3 min

The wolf at the door

Are we too paranoid about our enemies?

PROTEST TOO MUCH? Every insulting word gets us upset nowadays. Credit: Mia Hansen

Once, let’s say 40 years ago, the average minority group member’s first reaction to a public dissing was internalized silence. We suffered from a widespread form of Battered Wife Syndrome.

Since then we’ve transformed into full-blown Farrah Fawcett-style bed-burners (as in her 1984 role as a vengeful abused wife).

I’m wondering if this is progress.

Internalized silence, for all its nasty qualities and side effects, can lead to introspection, which sometimes leads to reasoning upon which, eventually, considered action may be based.

The contemporary habit of talking everything out in public leads to instant, pre-arranged conclusions and then directly to action. But for all the good this has done, both for our poor tortured psyches as well as for our practical well being, more often than not, those actions are ill-considered and frequently careen right over into stupid territory.

Our voices are now heard much more often, but they’re also more frequently saying silly things.

The case of the dearly departed (from TV, anyway) Dr Laura Schlessinger – the talk show host who preaches homo-deviancy – is a good example. If our internal incense-o-meters weren’t automatically set to Instant Outrage, we might have given ourselves some time to consider the implications of the loud, repeated and ultimately successful demands that the hag be silenced.

Silence, it’s been said, equals death. As slogans go, it’s a good one. But it doesn’t just apply to us. A principle has no value unless it applies to our enemies as much as it does to our friends. When it comes to opinions, beliefs, and conclusions, silence leads to festering, and festering lead to pustulating systemic outbreaks which, like poison in a water supply or adolescent acne, are almost impossible to combat.

We can still think we’re right. We can still actually be right. And there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in convincing people that we are right. But we never get the opportunity to do this unless we let the other folks make their cases, so that we can poke them full of holes. It’s ultimately an indication of insecurity to demand silence from those who oppose us. It implies a fear that they may be better at persuading folks of their nefarious little ideas than we have of showing them the truth.

Now, before you start hauling out the Nazis (“But, in Germany in the 1930s, they started by dissing the Jews, and look where it led”), be aware that there is a line between Dr Laura or rapper Eminem, and those darn Nazis. The Nazis were explicitly calling for violence and death.

But it’s okay to dislike. It’s even okay to hate. It is not okay to hurt, to kill or to counsel others to.

The confusion of these things does an awful lot of harm. It’s like lumping both rape and butt-grabbing under an umbrella term like sexual assault. One is unpleasant and can be effectively combatted on a personal level; the other is potentially deadly. And one does not lead to another, any more than pot leads to heroin.

It’s no good for the same reason that crying wolf is no good. For every pointless battle you engage in, credibility is lost for valid ones. If gay folks had started massive protests in the 1970s, claiming that hepatitis B was the result of willful state-enforced homophobia, the AIDS fight would have been a good deal weaker.

Outrage as a lobbying tool should be like that spare fuel spaceships in movies always seem to have – the fuel they have to use in a last-ditch efforts to get out of orbit or slingshot themselves around the sun or something. We’ve got to choose only the really big crises to do a burn.

Despite what the US-based Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – and in a quieter way, the lobby group Egale Canada, with its campaign for marriage rights – would have us believe, these sorts of crises only come around once or twice in a generation. We’ve had two in the last 40 years – Stonewall and AIDS.

This is not good news for activists. Every one of them would love to be able to call on the huge reserves of righteousness someone like Martin Luther King or Larry Kramer had access to. To the young activist, the world must seem very much as it does to a soldier who’s never been to war. There’s still plenty for her to do, but the hero’s rush isn’t there. To continue the military metaphor, it’s been enough to force some soldiers out of the military to take justice into their own vigilante hands. Activists should try very hard not to do the same thing.

After I wrote a book about the decreasing need to pay attention to sexual identity, I toured the country. At gay events I found myself often fielding questions or worries about backslide. What if we lose ground? What if mild hostility to gay and lesbian causes grows to become legislated hate? The questions most often came from women and men over 40. Having lived through the Battered-Wife-To-Burning-Beds years, the memory of a time when we were discriminated against with official impunity was too fresh.

My answer was always the same: We’ve come too far to backslide now; we’ve made irreversible progress.

Now I see that I was partly wrong. I think backslide is possible. But it won’t happen as a result of trying to move forward. If the queer community loses any of the massive cultural, social, and political capital it’s got now, it’ll be through the foot-stomping angry little tantrums we throw over things like Dr Laura and Eminem. So let’s not.