Words and images will for the following weeks acquire greater importance as we officially enter into an electoral campaign where the battle of the billboards, of slogans and perceptions will reign high for eight weeks non-stop. Politicians and parties will be constantly attentive to speak the right words and showing the best images in order to convince and persuade.
Speech is not just important for politicians but for all of us. I was struck by a website www.nohomophobes.com which counts tweets containing words like “faggot”, “dyke”, “so gay”. According to this site “Homophobic language isn’t always meant to be hurtful, but how often do we use it without thinking?” I think that most of the time although we don’t intend to harm others we use language which hurts the feelings of others.
Although such language is used casually and not necessarily intended to harm, one needs to be more sensible in the way one speaks. Many a times the Church, not just in Malta, is considered to be homophobic. The Church must everyday be more attentive and sensitive in the words used and the messages it sends (not just as regards LGBT people); this must be a collective effort which the whole of society must do.
When seeing the result of nohomophobes.com and when noticing local language and attitudes there still is ample room for improvement and freedom of expression is never an excuse. In a democratic society where freedom of speech and expression is necessary and essential, we must be able to distinguish the fine line that separates homophobic hate speech from freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is limited by the boundaries of respect – the respect for others as human beings. We cannot understand human rights without first and foremost understanding the human being. This is the primary element which these rights seek to protect. Without the human in the equation there are no rights.
Hate is a sentiment which appears to stem from within human beings yet this has nothing to do with what humans are essentially; the human being is not hateful by nature. Thus one cannot in any way put on the same level freedom of speech and incitement to hatred; these two are distinct yet the boundaries between them are sometimes difficult to trace.
Incitement doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s words are intended to cause violence in any form being physical, moral or psychological. A lesser level of hate speech which may be easily confused with freedom of speech is when one’s language disrespects other human beings, whether because of their colour, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation. This might not be done purposely to harm, but not being cautious or even simply trying to be cool in one’s language may result in such harm. Homophobia, I believe, is not simply a question of hating LGBT people; it is first and foremost a lack of respect to the human nature we all share.
When speaking disrespectfully of others we are slowly and maybe unconsciously sowing seeds of what becomes hatred and, even worse, indifference. We must be very careful not to be doing this inadvertently.
The basis for dialogue is respect and such must come from all sides participating in the dialogue; it’s useless to throw strong and useless words at one an other casually or unconsciously, sometimes in an attempt to defend one’s position or idea. Should one, therefore, be afraid to speak out one’s opinions? As long as such opinions are respectful of others, the answer to that is surely no. Otherwise it is better to shut up.