Words are powerful and dynamic. I think that most people would agree that people should be responsible for the effects or impacts of their words and actions. It is illegal to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If you do, you should expect to be held accountable for the stampede or injuries that occur.
Archbishop John Nienstedt, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Governor Tim Pawlenty, and many others have been “shouting” fire for a long, long time, and have never been held accountable. They write columns, preach sermons, build political campaigns, and produce DVDs that promote separation among people, not unity; intolerance, not acceptance—and that purposefully dehumanize individuals who are gay and lesbian.
Judges across the nation routinely hand out light sentences for people who violently bash gay men and lesbians, asserting that gay people get what they deserve: daring to live an open and confident life.
These disdainful messages from individuals with access to a bully pulpit do just that—they bully.
If you preach, write, or speak hatred for Muslims, the result is that a Muslim cab driver gets stabbed in New York City, or a minister in Florida threatens to burn Muslim holy books in Florida.
Words have effect.
If you tell someone over and over again that they are not good enough, sooner or later, there is a substantial chance that they will come to believe that message.
When individuals like Nienstedt, Kersten, Bachman, Pawlenty, and others use their words and their public positions to dehumanize individuals who are gay and lesbian, their words have an effect. Eventually, they give license to individuals who bash, bully, and assault and harass. People think, “If individuals in a position of legal, moral, or political authority can use their pulpits to bully, then I guess I can use my fist.”
The story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide recently, took my breath away.
I remember being in sixth grade, and realizing that I had feelings different from most of my friends. I never thought those feelings were wrong—just different. I can still feel the spit on my face from one junior high classmate who threatened to beat me up every day after school. I can remember being called hateful names, and the clanging sound of the lockers that my body got bounced off of every day in high school. It hurt, physically and emotionally, but I told myself, “Just hang on.”
And the rest of us share responsibility, too, because we are better than this. We have to be. We, as a collective citizenry, have been willing to settle for mediocrity. We have collectively created a culture that removes hope from the lives of too many individuals.
We have created a society that tells a scared, abandoned, questioning 13-year-old that his only option is to end his life. What if that 13-year-old were your son, brother, or grandson?
We allow such intolerance in our communities that we push a talented and sensitive 18-year-old to such a point of desperation, he believes his only solution is jump off a bridge.
We have got to be better than this!