Speak softly and put down that big stick.
By Brandon Wolf
Film director Stanley F. Kubrick made a profound statement in the opening episode of his cinematic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Entitled “The Dawn of Man,” the segment shows a prehistoric ape-man rummaging through the dried bones of an antelope carcass. The ape-man finds a large bone, examines it, lifts it over his head and brings it down forcefully, shattering the skeleton. The first utilitarian tool is born.
Shortly thereafter, the ape-man joins his tribe to chase another band of Australopithecines away from a watering hole. They use menacing postures and grunting noises, but to no avail. Then the ape-man picks up the large bone and brings it down hard on the head of a member of the other tribe. His victim dies, sending the rest of his tribe running in fright. The first utilitarian tool becomes the first lethal weapon.
This scenario of turning tools into weapons is indeed as old as mankind. Four hundred million years after Kubrick’s ape-man, wagons and boats were built to improve the means of commerce. But they also delivered wholesale death during wars. Within our current decade, tools such as box cutters and commercial airlines were used by terrorists to rain death down from the skies.
Unfortunately, even words—those wonderful verbal tools that elevate Homo sapiens above all other species—also become weapons. And in recent times, the use of hate speech has increased to an unprecedented level and has polluted our national discourse.
In his new book, Outright Barbarous, author Jeffrey Feldman explores how the violent language of the Right Wing poisons American democracy. Feldman notes a sharp upswing after the events of 9/11. In the aftermath of that tragedy, the gates of public acceptance were thrown wide-open, and conservative pundits jumped at the chance to unleash a whole new level of ideological criticisms.
This hate speech manifested itself in tragedy on July 27 of this year, when an out-of-work truck driver named James Adkisson walked into a Knoxville, Tennessee, Unitarian church and opened fire with a shotgun. He killed two people and wounded several others. Adkisson confessed that he hated liberals in general and was particularly upset because the church actively supported the local GLBT community. A police search of his apartment turned up books by conservative pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly.
Recently, an edition of the Bill Moyers Journal examined the blight of “Rage on the Radio.” In the program, conservative pundit Glenn Beck pondered how he could murder filmmaker Michael Moore. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, reacted to theories of government complicity in 9/11 by advocating the execution of anyone who proposed such ideas: “Just take them out and shoot them.” Moyers noted that AM-radio “shock jocks” have to rely on continually escalating their violent language in order to grab the attention of viewers.
Despite the violent nature of hate speech, Americans hold dear—as we should—the protection of free speech under the First Amendment. History has taught us that repression of free speech leads to even worse problems. But if legislation isn’t the solution, then what is?
The answer lies within each individual American citizen. We are each part of a gigantic jury that evaluates the arguments put forth in our national discourse. And we render our verdicts through elections and media ratings. It is our choice who we put into office and who we listen to and read.
The invective-filled 2008 presidential campaign will go down in history as one of the nastiest and dirtiest campaigns in history. Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin utilized fear-mongering in an attempt to boost their floundering campaign. Their poll numbers turned downward as a result, and many high-profile conservatives jumped ship. Yet they continued their barrage, and eventually lost. Politicians should learn a lesson from this campaign gone wrong, and turn away from using such attacks in the future.
As our nation’s 44th president, Barack Obama will usher in a new level of civility to the American political process, just as he has remained a calm voice of reason throughout his entire campaign. Let us hope that his manner will affect political debates and discussions in our country, and spread to the workplace, the Odd Fellows Hall, and the school hallways, classrooms, lunchrooms, and playgrounds.
Author Feldman suggests in his book that each of us can learn to exclude violent rhetoric from our own lives. We can conduct ideological debates without resorting to “cultural wars.” We can disagree with others without “hating” them. We can dismiss their viewpoints without threatening their lives. In personal e-mails and letters to the editor we can employ reason rather than invective. On Internet discussion groups and blogs, we can give thumbs down to hate speech and applaud reasoned conversation.
At the conclusion of his recent program, Bill Moyers summed up the issue of hate speech with his usual understated but penetrating insight: “I was reminded of a story from folklore about the tribal elder telling his grandson about the battle the old man was waging within himself. He said, ‘My son, it is between two wolves. One is an evil wolf: anger, envy, sorrow, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is the good wolf: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.’ The boy took this in for a few minutes and then asked, ‘Which wolf won?’ His grandfather answered, ‘The one I feed.’ So, too, is America’s public life. The wolf that wins is the wolf we feed.”
Brandon Wolf founded the online group, Houston Activist Network (Han-Net), which is now LoneStarActivists.