As a patriotic American, the daughter of an immigrant mother who taught herself English in order to become a U.S. citizen and a father who was a waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber during World War II, I want to do what’s necessary to help our country.
That was their legacy and I honor it.
I want us to resist the centrifugal forces of ignorance and vitriol currently sucking the sanity out of our public and private discourse and spewing it out as hate speech. “Free” speech and “hate” speech are not the same.
But when that very sentence seems to be an invitation to an argument, it takes an effort. It’s tough to have a productive and open-minded conversation when you’re gritting your teeth, biting your tongue and clenching your jaw.
And a lot of us — and I’m including myself here — have discovered that it’s become increasingly tricky to approach even the most benign subjects without glimpsing underlying political messages.
At the supermarket last weekend, a young man rebuked me for my bagging practices.
“You’re using plastic? Don’t you want a clean Earth?”
“Yeah, but first I want clean litter boxes. That’s what I use these bags for.”
I found myself feeling not only defensive, but also vengeful. I didn’t do anything, of course, because I retain self-respect and because I genuinely do want a cleaner planet. But what I most certainly didn’t want was somebody preaching at me.
So how can we do better? How can we, especially during what is a fraught election season, resolve not to encourage hate speech in our politicians, in our social media, in our communities and in ourselves? I turned to my friends for their advice.
Emily Heiden, a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, suggests that we begin by having difficult conversations with our relatives (as if Thanksgiving doesn’t already have enough angst) and then “going new places and meeting new people. Introducing friends of different groups to each other to put a human face on what it means to be Muslim or Jewish or Sikh. Stories and humanity change hearts and minds like nothing else.”
Tim Stobierski, founding editor of “Student Debt Warriors,” sent a suggestion composed of very few characters: “Signing off Twitter.” I agree. Nuanced perspectives are not nurtured by a platform permitting less subtlety than a bumper sticker. At least most bumper stickers have been proofread.
Reading complex and well-written works longer than 280 characters is also a way to combat hate speech. Anne Barreca, librarian and manager of a branch of the New York Public Library who just happens to be my niece, argues that empathy comes from understanding.
She quotes James Baldwin: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
Shawn Lang reminds us, however, that being civil and being respectful still means we need to take a stand and speak up. Shawn, as well as a number of other friends on Facebook, quoted Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Kristi Stephens Walker suggests making those who casually use hate speech take full responsibility for their choices. “Making eye contact and not making it easy for the offender by balking or nervous smiling or even rolling my eyes — as if to say, ‘Oh, you silly sexist/racist’ — puts the responsibility on the offender.”
Barbara Cooley, my friend from Grand Rapids, says that while we must pay attention to well-reasoned argument from all sides, we can stop hate speech by turning a deaf ear. Says Barbara, “When it has no audience, hate will have no opening night.”
The protection of freedom is a value for which real patriots have risked their lives, devoted their lives and given their lives. And voting is the most powerful demonstration of that freedom, as well as the most powerful argument you can make. Making a mark on that ballot is leaving your mark on history.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books.