I saw something on my news feed last week (Twitter feed to be exact) that I didn’t know still existed. On Sunday, July 9th, The Klu Klux Klan held a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now I know that the KKK still exists, I just can’t believe that in 2017 they’re still organizing rallies and participating in political activity. How are there still members of the KKK? Never-the-less, the Klan is just one of many different voices that were struggling to be heard in Charlottesville last week in the debate about what to do with General Lee, and his statue.
The statue is being removed from a city owned park in an effort to “tell the truth about race in our history, and systemic racism,” according to Charlottesville mayor Mike Signer. This story highlights the challenge of being honest in your efforts at racial reconciliation. Step one in any reconciliation process is truth telling, but who’s truth do you tell? And how do you tell it? Robert E Lee’s statue standing in a public park might privilege one story: the story of the Confederate South told by whites. But the heritage of the Confederate South is complicated. Mixed in with all the good things about the South are some pretty horrible things too: the oppression of an entire race, the subjugation of human beings, and systemic injustice against people of colour just to name a few.
So how do you tell the truth about the past—the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Every truth telling moment is by itself insufficient. How many statues do you need to tell the whole truth? In the case of the American South, there is clearly more than one story to tell but how do you leave space for other voices? How do you cultivate room for healthy conversation with two sides that are so far apart?
Last week’s KKK rally itself didn’t amount to much, only about fifty people, but the story is newsworthy because they were met by more than a thousand counter protestors who were protesting the protest! The two sides traded insults and slurs across police barricades for a couple hours but when it was time for the KKK group to leave the other group wouldn’t budge. The police had to use force to push back the counter protestors after which things escalated and they needed to use tear gas to disperse the crowd. All in all, it was not Charlottesville’s finest hour.
In the aftermath of the protest, the people of Charlottesville were disgusted to see hooded members of the KKK carefully guarded by the police while other members of the public where pushed and shoved and tear gassed. Residents said that it looked like the police were privileging the KKK, at the expense of the general public. The police on the other hand said that they were protecting both groups right to a “limited public forum,” part of the US Constitution’s First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech (we have something similar in Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms)
Everyone has the right to association (being part of any club you want) and the right to assemble and express yourself within reasonable limits. So why were the two groups treated differently? The police said that the KKK members dispersed when asked while the other group did not. This brings a number of difficult question to the surface: how do you discern between hate speech and free speech? When is a statue about heritage and when is it about hate … and what do you do if it is both? Unfortunately, angry mobs are not known for their capacity for carefully reflected reason, but perhaps we can consider the issue in another context.
Just a few days later another protest group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was calling for the removal of another statue. On Saturday July 15th, a group of protestors surrounded the statue of Edward Cornwallis, former governor of Nova Scotia and founder of the city of Halifax. Cornwallis is infamously known for his “Scalping Proclamation” where he offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person (member of an indigenous tribe in Canada). The protest group surrounded the statue calling for its removal.
Someone in the mayor’s office came up with an ingenious, though admittedly not permanent solution. Once the protest had begun, before things could get out of hand, a municipal worker arrived and shrouded the statue in black cloth. The crowd cheered the move and continued their protest until it peacefully disbanded. In this case both sides felt heard. Protestors felt that their outrage was registered and a healthy conversation in Halifax has continued. Do we really want a statue of Edward Cornwallis in a downtown square outside the provincial parliament building? Is there something that we can do to truthfully respond to this shameful part of our collective past? Maybe they do need to take the statue down. Maybe they should put another statue up. The point is that there is still a chance to talk about it. Shrouding the statue left room for expression on both sides without the other side being shut down.
Free speech obviously has limits, since my freedom ends where yours begins. Free speech is, however, a vital part of any democratic republic (or constitutional monarchy 🙂 ) but free speech is only free if everyone is free to speak. If I approve of free speech, I must also approve of it when others are saying things I don’t agree with. Evelyn Beatrice Hall said it best when she wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The radical openness of Jesus is a helpful guide when considering free speech. Jesus lived out the self sacrificing, all embracing love of God for everyone to see and if you are follower of Jesus you are called to embody that love too. Jesus taught that God’s love is perfect (or complete) because God “causes his son to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). Greg Boyd writes that “this love is “perfect” precisely because it is indiscriminate–like the sun shining and the rain falling. God’s love is so big, so expansive that it even makes room for those who disagree.
Followers of Jesus reflect the character and nature of God in the way they make room for opinions they don’t agree with, not in the way they shut down dissenting viewpoints. You might lose the argument but you will reflect the love of God if you invite the person you disagree with to say more about what they believe and how they came to that opinion. For a mind blowing example of this click here to see the story of Darryl Davis, a black man who selflessly seeks to establish relationships with Klan members. His story is also the subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy. (DVD extras here)
No matter how you feel about them, the KKK have the right to protest the removal of a statue from a public park. They have the right to gather and associate no matter how repugnant their primary purpose might be. If free speech is only free for me and those who agree with me, it isn’t free speech.