Of all the many (in large part intelligent) comments on my last post, the ones that struck me the most were those arguing that I neglected the idea of context in hateful speech: the power relationship between the parties, and the situation in which the words themselves are spoken. I said that the more specific an allegation, the worse it is--so saying that Jews started all the world wars is worse than calling someone a "kike." But, as some commenters pointed out, that neglects the emotional context of the speech: if the former statement is made dispassionately and the latter statement is made with venom or from a position of authority, then it's not so clear which is worse.
I know why I originally made that argument. I was trying to distinguish painfulness from harmfulness. But is there really a difference?
I wish, in retrospect, I had remembered the experience of my mother, when my parents were newly married and living in the England of the 1960's--not exactly the easiest of places for an inter-racial couple. My mother wrote a book some years ago called Brown Face, Big Master, which is a moving (okay, I'm her son) account of her attempt to come to terms with her God (Big Master) and her color (Brown Face).
Here is the relevant passage. It comes at the end of the book. My parents are living outside Southampton, settled--finally--after a tumultuous first few years of marriage. It hard to read this, I think, and not acknowledge the kind of strength and effort necessary to overcome the terrible power of name-calling.
Three months later, on a Sunday afternoon, I stood at my front door waving to Graham and the older children as they set off for a walk. I was staying behind with the baby to rest. At that moment a boy went by on a bicycle and shouted at me, "Nigger!" Quickly I glanced at Graham and the children, hoping they had not heard him, and then I turned indoors, my heart and mind in turmoil. A poisoned arrow had found its mark, a ghost from the past had visited me, and I was unprepared and vulnerable. The picture I had built up of an accepting community vanished. Once again I lived in an insecure world where thorns were waiting to wound in unexpected places. Where was the mastery of myself I thought I had gained--the freedom from concern about color and race? I was hurt and I was angry and I had to find expression for my raging feelings. Aggressively, I came to God with more boldness than I had ever done before.
I would teach that boy! I would show him that I was not to be belittled!
"Lord, let me reprove him!" Silence.
"Lord, let me speak to him firmly and kindly and show him that I am above being made angry by his taunt."
"Lord, let me teach him that he is mistaken in his attitude to colored people."
God remained silent at each suggestion. He had no more to say to me about race and color. He had said enough.
My own heart said, "In all these things you only seek revenge."
Then unaccountably I was at peace. I got up from my knees but continued listening. I used to think that when I was distressed, this was God's punishment or condemnation. I did not think so now, but I still asked the question. "Lord what are you saying in this?" and the rejoinder came. "Will you trust Me more, walk with Me step by step?"