When Politics Isn't Polite

The recent attack on the conservative Family Research Council (FRC) by a man who volunteered at an LGBT center in Washington, D.C. has prompted renewed calls for civility in public discourse. A raft of conservative bloggers and the FRC itself have called on groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled the FRC as a "hate group," to tone down their rhetoric. Perhaps the most prominent voice trying to get the right and left to get along is the Washington Post's Dana Milbank:

[T]his shooting should remind us all of an important truth: that while much of the political anger in America today lies on the right, there are unbalanced and potentially violent people of all political persuasions. The rest of us need to be careful about hurling accusations that can stir up the crazies. … Those who support gay rights will gain nothing by sticking inflammatory labels on their opponents, many of whom are driven by deeply held religious beliefs.

The problem with limiting our speech to things that would not rile the patients in a mental ward is that we'd be left with very little to say. What's more, I'd argue that a discussion in which the SPLC can't call a spade a spade, even if that's "inflammatory," is hardly worth participating in. 

It's true that our political discourse is full of angry denunciations and accusations, and that, as we witnessed last week, its impassioned rhetoric can lead an unstable mind to commit acts of violence. But it's only heated because it matters. In the case of gay rights, there is a deeply held disagreement over whether gay people deserve equality and respect—whether they should be allowed to marry, serve in the military, be protected from discrimination in employment or housing—or whether, as the FRC claims, they are deviants out to molest children and deserve society's condemnation. Milbank may think that calling the FRC "hateful" is unnecessarily provocative, but it wouldn't seem so if it were his own freedom and security at stake.

Sanitizing public discourse to the point that no one would get excited would make it irrelevant, and there are some things worth getting angry about. The public debates we have—about homosexuality, reproductive rights, inequality—have concrete consequences for people's lives. The systematic vilification of gays and lesbians is the reason that, according to the FBI's crime statistics, they are the most frequent targets of hate crimes—even more than racial and ethnic minorities. The propaganda and outright lies that the FRC peddles—that gay people are more likely than straight people to molest children, that one of the aims of the gay-rights movement is to legalize pedophilia, and that allowing gays to serve openly in the military puts straight soldiers at risk for sexual assault—directly contributes to making gay people the objects of derision and disgust. The same cannot be said of conservative Christians. Despite the victim complex, Christians are exceptionally rare targets of violence in the United States, and are not subject to widespread campaigns of misinformation that seek to marginalize them. Comparing the SPLC's denunciation of the FRC with the FRC's own propaganda about gay people is a case of false equivalence. Saying something harsh but true is different from fabricating a unflattering lie. 

This is not to say that there aren't more- and less-productive ways for those on the left and right to trade barbs. As my colleague E.J. Graff points out, we gain little by calling into question our opponents' right to speak or by shouting at each other on cable news. There is also a danger in casting one's opinions in the terminology of war and revolution. But it’s naive, on the other hand, to expect the SPLC and the FRC to politely agree they have a difference of opinion. Martin Luther King Jr. was hardly being polite when he told the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial that “[t]he whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

While the FRC would prefer that we all pack our bags and refrain from criticizing them ever again, I think the response of the LGBT community has been appropriate; late last week, the leaders of 23 gay-rights organizations jointly condemned the shooter's actions. This lays blame where it's due—the problem, after all, is that the shooter chose to express his opposition to the FRC with violence, not that he opposed the group's work. It may be true that people inclined to violence will take cues from the anti-abortion movement, the gay-rights movement, or the Tea Party to choose their targets, but silence seems too high a price to pay to avoid inciting the unhinged. Making it harder for people like Floyd Corkins to commit acts of violence—say, by passing stricter gun laws—seems a far better tack.

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