Klansman David Duke speaking at a holocaust denial conference in
Here is the thread that ties these three disparate people together: when certain words are forbidden, they become more powerful--and to many, more believable.
"Are there any niggers here tonight?" Lenny asked a nightclub crowd in the early 1960's. He then pointed out the black people in the audience. Then he ID'd the kikes, the spics, the wops, the polacks, the greaseballs, the guineas and the micks. Then, after his audience was good and riled, he hit them with the moral of the story:
Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives itthe power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: If President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say 'nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger' to every nigger he saw, 'boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,' 'nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger' 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.
Lenny knew that words become more powerful when they are forbidden, and so do the ideas behind them. Speaking forbidden words imbues those saying them with an aura of antiauthoritarian daring that Americans (whose national mythology is chock-full of characters who break the rules and speak truth to power) find appealing. Being punished for speaking the forbidden words is widely seen as unjust and turns the speaker into a free-speech martyr, a sympathetic figure who has been unjustly oppressed and punished merely for making sounds with his mouth or making marks with his pen.
David Duke and the other holocaust denyers know this very well and use it to their twisted advantage. Here is a sample of what he said in earlier this week in a speech entitled "Freedom of Speech and the Holocaust":
We must remember that the main themes of this conference as stated by Iran’s President are the vital human right of freedom of speech and the condemnation of the shameful imprisonment of European scholars and academics who simply dare to state their opinions of historical events that occurred over 60 years ago.
This conference embraces the idea of free speech, thought, and conscience. The U.S. State Department, under thorough control of International Zionism, in a formal statement called this conference a quote, “disgrace.” The real disgrace is that free men are imprisoned and silenced in Europe and in other European-descended nations around the world. The disgrace is that no leaders of our own nations seem have the courage to defend free speech.
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In Europe you can freely question, ridicule, and deny Jesus Christ. The same is true for the prophet Muhammed, and nothing will happen to you, heck you might even get to star in your own weekly TV show, but offer a single question of the smallest part of the Holocaust and you face prison!
There is lots in his speech that is sick, hateful, wacko and paranoid--but Duke is no dummy. He dresses up hate in the mantle of free speech. I get the sense he is secretly delighted that he is saying forbidden words. It gets him publicity. He wants to seem heroic, as if he is taking a risk by saying what he's saying.
Now stay with me as we go to Morris Area High School in Minnesota. Skatje Myers is a junior there who is fighting to reform the culture of homophobia there. She admits that she doesn't quite know how to deal with it--and I have yet to encounter anyone who does. Apparently, though, her efforts landed one particular homophobe named Andrew Jallo in trouble with the school. Then she wrote this:
Hate speech vs. free speech: I respect free speech more than most of you realise. If Andrew had said “I think homosexuality is wrong because A, B, and C,” I would respect his opinion a lot more, despite disagreeing with it. But this isn’t what he did. He said what’s considered “hate speech.” What he said can be taken as threats and easily shows his intolerance of the students he’s supposed to be representing. This goes back to what I was saying with that comment about black people. Offensive speech is a problem, speech that’s stating an opinion and backing it up is not a problem.
Though I sympathize mightily with Skatje's situation and admire her courage in taking on this issue in the hothouse environment of a midwestern public high school, I think she goes off track here. As one of her commenters (Akusai) notes,
Offensive speech and “hate speech” are speech, too. This is why the ACLU is constantly defending such offensive and undesirable elements of society as Nazis, the KKK, and Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. There is no right not to be offended. The only way to fight offensive, disgusting speech is to utilize your own freedom of speech as much as possible. Andrew is a moron, and his physical threats are problematic and unprotected, but stating his bigoted opinions is his protected right. We, however, have a right (and some might argye a duty) to tell him he’s a retarded, immature, egotistical homophobe, and try to convince him of the error of his ways.
What it comes down to is a couple of things: yes, Andrew Jallo has a right to spew his nonsense, but he does not have a right to be heard, and the right to think/say whatever he wants does not mean that his opinion is equal to ours. Freedom of speech does not entail equality of opinions (though the two are often conflated) and that’s where we come in.
Attempting to get a bigot like Andrew Jallo in trouble will backfire, just as the laws of those Eurpoean countries that criminalize holocaust denial have backfired. It will allow Jallo to claim victimhood and wave the free speech flag, just like his fellow bigot David Duke has done. Remember what Lenny said: "It's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness."
Once again, the best way to deal with speech that creates a climate of intolerance is to have more speech that promotes tolerance. It's hard to do sometimes, but people like Skatje have the advantage of being morally right. And it's empowering. If I had a daughter and some lout said to her, "hey girl, nice tits," I'd want her to tell him to crawl back under the rock he came from, and then break his nose; I wouldn't want her to go complain to some committee or assistant principal. That's how strong women are built.
This doesn't mean that school authorities have no role in promoting tolerance. They do. Those who make hateful, intolerant and offensive comments should be called on them by teachers and administrators. Call the kid down to the principal's office and talk to him for half an hour about how irrational, odious and ignorant his remarks were. And do it again and again, if necessary. This method won't work with everyone; I suspect that nothing will. But if done right, it will begin to create an environment in which most people realize that homophobia is unacceptable.