A Controversial Caveat

In this post I offered the Anti-Defamation League‘s web page in definition of the KKK – which I view as a terrorist organization, based on the fact that they have a history of using terrorist tactics.

But I feel obliged to point out that I do not agree that everyone listed by the ADL (or by the Southern Poverty Law Center) as a hate group is necessarily terrorist or equal to the KKK.

“Hate” – unlike “terrorist” – is not easy to define. There is no such thing as a “hate tactic”; there are only motivations, and there is no reliable way to prove another man’s motives. The closest we can get is the court of law – but even that is fallible.

When the ADL, and the SPLC stopped focusing on criminal behavior – and likewise Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International stopped focusing on undisputed human rights violations in favor of describing “bad thoughts” or “wrong opinions” as a form of human rights violation – these groups gained the short-term consequence they wanted; they managed to get certain viewpoints de-legitimized, listing anyone who has those viewpoints as being a hate crime perpetrator or a human rights violator.

This is actually a fallacy known as “begging the question” (or circular reasoning); by detaching the word “hate” from criminal behaviors or terrorist tactics, and simply ascribing the hate to them because of their (unproven, unprovable) motives, their “obviously hateful” beliefs, or some other argument that boils down to a personal definition, the argument really is saying, “they’re hateful because we say they’re hateful”.

This is a problem because now they’re the ones violating human rights, being bigoted. We are tempted to overlook this because their targets are unpopular and are out of sync with current popular opinion.

I agree that Westboro Baptist Church is hateful. And I’d argue further that they sound thoroughly unpleasant as well as being wrong. I think they’re all mentally damaged. But that doesn’t mean they are categorically similar to terrorists. They do not engage in unlawful behavior – and that is a crucial point. One could argue that their behavior ought to be unlawful – I wouldn’t mind seeing that, but that is a separate argument. The reason that words such as “hate group” or “terrorist group” carry the weight they do is because these are groups that violate the law, terrorizing and perpetrating crimes against the objects of their hate. Westboro Baptist engages in objectionable behavior, but that behavior has been deemed lawful, and therefore cannot be viewed as a “terror tactic”. So pretending they are in the same sort of category as the KKK is a lie.

And it does matter. This does have consequences. The ends don’t really justify the means. Their harmless little boundary violation does not want to stay little. The line keeps wanting to creep. If you get to use your authority to say that bigots are like terrorists, then it’s awfully tempting to use that same authority to say that people you don’t agree with are like bigots. Once you’ve replaced behaviors (which are fact, and are demonstrable) with motives, you will suddenly start seeing evil motives in everyone who threatens you – whether the threat originates with them or inside yourself.

And this isn’t harmless, either. They are spending the accumulated authority and legitimacy of the people they are claiming to represent. They are enriching themselves (at least their political power and authority, if not their pockets) at the expense of the people they speak on behalf of. By spending the “cultural capital” of the civil rights movement, they create a situation where the words no longer have the power and the impact they once had, and thus they are endangering everyone who might someday need those words in their original context:

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, “Wolf! Wolf!” and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains.

The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: “Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep”; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.

There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.

It is like coin-clipping, only with words instead of coins. A word like “bigotry” or “racist” or “hate” might be powerful, because it conjures up images of someone throwing a brick through your window, or lighting a cross in your front yard. So you use it metaphorically – only you don’t label it as a metaphor; you pretend the two uses of the word are literally identical, creating a semantic fallacy.

But then the word is “clipped”; you have devalued your word.

At the same time, the very fact that this devaluation has occurred violates the integrity of the concept that “words have meaning” – it becomes more socially acceptable to devalue words, and especially to devalue this word. Precedents do affect behavior.

(This post was edited 06/16/2013 to correct an error in the posting schedule instructions.)

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