First, the bad news: According to alJazeera, a record 18,000 people turned out for an anti-immigrant rally in the German city of Dresden organized by a right-wing populist movement called the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”, or PEGIDA.
Now, the good news: Alarmed at this expression of xenophobia, an estimated 30,000 people turned out to rally against the group.
More bad news: A mosque in the city of Cold Lake, in Alberta, Canada, was vandalized. Windows were broken and racist messages were scrawled on the walls, including the words “Go home” written multiple times across the outside of the building in red spray paint.
The good news: Volunteers from the community turned out to help clean up the mess and speak out in support of their Islamic neighbors. In response to the hateful message, “Go Home”, folks put up a sign that said, “You ARE home!”
The bad news: The death of Michael Brown, followed by Eric Garner, unarmed black men killed by police without any legal penalty against the officers responsible.
And the protests continue. Ordinary people outraged by injustice.
The point here is that yes, bad things do happen. Gay teenagers still get bullied and beaten up. The homes of Jewish families still get spray-painted with hateful slogans. Racism exists, intolerance exists, brutality happens. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that people don’t just turn away. They respond. They unite. They speak out and declare that this is not acceptable.
Once, a black man could be publicly lynched and nothing would be done. Not anymore.
Once, whole families could be marched off in the middle of the night and no one would speak up. Not anymore.
Once, a gay kid could be punched senseless in the schoolyard and people would shrug that he asked for it. Not anymore.
Certainly bigots and racists do still get away with acts of violence, but it is getting harder for them to do so. Brutal and arrogant members of the police force still routinely get away with bullying and terrorizing, confident of being protected by their brethren, shielded by authority. But more and more often they are getting called out. The tide is turning. The moral arc of the universe is bending towards justice.
It puts us in a bit of a tough position, those of us who believe in tolerance. As Tom Lehrer famously said, “I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings — and I hate people like that!” How do we balance freedom of thought, expression, belief and information with the fact that we aren’t going to like what some people have to say?
Another famous quote answers this: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (From Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography of Voltaire). In an open and free society, PEGIDA has every right to take to the streets with a message of xenophobia. And we have every right to turn out en masse and outnumber them. But not to shout them down. Let them speak. The fact that they are vastly outnumbered speaks even louder.
Prosecute those who commit vandalism. Defend individuals being harassed and bullied, and report the offenders. Speak up at a party when someone tells a racist or misogynist joke. And if they make some snide comment about “political correctness run amuck” just smile and say they are entitled to their opinion — and you are entitled to disagree with it.
And for pity’s sake, if you are a policeman or have any connection with the police force, have the courage to break the code protecting those who shame the force with their brutality, and their indifference to civil rights and common decency. “Racist police” refers to police who are racist, not to the force as a whole. But the entire force takes on the stink of those who commit acts of injustice with impunity.
One final, but important, distinction: Condemn the acts, disagree with the ideas, but remember, people are only human. You cannot know what fears, inner pain or bad lessons learned compel a person to lash out in anger. If we are to be true to the compassion we profess, we must extend it even to those who commit evil acts. You can try to change their minds, and best of luck. But each of us cannot help but believe what seems obvious to us. If we feel threatened by another ethnic group, if we have been taught to fear the Other, we cannot help but act on our fears. Remember this when you look into the eyes of a bigot, and feel pity.
Then condemn not him, but his bigotry. Peacefully. Firmly. And loudly.