“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
The thing is, words do hurt. A lot. When folks call us names, it hurts our feelings. It makes us mad. It offends our dignity. So we want to fight back, to get even. Often it seems that fighting back involves calling in a higher authority to act as censor.
There is just such a brouhaha brewing in Alberta. Darren Lund, a gay education advocate at the University Of Alberta, has launched a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against a Christian pastor for promoting hatred.
In 2002 Stephen Boissoin, then national chairman of a rightwing group called the Concerned Christian Coalition, sent a letter to the Red Deer Advocate newspaper, printed under the headline, “Homosexual Agenda Wicked.” The letter criticized gay-affirming school programs for endangering students’ health. It was your run-of-the-mill Christian right homophobic diatribe. You know, stuff like, “Where homosexuality flourishes, all manner of wickedness abounds,” and “Homo-sexual rights activists and those that defend them are just as immoral as the paedophiles, drug dealers and pimps that plague our communities.” Not very subtle.
Lund, who was then teaching gay acceptance in a local high school, filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against Boissoin, which was dismissed, then appealed earlier this year.
“Boissoin’s letter clearly invokes militaristic language in a manner that incites hatred and violence against an identifiable group. Boissoin’s rhetoric is inflammatory and alarmist, and steps far over the line of responsible public comment on such a sensitive social issue,” wrote Lund in his original complaint.
Not everyone agrees with Lund that this is the right way to fight back. Egale Canada, the national gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans advocacy organization, has refused to endorse Lund’s complaint. In a news release issued last month Egale executive director Gilles Marchildon stated, “Egale supports professor Lund in working to make schools safe for all children but respectfully opposes his human rights complaint.”
Egale agrees that Boissoin’s views are outrageously homophobic and over the top, but argues that a better strategy is to hold them up for public scrutiny. “We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” stated Marchildon.
Hate speech is a tough issue for many civil rights advocates. Equality rights for one group is set against freedom of expression for another. Some activists like Lund think that equality rights should be the trump card here. Others, like civil libertarians and in this case Egale, think that curbing freedom of expression can do more damage to the cause of equality.
One of the worst bits of damage is how attempts at censorship can make a martyr out of the speaker.
Through his work with the Concerned Christian Coalition Stephen Boissoin has uttered more than his fair share of hatred towards homosexuals. But since this human rights complaint, he is having his 15 minutes of fame. The group is busy raising money for his defence, and Boissoin has received support from the US-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian group dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel. Many leaders of the religious right are rallying to Boissoin’s defence. Boissoin is becoming a beacon not only for those who crusade against homosexuality, but also for the very right to express those ideas.
Egale may well take some heat from gay and lesbian folks who think that we should be censoring this kind of hate speech. But censoring speech, even when it hurts, is rarely the answer. Boissoin’s views are horrendous and hurtful. Sure, words are powerful. That’s why the best defence against them is more words, not sticks and stones or government censors.