Archived Story

Human Rights and Defamation

Published 9:05am Thursday, September 17, 2009

Today’s political arguments and debates about our President’s character and birthright, his address to our students, the health care legislation bill, and the accusations of some about “socialism” and others about the evilness of our insurance companies has spread a cloud of righteous anger over our country and across our city. People are attacking each other nationally and locally.

According to our City Council: “The function of the Human Rights Commission is to . . .insure fair treatment of residents.”

In the same vein, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: No one shall be subjected to . . . unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. “

Today, we are witnessing the defamatory actions of many of our neighbors and citizens. “Defamation” is the general term used internationally to describe acts of slander and libel. Whether the vilification of an individual, a business, a group, a government or nation is true or false, it is considered a harmful statement about an individual or group.

When the slander or vilification is limited in degree it does not necessarily become a force that affects the whole society. However, when it is orchestrated to such a degree that it defies and substitutes for rational, logical, and compassionate argument, it can become a precursor for violence against individuals and for the destruction of the community.

This type of behavior promotes prejudiced attitudes, which include accepting stereotypes and belittling jokes, and scapegoating people because of their group identity.

This behavior easily transforms into acts of prejudice: This includes name-calling, ridicule, social avoidance, telling belittling jokes, and social exclusion, among other acts of hostility.

Watching both the Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress, one can only fear for the ability of our nation to settle its arguments in a rational, logical, and constructive way.

But, for the citizens of Fergus Falls, the dissension has become personally caustic. Reading the comments in the newspaper, listening to conversations of friends and strangers, and trying to pierce the silence of people afraid to talk has created an emotional pall. Some just pray that the local attacks will pass away, others talk of buying weapons and storing up ammunition, and many just try to blank out the existence of the culture of slander and libel

This is unhealthy for everyone. And it is unfair to our friends, our families, our children, and ourselves.

I would like to provide ways to deal with this response to anger and fear in a positive way.

Be aware of the damage to the community of “fictive narrative.” Vilification often deals with the creation of how the “other” thinks, or how the “other” will act. You are all aware of the commentators or writers who say: “Oh, the insurance companies will do this,” or “Oh, Obama believes that he can do that.” Ignore these false and libelous attacks that claim to know how someone else is thinking. This also pertains to taking a text or speech out of context.

Do not take as real or factual any analogy. For instance, the claim that someone is like a socialist, or like a racist is usually false. The reason is that an analogy is a form of speech. It is a metaphor. What is important is not that two things are similar. It takes two things that are opposite or contrary and creates a new idea by bring them together. For instance, the saying that “a person is like a lion, or screams like a lion” does not mean that he or she is a lion. It is linking the two characteristics of the person’s being or voice to create an idea of the person.

One of the most unhelpful expressions is that “everything has two sides.” Or even worse, is that one should take the middle path. The problem with these “truisms” is that who decides where the middle is, or where the two sides begin. Are the two sides two feet of logic apart? Or six feet? It is one thing to say that we can only deal with extremes such as– war on one side, and peace on the other. Or racism on one side, and pure thoughts on another side. Health care or the total destruction of health care. The more difficult and productive question is: what are the close or compromising alternatives?

Be suspicious of historical examples. Remember that history has no lessons. It is the speaker or the writer who declares the “lessons.” And if he or she is not trained in the historical method, then all these persons are doing are cherry picking their events for their own predetermined conclusions and arguments.

Finally, do not pay attention to anyone who blogs, comments, or communicates and signs with an anonymous name. Some people are freed from any normal restraints when they write anonymously. And some just want to provoke the reader. In one local case, there was a person who wrote with two different names and attacked each other!

We must not act upon the fears of the loudest, the illogical, and the people who produce fear, hate, and suspicion in our community. The culture of vilification often leads to violence in terms of threats, assault, and desecration of our most sacred ideas, values and property.

As a citizen, I join with the Commission on Human Rights in insuring the fair treatment of residents by pointing out the harmful and injurious behavior of others, and working to provide an atmosphere of civil and healthy behavior for all.

Richard C. Kagan

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