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Homophobia as extremism: the cost to freedom of choice

By Amos N. Guiora

As has been repeatedly and thoroughly documented, Russian President Vladimir Putin is, for lack of a better word, a homophobe. Putin’s incessant drum-beating targeting homosexuals and lesbians led President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and President Hollande to publicly announce that they will not attend next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Boycotts are tricky, raising legitimate concern regarding effectiveness and consequences. The Carter Administration’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan failed to gather widespread international support, and the Soviet led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games seemingly served to only punish spectators and Eastern bloc athletes who had trained for years.

However, the Sochi Games address a profoundly distinct paradigm: the decision by Obama, Merkel, and Hollande is directly related to Putin’s disturbingly homophobic statements, policies, and actions. Putin’s words have the potential to cause harm. That is very different from the motivations of previous boycotts.

President Vladimir Putin, Red Square, Moscow, 2005. Photo by ITAR-TASS (Kremlin.ru). CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The decision to send two openly gay American athletes, retired tennis star, Billie Jean King, and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, as members of the US delegation is an important message to Putin, the LBGT community, and the world regarding the essentiality of tolerance. However, it still begs the larger and more important issue.

Legislative and judicial decisions in the United States regarding same sex marriage, the banning of gay marriage in Nigeria, and the outlawing of homosexuality in many countries suggest fear of the “other” is pervasive. Differences in values, principles and lifestyles are the essence of vibrant and robust societies; the responsibility of leadership is to ensure the safety and security of those who, seemingly, are outside what may be perceived as the traditional mainstream of society. However, the true test of leaders, opinion-makers, and the public is the degree to which alternative lifestyles will be at least accepted, if not embraced.

President Putin’s aggressive and offensive comments regarding homosexuals manifest intolerance of the “other” with the obvious potential to endanger those whose lifestyle he finds objectionable. Differences of opinion are legitimate; stigmatizing and castigating with the intent to delegitimize the “other” is playing with fire.

In many ways, the question revolves around the freedom of speech, for there is extraordinary tension between words spoken and their consequences, intended or unintended. Much of the discussion regarding free speech/hate speech and what limits, if any, should be placed depend on the relationship between the speaker and the audience. In analyzing the harm in hate speech Professor Jeremy Waldron makes the following cogent observation:

Hate speech undermines this public good, or it makes the task of sustaining it much more difficult than it would otherwise be. It does this not only by intimating discrimination and violence, but by reawakening living nightmares of what this society was like—or what other societies have been like—-in the past. In doing so, it creates something like an environmental threat to social peace, a sort of slow-acting poison, accumulating here and there, word by word, so that eventually it becomes harder and less natural for even the good-hearted members of society to play their part in maintaining this public good.

In advocating for restrictions on hate speech Waldron writes:

I want to develop an affirmative characterization of hate speech laws that shows them in a favorable light—a characterization that makes good and interesting sense of the evils that might be averted by such laws and the values and principles that might plausibly motivate them. (The Harm in Hate Speech, Jeremy Waldron, Harvard University Press, 2012)

Waldron is right to highlight both the need to engage in conversation regarding limiting speech and its inherent difficulty and controversy. However, given the power of speech the discussion is essential. The adage “words kill” is not an ephemeral concept devoid of content and history. Quite the opposite; examples of the harm caused by words are bountiful and tragic. The harm is not only to specific individuals targeted by extremists or individuals who belong to particular ethnic and religious communities but to larger society which tolerates hate speech in the name of free speech.

Is Putin an extremist? Perhaps. Do Putin’s words have the potential to cause great harm? Absolutely. Does the decision by Obama, Merkel, and Hollande send a sufficiently powerful message to Putin and others who lash out at homosexuals? Perhaps, perhaps not. Can Putin’s words be legislatively restricted or banned? Realistically, no. However, that limitation need not be applied to others who incite, explicitly and implicitly, against homosexuals. That, perhaps, more than anything else should be our “takeaway” from the hate-filled language that characterizes the Russian President.

These lines are written on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His words at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 serve as powerful reminder of both the danger of extremism and the power of the human spirit:

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice, I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement, which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice… I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

It is, then, to the “at risk” that we owe a duty and it is for their protection that we must seriously consider limiting the free speech of those directly responsible for the harm and danger in which they live. Western society’s obligation to protect the vulnerable is no less sacred than Western society’s obligation to ensure freedom of speech.

Amos Guiora is Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah, where he teaches Criminal Procedure, International Law, Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism, and Religion and Terrorism. He is the author of Tolerating Intolerance: The Price of Protecting Extremism, Legitimate Target: Criteria-Based Approach to Targeted Killing, Freedom from Religion: Rights and National Security, and Constitutional Limits on Coercive Interrogation.

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