Saturday, February 27, 2010

Words Can Hurt A Lot: Of Beauty Queens, Hate Speech Wrapped in Religion and  Death

In one of the many lists which provide me news and an opportunity to discuss it, the story about the most recent beauty pageant contestant from California spouting homophobia dressed up as religion is the current topic. It has generated much heat but little light, ironically the same effect most beauty contests have.

I’m not sure why anyone would see contestants in a beauty contest as sources for social or political wisdom but in a celebrity culture, saying outrageous things like G-d thinks gays should die (per the current contestant who says she’s Miss Beverly Hills though the city she supposedly represents says otherwise) can get you the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol guaranteed all of us.

In the course of 200 posts generated by this article, most of them little more than the trade of ad hominems, a middle aged woman from Riverside, CA, made the following comment: “Is anyone dead? Words are after all nothing but hot air, and yet a right to express regardlessly. (sic)“ This was my response to her:

Many are dead. They have died over the centuries from thinking as vapid and poorly informed as this woman’s. They have died in bonfires throughout the middle ages condemned as witches because they were different from those who presumed that their way of being in the world was normal, moral and the only possible way to be human. They die in Wyoming prairies after severe beatings and left to die in the cold alone. They die in California school rooms where classmates pull guns so graciously provided by our irresponsible culture from their book bags and shoot middle school boys dead. They die in bathrooms in Japan at the hands of fellow service men whose boots and fists are the last thing their victim remembers.

Words can hurt, especially when they perpetuate ignorance based stereotypes and purport to be homicidal commands from blood thirsty tyrant gods. Words can hurt when they form the basis of disinformation campaigns that spur otherwise good intentioned human beings to commit evil in the form of passing discriminatory laws. Words can hurt when gossip campaigns result in lost jobs, false accusations of pedophilia, rejection from the communion rail.

Americans have a right to express their views (even as inarticulately as the one to which I am responding) but this is not about rights. It’s about responsibility. It’s about recognizing that one’s misanthropic attitudes can impact the targets of that fear and loathing in seriously destructive ways. The question is not whether this woman has the right to say things which evidence ignorance and social prejudices but what accountability she is willing to bear in the exercise of that right.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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