Recently, a speaker was invited to CU-Boulder who is known to be a right-wing provocateur. In past appearances, he has engaged in behavior and rhetoric that have been described as homophobic, racist, and generally hostile toward marginalized communities. People in the community asked members of KGNU’s OutSources Collective to comment on his appearance and its possible impact — for the LGBTQ community specifically, and also more broadly. This piece is a response to that request. During our discussions, we decided that it was important enough that we wanted to distribute it more broadly, so we submitted it as a Guest Opinion to the Daily Camera. This document is the published version.
Glenda Russell and Janis Bohan: Productive dialogue unlikely when provocation is the aim
– published Jan 24th, 2017 in The Daily Camera
We write as members of KGNU’s OutSources Collective. Our group has been asked to respond to questions about appropriate measures people might take in the face of public speakers who engage in rhetoric that is dehumanizing to any group of people, especially to groups that already face social marginalization of various kinds. As a collective, we have discussed the complexities of such questions, and we offer the following considerations in the hope of contributing to productive dialog.
The OutSources collective values free speech and the opportunity to hear a range of perspectives on issues of importance in our world. Particularly in this strained, post-election environment, where divisions based on identity and ideology are so stark, it is important that we listen to one another, even when our views differ. At the same time, it is also important that we take care of ourselves and one another, and that we not give undue power to views or individuals that threaten our well-being, whether those threats are physical or psychological. On another level, we also recognize that productive dialogue is most likely to occur between and among speakers who are interested in listening and not primarily engaged in provocative rhetoric.
With these multiple issues in mind, we believe it is important to recognize that, while dialog is important in addressing our differences, productive dialog is unlikely when someone holds extreme ideological positions and relies on provocation as a lifestyle or career. We know from a great deal of psychological research that exposure to dehumanizing rhetoric has significant negative effects on members of marginalized communities who are the targets of such speech, and sometimes on individuals who are not members of the targeted group. Further, dehumanizing rhetoric impacts not only individuals but the community at large because it communicates permission to engage in mean-spirited language that can easily move from one person or group to the next person or group. Particularly now, when many groups have already heard a steady stream of biased, even hostile rhetoric over many months, additional exposure to that sort of language may prove painful and potentially damaging.
In addition, research also suggests — and experiences with the recent presidential campaign and its aftermath bear this out — that hateful rhetoric can provoke others to enact harassing and hateful acts against members of marginalized groups who are the focus of that rhetoric. We emphasize our concern about the impact of such rhetoric on members of various communities who have already been repeatedly exposed to dehumanizing rhetoric and who have reason to fear the potential for hostile acts that could result from provocative rhetoric, whether intended or not by speakers.
Thus, while we encourage the exercise of anyone’s First Amendment rights, members of marginalized groups should consider carefully whether they are ready to expose themselves to rhetoric that is geared toward provocation and headlines as opposed to mutual understanding. For those members of marginalized groups who choose to hear speakers who participate in such rhetoric, we encourage you to consider carefully what you need to do to protect yourself from the potential negative impacts, and to make plans for how you will process your reactions after the fact. We also encourage members of marginalized groups to practice hate-crime awareness strategies at all times and especially when dehumanizing rhetoric is prominent in the community. Remember, you are not required to grant psychological space in your life to anyone who would do you physical, emotional, or social harm. We further encourage all speakers to consider the fact that their rhetoric can have impacts far beyond their actual words or their stated intent.
Glenda Russell and Janis Bohan are members of KGNU’s OutSources Collective in Boulder and write on its behalf.