A recent article from Reuters announced, “LGBTQ Advocates Seek to Label Conservative Opponents as Hate Groups.” A headline like that grabs my attention, so I read the article. In it we are told, “The campaign will pressure the media to use the hate-group designation for about 50 organizations in the United States.”
The list of targets is headlined by three legal groups that offer free legal representation to people who are being prosecuted under a spate of newly-minted sexual orientation and gender identity laws.
For instance, the Alliance Defending Freedom is defending Judge Ruth Neely of Pinedale. Pacific Justice Institute is involved in Welch v. Brown, a California case where a licensed counselor is prohibited from helping his clients who wish to resist unwanted sexual feelings.
Included also are 10 organizations focused on either “truth” or “values,” 10 family organizations and 20 different churches and ministries. These have all been blacklisted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “hate groups.”
An exhaustive search of the SPLC web site found no documentation to substantiate these charges. In place of evidence and rational argument were emotional words like “hate,” “extremism,” “junk science” and “lies.” Such epithets, unless carefully documented, function to bludgeon the reader but not to inform.
The incessant repetition of such loaded words have a double effect. For those already inclined to believe them, they set prejudged opinions in stone. For those seeking engagement and objective facts, they turn off any further desire to dialogue.
Both harm our national discourse. One side has no reason to listen; the other has no reason to talk. We should hasten to add that neither the left, nor the SPLC, has a corner on this way of speaking. Westboro Baptist Church is the same kind of irrational voice coming from the other corner of the ring.
But if we hope to be civilized people, all of us on both sides of the cultural issues should be eager to discuss the issues objectively, dispassionately and with an honest willingness to learn the truth. Dismissing the words of either side before they have even been spoken does not advance the discussion.
But that, exactly, is the reason for labeling. Blacklisting is intended to delegitimize someone so that they need not be taken seriously. Whether it be the blacklists of Hollywood or those of the McCarthy era, you are guilty until proven innocent, and your actual merits and achievements are not worth considering.
“Eliminate Hate” calls it a media failure when anyone on this blacklist is characterized as a “Christian law firm,” or “legal advocacy,” or “religious.” It is not even enough for the media to note that a group “has been labeled an anti-gay hate group.” They will settle for nothing less than that they be summarily dismissed as a “hate-group.”
If they are successful in their campaign, we will descend yet one more notch into the angry scrum that used to characterize our childhood arguments. Labeling, whatever the label, is never helpful.
So, what is behind this descent into irrationality? Is it purely a lack of good will and animus toward one another? Unfortunately, no. In fact, I would argue that the seething anger observable in our culture is only a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of a worldview which increasingly despairs of having any way of knowing the truth.
Truth as an absolute reality, outside of each one of us, is the basis for all civilization and rational discussion. It gives all of us a common focus, a common goal. An honest pursuit of the truth allows us, first of all, to be critical of ourselves. By it we admit that our own ideas must be obedient to something that is not our own.
This humility, in turn, allows us to be more forgiving and patient with one another. If we recognize that we can be and have been wrong, it is easier to tolerate those who may be making the same error that we once made.
Likewise, if we have once been humble enough to learn and be corrected by someone else, we can more readily approach a conversation with the possibility that we can be corrected again.
Where truth is seen as nonexistent, relative or simply unknowable, we have lost any basis for civil discourse. Such societies no longer seek to help one another find the transcendent truth. They instead seek to subjugate one another to raw power.
Observe the recent riots on college campuses. These are not staged to counter falsehoods with clear reason. They are designed to silence unwanted speech with power. This is the nature of “hate-group” labeling.
As Janice Harper wrote in the Huffington Post, “The use of any derogatory label to describe a person is dehumanizing and promotes stereotypes. When we dehumanize a person with a label, we make it easier to attack them … it is not necessary to establish that a person’s behavior or thinking is a problem; all that is necessary to eradicate them is to persuade others that the person belongs to the disfavored class. That is done most effectively by simply stating, and repeating, the disfavored label upon them, until others adopt it as well” (“The Bully Label Has Got to Go”, Nov. 1, 2011).
Words, if they are no longer capable of conveying truth, are only good for projecting power. Minds that are incapable of being changed have no recourse but to shun different ideas and seek out those exactly like themselves. This is a dangerous recipe, because instead of fostering an open and generous society, it encourages a closed and self-interested tribalism.
The elimination of hate is most certainly a worthy goal. But the bullying tactics of this newest campaign only aggravate the problem and cannot accomplish the stated goal. It can, however, raise our awareness of the deeper and more pressing problem.
It is time to rededicate ourselves to the mutually beneficial quest for objective truth. We can do so, first, by an unwavering knowledge that truth exists outside of me. Admitting that truth is not simply the private domain of whatever I happen to believe, we are allowed to come shoulder-to-shoulder and turn our eyes toward a common goal.
Grounded in that reality, we can commit ourselves to an unflinching desire to be shaped by the truth with absolute certainty that the truth will set us free. Instead of stifling the speech of others, we will welcome it in the hope that my neighbor can sharpen my focus, while I sharpen hers. We will both be better for it.
Finally, this can position us as individuals, and as a nation, to love and not hate. We can bear with one another patiently knowing that the truth is not a bludgeon to control others, but a safe-haven into which we have all been invited, and by which we come to truly know ourselves and one another.
Jonathan Lange has a heart for our state and community. Locally, he has raised his family and served as pastor Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Evanston and St. Paul’s in Kemmerer for two decades.Statewide, he leads the Wyoming Pastors Network in advocating for the traditional church in the public square.