Funny how words get twisted and make you mad. A strange thing happened to me at a conference a few months ago. At a lawyer’s panel on same-sex marriage, with lawyers from both sides, I was accused of censorship.
It started when one of the lawyers opposed to same-sex marriage – let’s call him Mr Hateful – got up and told us that calling a same-sex relationship marriage is a defilement to real marriages and a threat to Western civilization. It was the same old hateful rhetoric denying the basic equality of queer folks, dressed up in the civil language of legal argument.
The pro-same-sex marriage lawyers had a very civil exchange with Mr Hateful, pointing out how well they get along and how much they respect each other, and then making their arguments in favour of same-sex marriage.
Where no one was asking any questions at question period, I decided to do my duty, making a provocative intervention against civility. I said that the only reason that the same-sex marriage debate was civilized was because gay and lesbian folks made it that way. We would quietly listen to uncivil homophobic attacks, thank these folks for their views and then politely make a counterargument. I said that although I too have engaged in endless civil and respectful dialogue with opponents of same-sex marriage, I was sick of it.
So in the spirit of abandoning civility, I then said what I really thought of Mr Hateful’s views – they were repugnant and that history would judge him, much like it now judges those who were on the wrong side of the laws against interracial marriage.
I knew that this was going to be provocative. That’s why I said it.
But Mr Hateful’s response was unexpected. He called me a politically correct censor who was trying to shut down debate. He condemned my outrageous efforts to silence him in the hallowed halls of academia, all the while saying how much he prefers the company of the pro-same-sex marriage lawyers on his panel who were so civil and respectful of him.
Me a censor? How could my words be so misinterpreted? How could a person who has made a career out of opposing censorship be mistaken for one of them?
But when I calmed down, I realized that Mr Hateful’s reaction was completely understandable. We live in such a censorious environment that a condemnation is often synonymous with a call for censorship. Over and over again, we call on authorities to stomp out offensive language or ideas. We don’t like it, so therefore we don’t want to hear it. In our current climate, Mr Hateful didn’t have to jump very far to wrongly perceive my condemnation as censorship.
Some gay and lesbian people and organizations have played a role in making this such an easy assumption. While we often claim freedom of expression for ourselves – rage against border-guard censorship of our books or film review board censorship of our films and videos – we then call for the views of others to be shut down. Over and over again, we denounce homophobic words as hate speech, demanding that something be done. Make the words go away. Punish those who uttered them.
But here’s the thing. Freedom of expression cuts both ways. It means that we get to say stuff that others don’t like and others get to say stuff that we don’t like. We need to break our urge to censor. We need to fight nasty words with other words, perhaps even nasty ones.
So when our opponents offer their views, maybe we should stop being polite and call them what they are – repugnant and on the wrong side of history.
Let’s tell them what we really think. Because it turns out, words are powerful. Let’s use them.