Look, this is probably cheating, but I wrote this piece yesterday. I spent a really long time on putting together a rebuttal for a Facebook debate (it reads more like an essay) and I think I’m okay with posting it as my “today” piece. It centred around a Facebook friend’s “unpopular opinion” that being offended is a choice we make. That we should “grow stronger than any of your traumas and history and simply rise above it. Work towards better things.” That free speech should be fine up to the point where it causes violence. That hate speech, while disgusting and awful, should not be governed by hatecrime legislation. That people have the right to say whatever they want and face the consequences. I want to emphasise that I don’t think he’s a bad person in any way. I do, however, vehemently disagree with his opinion in this instance. I feel like I care strongly enough about it, that I want to have it publicly posted in this space. Here’s my response:
You’re right that I disagree with your unpopular opinion. The reason why I don’t think dealing with hate speech is as “simple” as choosing not to be offended, or growing stronger than your traumas and history, is because not everyone is you.
You’re a physically able, tall, straight white male. You’re very capable of taking care of yourself. People of course are able to threaten you, but it’s much less likely than it would be for some others. Threats of a sexually aggressive nature are unlikely to be as impactful to you as they may be to a physically smaller person who presents with varying gender or sexual orientation. People of course are still able to physically attack you, but it’s less likely that people would engage in violence against you for fear of reprisal.
Of course you have been threatened in your life. I’d argue that very, very few people have gone through their life without physical, verbal or emotional abuse. You also say that you’re a bouncer, which is a position that comes bundled with the potential of abuse. You enter into that situation knowing that it’s an outcome. There’s a level of consent there that says, while you don’t necessarily welcome it, you understand that it comes with the territory. You make that choice when you take on the job. What about people who don’t consent to facing abuse?
What about outside of your job. How often would you face bouts of abuse in any form? I’d wager that the frequency or incidence at which you face this abuse is exponentially lower than it would be for some others. How are you to gauge how hurtful and oppressive hate speech feels when you most likely very rarely face it? What about sexual threats? I’ve had numerous femme/NB friends tell me about the constant barrage of unwanted sexual attention. Sometimes it’s loud and frightening. There’s often a disparity in physical dominance. My girlfriend told me she got hit on four times the other day and it made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe. She said that wasn’t even a high number. What if that was happening to you every day, multiple times a day? What if sometimes the manner of the other person was so threatening that you were afraid for your life?
What if you were of some minority in a workplace where hate speech was allowed? What if the use of it by even one co-worker on the regular made you feel frustrated or hurt? What if it was multiple co-workers? What if your boss spoke to you like a lesser life form because of your cultural background? What if you felt threatened by this behaviour and felt unsafe in the workplace? What if people with higher status than you felt that it was okay to try and make you miserable on the regular? Sure, you could brush it off, swallow the pain and just go on with your life. It’s just work, right? What if it followed you home? What if you were being belittled in the supermarket or other social spaces? What if people decided they didn’t want you around and felt comfortable expressing that? What if there were just some bars and restaurants where you knew you’d be regularly harassed? Or parts of town? Would that be something you could “simply rise above”?
Look, I’m gonna pull the Jew card, not because I especially want to invoke Godwin’s Law, but because it’s relevant to my day to day and I think it might be a decent way of highlighting how it’s not as simple as being bigger than words. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a physically able, straight white male too. Still, when someone uses the word Kike, it makes me feel fucking terrible inside and out. It reminds me that there are a lot of people out there who think that I don’t deserve to live. That word reminds me that for a lot of people, my personhood, achievements, personality, deeds, friendships and romantic connections are less important than the fact that I’m of Jewish dissent and as such, would be better off dead. This transcends people not liking me, this is ‘you should be culled’ territory. These sentiments exist out there and I know it, but I’m not always reminded of them. Which is a good thing, because despite being a physically able straight white male, I know that if these sentiments were given enough support, I would be given cause for concern.
I rise above a lot of it. Whether it’s jokey comments reinforcing stereotypes or my culture thrown out as a casual disparaging epithet that remind me that for some people, a religion that I don’t even follow is a large component of how they view me. That for others, noticing that aspect of me is enough to want me to be killed. I’m not an incredibly sensitive person, (despite how it might sound from the fact that I’ve been pointedly debating for hours) I’m really not. For the most part I live my life without major issues or cause to feel threatened. I have a pretty positive outlook a lot of the time. I try to be a friendly person and kind to strangers. I truly believe that people are more often ignorant than malicious and as such, I try to assume the best of most people/outcomes.
Still, it’s very hard to hear some of the recent alt-right sentiment and not feel at least a sliver of doubt that, if given more weight or the wrong people running with the sentiment, the floor could cave out and society could turn on me. That the words could become more than just words and people could act on them. That it could reach the tipping point where more of society decides that violence against me is okay than those who oppose this idea. That the overwhelming sentiment is that I’m a lesser life form and I don’t have the right to personhood. That it’s like killing an animal or something. That I don’t deserve the same rights as others.
It’s very rare for me to feel this way, because it’s not often reinforced. People are discouraged against this kind of hate speech, so the rhetoric stays bubbling under the surface. How often do I feel this? Not often. Most days and months go by without the thoughts even entering into my head. In fact, they come up so infrequently that for the most part I can ignore them and brush them off. It’s because hate speech is discouraged that it’s 99.999% easier to choose not to be offended, as you say.
I have a ton of resilience. If I faced hate speech day by day, I don’t think it would be as easy to be as resilient. I think that if people openly used racist words against me day in and day out, that my resilience would crack and it would be harder and harder to not be offended. I would be reminded a lot more often that a lot of people would be quite okay with me taking a gas shower. That my family, too, should all be dead.
But because hate speech is widely condemned, I don’t have to deal with all of that.
I honestly don’t think that most people out there are antisemitic. I do think that hate speech has a habit of multiplying negative sentiment. I think that people who have no horse in this race could be swayed to follow the hateful rhetoric. I think that a lot of people with these extreme feelings would feel strongly enough about it that they would try to amplify hate speech into hate sentiment, that things that were just words would become more than just words. I feel like the absence of hatecrime legislature would not lead to situations in which it would be as easy to rise above and not be offended.
I can envision these scenarios being played out over a myriad of cultural/sexual/gender identities that don’t affect me, but I sure as hell don’t want others to have to face a higher likelihood of dealing with this kind of thing. That sounds like a lower quality of life for all of us.