When we choose silence in the face of bigotry, we threaten the lifeblood of our Union.
We've all experienced more than a few bigots in our lives. The chauvinist who says women belong in the kitchen, the racist who believes African Americans belong in the cotton fields, the religious zealot who thinks Muslims belong on spits in the fires of Hell and the seemingly mundane guy in the office who tells "off color" jokes. Sometimes their commentary steamrolls our sensibilities, and other times their words are unremarkable in their subtlety. (Small bigotries, I suggest, are much more sinister because of their camouflage). Some individuals try to lace their prejudice with humor, acting as if demeaning others as part of comedy makes it harmless fun. Others claim innocence by way of misinterpretation (they didn't mean faggot "that way"). There are also those who use God/Jesus/Allah or variations thereof to couch their ungodly assertions. These haters, without argument, are the most dangerous of the lot.
Finally, there are the bigots we know familiarly, who we accept as if somehow their words were out of their (and our) control. "That's just Uncle Fred", we say to rationalize his behavior and our inactivity, "and you know how he is. He's harmless. No one really listens to him." But down deep we know that's not the truth. We do hear Uncle Fred, even if we do our best to ignore him. Are children present? Young ones, the sponges of our society, hear Fred loud and clear and may not yet have the maturity necessary to form a force field of protection from his vitriol. Fred hears himself as well, and we help cloud his own sense of what is acceptable in our society through our tacit approval.
Often we have ignored the Freds of our world, letting their comments roll off of our backs without fully acknowledging the part we've played in their inhumane growth. By saying nothing, we become accessories to their crimes against our humanity.
It's easy to convince ourselves that the small bigoted instances we witness aren't all that important. We know the difference between right and wrong and teach our children to respect one another. We don't hate other groups that don't worship in the same church that we do or love the same way we do or support our politicians. We are, after all, morally and ethically led people. But alas, we are wrong. We need to be men and women of action, not acceptance, if we want our country to truly form a more perfect union.
Recently, a Baptist minister in North Carolina said from the pulpit that gays and lesbians should be herded up and caged behind an electric fence. After that, if he had his druthers, the corralled gays and lesbians would be starved to death.
Chances are, this "man of God" didn't have some grand revelation of hate as he stood in front of his congregation. Most likely he's voiced similar infected opinions most if not all of his adult life. He may have started with small, subtle judgments as a child. Maybe he learned to discriminate from his family as a boy, discovering a ripe environment to let his condemnations grow. Maybe he called someone who didn't believe as he did a heathen or unclean in the eyes of God without reproach, and simply worked his way up to the proposition of murder.
If you watched the video of the North Carolina "minister" on any number of Internet sites including the Huffington Post, you can hear members of the congregation agree that the murder of God's gay children sounds like a fine idea. What you don't hear is even one person from the crowd lodging an objection. No one saying that this time the man making bigoted comments, hiding under the titanium cloak of religion, had gone too far. No one shouted that Jesus was 100% pro-peace and against the judgment of others. Instead, the minister found fertile ground among his followers and continued.
Considering this glaring example of full-blown hate, I wondered how many good, decent people heard the offender during the course of his life and said nothing. How many of us decided the this person's offenses were not our problem. We might think such acerbic sludge doesn't affect our lives, or that what was said most recently was simply the radical views of a nut job. But a spark can burn down a forest if ignored. Bullies on the playground don't wake up and, magically one morning, see the errors of their ways and repent. Without familial or societal intervention, they grow up and seek out bigger and better innocent targets.
I can't personally stop the pulpit master in North Carolina from exercising his freedom of speech, no matter how much that freedom impinges on my beliefs. I can, however, have a no tolerance policy for even the smallest amount of bigotry said in my presence.
It takes a village to raise a bigot. And it takes a society to drown one out.
Sarah O'Leary is a writer, public speaker, spiritualist and licensed minister. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.