3 min

Silence is scarier

You can't resist arguing with Jimmy Swaggart

Credit: Xtra files

Language is a funny thing. How many times have I said something that I didn’t mean literally to express something that I did mean? “If you do that one more time I’m going to kill you.”

Context is everything when it comes to determining meaning. If you overheard these words spoken in conversation you’d have all sorts of clues to help you guess at their intent – tone of voice, body language, the relationships of those involved. Spoken to a friend, they may be playful. Spoken to a lover, they might be flirtatious. Spoken to a stranger, they’d no doubt cause distress and possibly result in a call to 911.

Jimmy Swaggart, every- one’s favourite evangelical fuck up, says he was speaking figuratively on Sep 12 when he told his televised congregation, “I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m going to be blunt and plain: If one ever looks at me like that, I’m going to kill him and tell God he died.”

Not surprisingly, complaints were filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council after the service was aired on Toronto’s Omni One channel.

In a conditional apology a few days after the broadcast, the Louisiana-based preacher called his comments “tongue-in-cheek” and dismissed the possibility that they could be interpreted as inciting violence against queers. “Good gracious alive, it would be a long stretch of the imagination to come up with that.”

Actually, no, it’s not much of a stretch at all. News flash, Jimmy: Every day queers and trannies face violence for who they are, and too often it results in their deaths. You’d have to be a damn good friend to get away with joking about killing people who are already under threat, and you ain’t no friend of mine.

Much of the American commentary on the controversy has poo-pooed Canadians for being so quick to impinge on Swaggart’s freedom of speech. It seems he should be free to make the comments – he should simply know better.

And, strangely enough, I think I agree with them. What Swaggart said publicly is simply a reflection of what countless similarly minded people are saying all over Canada, never mind in the US. These thoughts are spoken in numerous private contexts that can never be regulated. All the laws can do is suppress the public expression and in suppressing we lose an opportunity to educate.

It sounds so easy, so cut and dry, and I know it isn’t.

Last spring, Svend Robinson’s private member’s bill C-250 added sexual orientation to the list of criteria for defining identifiable groups that it is illegal to incite hatred against. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to see the bill go through. But I was glad in the same way I’d be happy to hear a nasty rapist had been killed after being hit by a bus. It’s satisfying, but that doesn’t make it right.

I’m not sure what responsibility Swaggart should bear in this situation – a personal and moral responsibility, certainly; a legal one, I don’t think so. Perhaps what it comes down to for me is that as much as I know that language can be a powerful, persuasive thing, I’m reluctant to ascribe to it the power to cause people to do things that they wouldn’t do other-wise, because in doing so we deny the complete responsibility of each individual to control their own actions.

If Swaggart gets yanked off the air for inciting hatred, I won’t miss him. Chances are the only queers who will are the ones who find great amusement in watching him work himself up into a apoplectic frenzy.

What I will miss is the opportunities for conversation I’ve had in response to his hateful comments, particularly with my family, and the reassurance that the people around me, particularly those with greater access to the Swaggart set, have been steeled by the exchange and are more inclined than before to speak up when they encounter bigotry in their own lives.

* Julia Garro is Xtra’s associate editor.