Do words have consequences?
For years, we at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have argued that they do. When conspiracy-minded Islamophobes claim that Muslims have a secret plan to force America into a medieval-style caliphate, Muslims in the streets get hurt. When angry nativists assert that Mexicans are plotting to "reconquer" the Southwest, some Americans respond by attacking Latinos.
And when the religious right spreads false and defamatory propaganda like the completely baseless notion that gay men molest children at rates far higher than their heterosexual counterparts, LGBT people end up, much more frequently than most people realize, at the wrong end of a baseball bat.
For the last three weeks, the SPLC has been under attack by a number of groups that fit into that last category. After an apparently politically motivated man wounded a guard at the Family Resource Council (FRC) in Washington, these groups launched a coordinated assault on the SPLC, accusing it of responsibility in the attack because it had earlier named the FRC a "hate group."
At a well-attended press conference the day after the Aug. 15 shooting, FRC President Tony Perkins said that the alleged attacker, Floyd Corkins, "was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center." He added, "I believe the Southern Poverty Law should be held accountable for their reckless use of terminology."
A day later, Islam-basher and Obama-hater Jerry Boykin, Perkin's recently hired deputy at FRC, took his boss' rhetoric a few steps further. The SPLC, Boykin said, is an "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, Marxist organization" staffed by "an evil group of people" who are "dangerous."
The idea seemed to be that the SPLC was hypocritical -- that after years of suggesting that organizations that demonize minority groups are ultimately contributing to violence against those groups, the SPLC had been caught doing exactly what it criticized in others. We had "recklessly" labeled the FRC as a hate group merely, as Perkins told Fox News, "because we defend the family and stand for traditional, orthodox Christianity."
Did Perkins have a point? Was the SPLC's criticism morally or functionally equivalent to the conduct we criticized, admittedly in harsh terms, coming from the FRC and like groups?
I think not. The SPLC's listing of the FRC and several of its allies as hate groups was not based on its opposition to same-sex marriage or its belief that the Bible describes homosexual sex as a sin, as Perkins claims. As we said clearly when we began listing them in 2010, and have repeated on countless occasions since, we were calling out these groups "based on their propagation of known falsehoods -- claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities -- and repeated, groundless name-calling."
What kinds of falsehoods? Demonizing lies like the claim that gay men routinely molest children -- that pedophilia, as Perkins once said, "is a homosexual problem." And lest the FRC claim otherwise, this is no one-time claim; the group has made this assertion repeatedly, in slightly different forms, for years. It once even claimed that gay activists seek "to normalize sex with children" and "to eventually recognize pedophiles as the 'prophets' of a new sexual order."
The oft-repeated pedophilia charge is utterly bogus. "Despite a common myth, homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are," says the American Psychological Association, one of many scientific groups to point this out. Elsewhere, the APA adds, "There is no scientific support for fears about children of lesbian or gay parents being sexually abused by their parents or their parents' gay, lesbian or bisexual friends or acquaintances."
And what kinds of name-calling? The FRC regularly portrays LGBT people as sick, evil, perverted, and a danger to the nation. It talks about their "dark, perverse" ways and their "sordid sex lives." It attacks their "transient, promiscuous and unfaithful relationships," and insists that gay people are "fundamentally incapable" of providing good homes for children -- a claim flatly contradicted by virtually all relevant scientific authorities. Gay rights activists, Perkins said in 2011, are "intolerant," "hateful" and "vile," and are pursuing an "agenda" that "will destroy them and our nation." An FRC official has said he wanted to "export homosexuals from the United States." That same official, speaking on national television in 2010, advocated the criminalizing of gay sex.
Do these kinds of words have consequences?
The SPLC recently analyzed 14 years of national hate crime data. We found that gay people were twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as black or Jewish people; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and even more likely than that compared to Latinos or whites. While it's impossible to prove that the violence is related to any particular verbal attack, it seems obvious that public demonization of a discrete minority does help to legitimize the attacks.
Words do have consequences. But is the FRC's propaganda and schoolyard name-calling really the same thing as the SPLC listing the FRC as a hate group? Is suggesting that gay men are child molesters -- one of the worst things you can say about a human being today -- really the same as making a fact-based criticism of a particular group?
The answer seems obvious. Pointing out the lies and slander of the FRC and some of its friends in the interest of attempting to bring some measure of civility to our political dialogue is not remotely the same as promulgating those lies. The idea that the activities of the FRC are equivalent to those of the SPLC is simply more propaganda from an organization that specializes in propaganda.