities of HIV-positive patients. It’s a program in which African-Americans—straight or queer—will ostensibly feel profiled.

Language is a representation of culture, and it perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that we consciously, and unconsciously, articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world—and, consequently, transmit generationally.

The liberation of a people is also rooted in the liberation from abusive language, which is essentially hate hurled at them. Using epithets, especially jokingly, does not eradicate its historical baggage or the existing social relations among us. Instead, dislodging these epithets from their historical context makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustices done to specific group of Americans.

It allows all Americans to become numb to the use and abuse of the power of hate speech because of the currency these epithets still have.

Any kind of hate speech, sugarcoated with humor or irony or not, thwarts the daily struggle in which many us engage in trying to ameliorate human relations.

I can't decide which medium offers the worst examples of hate speech: online or offline, the blogosphere or conservative TV, radio, or newspapers? Bloggers and their comment threads host some of the most vile language I've ever read (More examples here and a diatribe here. H/t to Pam). Yet, the insidious, subtly-parsed bigoted speech--in the case of Ann Coulter types, blatant defamation--disseminated by the talking heads at Fox News, Chris Matthews, et al may cause far more damage than the blogosphere with its perceived credibility, its frequency, and its sheer reach into the public realm. As always, Media Matters can supply a regular dose of harsh language broadcasted on any day of the week. A few examples:

Boortz: Adults earning minimum wage are "incompetent", "ignorant", "stupid", "worthless," and "pathetic"

O'Reilly blasts "smear merchants" and "vampires" criticizing Mel Gibson; Rivera smears Olbermann, Stewart, and Colbert

Coulter put "even money" on Sen. Clinton "[c]oming out of the closet"

And then we have the examples of deceptive disinformation, specious propaganda, and downright ugly lies.

I'll confess my errors of referring disparagingly to "wacky doodles," the "Codpiece-in-Chief," and other sarcastic names aimed at Republicans and the Religious Right in my fondness for Hunter Thompson and Gonzo journalism. I promise to temper my rhetoric without diluting my criticism or passion for cutting-edge art. Sometimes telling the unvarnished truth is all that's needed to expose a lie, an atrocity, a grievance, or an injustice. May not cut through today's shrill atmosphere but sometimes pictures can communicate more quickly.

Earlier today, TMZ reported that Rabbi David Baron invited Mel Gibson to the Temple of the Arts for a Yom Kippur appearance so the celebrity could deliver a public apology. In his letter to his congregation (PDF), Baron wrote that he would pre-screen Gibson's penitence and sincerity, address his father's Holocaust denials, and examine whether Mel had the adequate "willingness to take the necessary steps to heal the pain he has caused." The good rabbi then closed his letter with a remembrance:

Lastly, our tradition teaches us that when someone offers a direct personal apology, in public no less, we should be prepared to open ourselves to forgiveness. This is especially true if the offending party is prepared to make amends and promises not to repeat the same offense. Please remember we are not dealing with Yasser Arafat or Hezbollah whose words and actions have resulted in the deaths and maiming of hundreds of innocent people. We are dealing with a celebrity whose alcoholic problem has exposed out latent anti-Semitism. Better a repentant sinner than an unrepentant one.

What are the chances Mel will follow through with an apology at the temple? I dunno but I wish that a major Christian church or minister would bravely invite right-wing homophobes--religious and/or political leaders--to his or her services to make amends to the LGBT community. Wouldn't that be something? More astounding, what if the news media actually covered it? Without hate speech.

IMAGES: At the top, The Stoning of the Drag Queen with cropped close-ups. Plus, the mug shot of Mel Gibson from his arrest.