How do we respond when hateful language is on the rise?
Last month, the La Crosse area came within a few hours of hosting one stop of a scheduled five-city anti-Muslim hate tour. This is not an isolated incident.
My perspective is deeply personal. In 1933, my Jewish mother and her family, their lives in danger, fled from Nazi Germany. My Jewish father and his family came to America carrying the life-long trauma of living five years under Hitler, then fleeing for their lives. My heritage makes it my duty to speak out when hatred is festering.
Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning warns us: America today is not Germany of the 1930s, but there are many similarities and parallels.
Words can be used as weapons. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Professor Gregory Wegner highlights the Nazis’ use of “language of mindless fanaticism [that would] … disallow any possibility of critical thought.” When those in power demonstrate mindless fanaticism, we are all in danger.
In August 2016, Michael Flynn, then a key adviser to the Trump campaign, gave a lengthy speech in Stoughton, Massachusetts. It was a hate-filled diatribe, denouncing “Islamism” as a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” needing to be “excised.” Less than six months later, President Trump put Flynn in the West Wing of the White House as his national security adviser.
Hateful speech is not, in itself, violence, but it does stoke the violence-prone. We all recall how and why Heather Heyer was crushed to death in Charlottesville.
Hate in the form of white nationalism is on the rise nationally. Our Muslim, Mexican-American, and African-American communities are under vicious verbal attack, with national policies being enacted stemming from this hatred.
Racial hatred and dehumanization have an ugly history in America. When those in power act on their racism and hatred, horrific results follow. America has written and enforced laws locking in slavery, racial segregation, and removal/cultural elimination programs directed at Native Americans. Our Dreamers now live in fear of deportation.
Three months ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center, founded in 1971 to fight racial hate nationally, published its 2017 annual report online. It begins by denouncing the encouragement given to white supremacists by the president: “Trump thrilled and comforted them with his apparent kinship and pugilistic style, his refusal to condemn hate crimes committed in his name, and his outrageous statements equating neo-Nazis and anti-racist activists after the deadly violence in Charlottesville.”
The basis of us-versus-them thinking may be innate. In our first year of life, it’s normal to display stranger anxiety. Our infant brain alarm system fires up reflexively: different equals dangerous. Seeing a face that’s not a known caregiver, we cry out in distress, or withdraw, looking for safety.
This primitive reflex is kindling; the danger of violent wildfire is always present. Society must educate us all against fanning the flames. We have to consciously work at understanding that people who look different may actually be a lot like us, and those whose culture is different very likely have something of value to teach us.
Two worthy local examples deserve strong praise. The La Crosse School District provides its teachers with equity-focused staff development, challenging educators to appropriately value, not underestimate, minority students.
And our community owes deep appreciation to Holocaust educator Darryle Clott. She has spent two decades raising the vital voices of Holocaust survivors, at Viterbo University’s community lecture series, and other forums. These survivors bring living testimony to the atrocities we can commit when we fail to challenge hatred.
January a year ago, I decided to join the just-forming La Crosse Chapter of SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice. It’s part of a national organization that stands ready to act long-term against ongoing “systemic” racism, as well as responding to hate speech and hate incidents.
With less than 24 hours’ notice ahead of the Onalaska-scheduled anti-Muslim hate rally, SURJ and its community partner La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder-to-Shoulder Network went into high gear, speaking to the media, and organizing a rally demonstrating that a hate group does not speak for the La Crosse community.
When hate messages are increasing, we have a choice to make: we can be bystanders, or we can raise our voices. If too many of us choose to be bystanders, the flames of hatred burn out of control. Let’s choose instead to raise our voices.