The (Apparent) Power of the Word “Cowardice” (And Why I Write Critically)

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Yesterday, I used the word “cowardice” to describe my interpretation of Equality Pennsylvania’s decision to not counterprotest the National Organization for Marriage and to do discourage others from counterprotesting as well.

From my point of view, it was an accurate word to use. The definition is “lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc.” Here is an organization committed to being “the preeminent LGBT advocacy organization” in PA and to establishing “a comprehensive network of individuals and organizations united in securing equal rights for the LGBT community.” Yet they are backing away from an opportunity to be and do just that in a way which other state organizations have been quite successful with. (Including a picture of One Iowa’s rally was quite intentional on my part.) They also went the extra step of discouraging other interested individuals from counterprotesting. These are tactics that I not only disagree with, but which seem counter to the organization’s mission statement. Whether it was a concern for PR or otherwise, I see that choice as a lack of courage to stand up for stated goals, and so I used the word “cowardice” to accurately describe my disappointment.

Since that posting, I have been accused by various individuals that it amounted to “name-calling,” that it was “petty” and “hateful,” that “we shouldn’t be eating our own,” that I had no “principles,” that I am “counter-anything,” that I poked people in the eye, and of course, that I was “attacking” EQPA.

These are fair critiques. But what are they critiquing, exactly? It seems to me that they describe my tact (and my tact alone). They seem to reflect an impression that my tact was perhaps harsh, biting, unfair, out of line, disrespectful, taunting, weak, and/or unnecessary. They reflect a defensive point of view, certainly. What they do not speak to is the accuracy of my statement.

Why would I write challenging things about a local organization? I want what’s best for it. I want to hold it to a higher standard. I want it to represent me. I don’t want it to get away with speaking on behalf of the community. (I don’t want members of the community following its word like blind zombies out of some sense of loyalty or solidarity.) I want it to be accountable. I want it to have to explain itself. I want it to know that not every one of its actions pleases everybody. I want it to be able to take constructive criticism. I want it to be the best organization it can be.

I am not anti-EQPA. Far from it. If I didn’t stress it enough in yesterday’s post, I think the event they are planning this week is a good event. It’s education. It’s awareness raising. It’s coalition building. It’s a great event! I’ll be there. I’ll probably write about it (probably quite positively). And I will support EQPA in the future.

But while the movie/panel event uses NOM to raise awareness (and lest we forget, money), it does not actually respond to NOM. It does not respond to the message reinforcing discrimination. It does not provide the community with resolution or catharsis. It does not address the real need of members of the community to stand up for themselves and defend our integrity from NOM’s smears. And to not only ignore but discourage those needs out of concern for PR is, I think, a failing and represents a lack of courage and wherewithal to be the organization EQPA aspires to be in its mission statement.

But, if there’s a problem with my tact, I’m going to take that under serious advisement. I don’t want to be known as the schoolyard bully or some raving blogger who has it out for everybody. I want to be respected for my point of view and I want my critiques to be valued. If tact is going to be a measure of my contributions as much as content, then I have to earn that respect; I have to learn and grow to be that kind of blogger and activist.

And so, I apologize for using the word “cowardice” in association with Equality Pennsylvania. While I still contend that it was an accurate word, I did not intend for the hurt that it caused some individuals and do not wish to stand by that hurt. Intention only protects us so far; we are still accountable for perception. I hope that those who had concern about the tact of my piece can forgive me for where my tact was deficient and yet appreciate the concerns that I raise.

My concerns persist, but allow me to try to frame them more positively. EQPA has a new board, a new mission statement, and a new Executive Director, an individual that I proudly call a friend. It is, for all intents and purposes, a new organization. Here are some hopes that I have for it.

I hope that it puts the community first, even if there is the possibility of risk to its self interest. I hope it never discourages individuals from speaking out or engaging in activism. I hope it encourages individuals to get involved with activism not connected to EQPA. I hope that it never promotes its own message in such a way as to exclude other perspectives in the movement. I hope it does not ever try to speak on behalf of the community, and if it achieves the “preeminence” it seeks, I hope it does not ever try to act on behalf of the community. I hope that it supports and partners with other organizations and helps new ones get started. I hope that it maintains transparency and stays attentive to the grassroots instead of imposing top-down leadership. I hope money, lack of money, or opportunities to fundraise never dictate its actions. I hope that it raises great LGBT awareness across the commonwealth, particularly in rural parts of Pennsylvania. I hope it finds its own footing and doesn’t rely on other organizations for its outreach. I hope it brings new players to the table and provides extensive opportunities for individuals to get involved across the state. I hope it achieves equality in Pennsylvania and that even then it continues to do good work promoting and defending the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Pennsylvanians.

I have high hopes for Equality Pennsylvania. I’m challenging it this week because I have reason to be dismayed, but I challenge because I have hope.

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There are 6 Comments to "The (Apparent) Power of the Word “Cowardice” (And Why I Write Critically)"

  • Lurleen says:

    Zack, I’m confused about something. You say you want EQPA to represent you, yet you don’t want it speak on behalf of the community. Those two wishes seem contradictory. What am I missing?

    I’m glad to see what you wrote but it still doesn’t explain what was cowardly about what looks to me like a reasonable decision by EQPA. You should be aware that Southern Poverty Law Center among many others recommends precisely what EQPA is doing as the best way to benefit from a hate group coming to town. That’s not to say there isn’t value in direct counter-protest too if it is done well, but I’m just saying that if you call EQPA cowards, be prepared to call LOTS of very reasonable people cowards. There is usually more than one right way to do something. Just because it isn’t to your liking doesn’t make it cowardly. It just makes it disagreeable to you. HUGE difference.

  • ZackFord says:

    Lurleen, it’s a fair point. I think there’s a difference between serving and attempting to be the community. I also think there’s a difference between speaking on behalf the issues and speaking on behalf of the community. I think you’re right that I didn’t perhaps word it the best. I want them to represent the issues I face as a gay man without speaking out on behalf of me.

    I wonder if, to some extent, the root of the disagreement is the target audience. While politically I understand how it might be beneficial to not counterprotest, I think in terms of morale, it is hurtful to our own community not to. If EQPA had just taken a hands-off approach, I might not have reacted in the same way, but they also rebuffed those who might want to counterprotest, and arguably all those who already (and successfully) have. There’s a difference between saying “We’re not doing it,” and “We don’t want you to do it either.” That kind of discouragement does not seem reasonable to me.

  • Glen Retief says:

    Zack, as you know I’m a composition/critical thinking teacher. If you offered your previous blog post, about counter-protest, in an oral classrooom debate I would have to give you a yellow card for ad hominem attack, a logical fallacy that involves name-calling instead of addressing the substantive claims made by your opponent (the “cowardice” accusation, for which you only partially apologize). I would then consider deducting points for tautological reasoning, i.e. for arguing it’s important to stand up to NOM because it’s important to stand up to NOM.

    EQPA has, as far as I’m concerned, some very concrete evidence supporting its thesis, viz. that counter-protesting NOM is counterproductive. They list a definite track record of such counter-protests being used by NOM to generate controversy and media attention; to paint themselves as victims; and to successfully garner public support. By contrast, as far as I can see you offer no specific evidence of previous NOM counter-protests having achieved the objectives you list for the planned Harrisburg counter-protest.

    Speaking purely for myself, I plan to gain my self-esteem and morale from my own sense of self-worth. I plan to confine my political activism to strategies which have proven successful in the past. And I plan to enjoy my Friday by doing one of the many things I like doing, among which I don’t count listening to bigoted,increasingly irrelevant homophobes denounce me.

    As I already told you in person–I loved your Prop 8 coverage! Somte of the best I saw anywhere.

  • ZackFord says:

    Luckily, I’m a blogger, and my use of language mustn’t conform to debate rules. I think I’ve sufficiently explained why my use of the word was accurate (whether it was perceived as an attack or not) to represent my position. I also think I sufficiently explained that there have been many successful rallies (as the NOM tour tracker has thoroughly documented all summer) and that organizing a response to NOM’s rallies is important for community morale (as evidenced by a grassroots protest effort being organized in spite of EQPA’s plea not to).

  • Glen Retief says:

    I’ve reread your blog post and I still don’t understand how you’ve “sufficiently explained why my use of the word was accurate.” Your argument for why EQPA is cowardly seems to rest on the fact that their mission statement aims to secure LGBT equality. But their opinion is precisely that a NOM counter-protest will not achieve their mission statement and will unintentionally help promote LGBT second-class citizenship. It will undermine EQPA’s mission, which is why they are asking people not to do it. You may legitimately disagree with this conclusion, and obviously do, but then your view is that EQPA are mistaken in their strategic reasoning, something altogether different to cowardice. If you have evidence that EQPA was being disingenuous in their statement–that they were lying about their strategic calculations, and were just afraid of confronting NOM–then that evidence needs to be shared on this site.

    Your ad hominem attack is thus, in my view, much more than tactless: it is defamatory of EQPA unless it can be supported by specific evidence of malign motives. Needless to say this doesn’t make coalition-building in the LGBTQ rights movement any easier, and who exactly benefits if we expend energy fighting with each other rather than our political enemies?

    If a queer group plans to assassinate the pope to promote LGBT equality, and I am in favor of LGBT equality, am I a coward and betraying my own values for not supporting the assassination on ethical or strategic grounds? This logic is absurd. How can we even have a frank debate in our community about political strategy if good faith disagreement is going to be met with this kind of name-calling?

    In my view you need to apologize not for tactlessness or for hurting feelings, but for making apparently baseless accusations in the heat of the moment (something all of us do, by the way). Apologizing for tactlessness, while still maintaining the “accuracy” of the accusation, is no real apology at all–it actually suggests EQPA and its supporters are merely thin-skinned.

    Just my two cents’.

  • ZackFord says:

    In EQPA’s note describing their reasons, they unfairly and inaccurately generalized all the other NOM counterprotests as such:

    At each stop where there have been counter protests or attendance by pro-equality supporters, they have disrespected or mocked them and attempted to provoke them into screaming or yelling. Their goal in doing this is to make our side look foolish and hostile. We have also seen that they like to play a numbers game where if we have even a few less attendees than at their event, they will claim that the momentum is moving in their direction.

    While there is, of course, truth about NOM’s motives, this statement is false in that there have been many positive and effective counterprotests. They have been positive in that people have been respectful, they have been productive in that many have brought speakers and political leaders to participate, and they have been effective in balancing NOM’s message in local media. It is absurd and insulting for EQPA to outright claim that any attempt to counterprotest would be so ineffective and counterproductive.

    EQPA’s statement also attempts to dictate what is best for the movement, as if EQPA makes all the decisions for LGBT Equality in Pennsylvanians:

    Putting our energy into showing up at their event does not help to move us forward. What will help to advance equality in Pennsylvania is if we use them coming to town as an excuse to mobilize local activists and build our network.

    This ignores many facts including the importance of responding for our own community’s morale, the enthusiasm mustered for our movement by such a counterprotest (particularly since it mobilizes the grassroots, which we see happening, as I’ve said, very much in spite of EQPA’s plea that others not counterprotest either), the ability to engage local political figures in our effort, and (as I stated above) the reality that these counterprotests have been very effective at countering NOM’s media coverage in other cities.

    EQPA makes one final plea to people not to participate:

    But please, ignore NOM when they come to town and don’t interact. Attention is exactly what they want, and why should honest people who hold equality close to their hearts be tricked into supporting their sad little charade.

    In addition to ignoring (and as I wrote), essentially rebuking all of the other anti-NOM efforts this summer, this final statement seems to me particularly defensive. EQPA is not only explaining why it won’t be participating but attempting to dictate what’s best for the LGBT community. Why would they go so far out of their way to not do what has been effective and important in so many other cities.

    Yes, there is the simple answer that it’s their preferred strategy. But from my perspective, I see them running from a challenge. Rather than put the work in to organize an effective counterprotest, they’re just going to show a movie and have some kids talk, which will be safe and easy and let them raise money. Ironically, in an attempt to avoid looking like angry protesters, they are showing “Stonewall Uprising,” a documentary about the LGBT community’s first and foremost angry protest. How sad that they are willing to support the history of protest in our movement from a comfortable movie theatre but are unwilling to participate themselves. Apparently political PR is a higher priority for them than community morale or the coalition-building such a grassroots event could have been used for.

    I think EQPA’s decision speaks to fear, a lack of courage to stand up for our equality in ways that aren’t convenient. Some others might see it as lazy, others as just a very conservative strategy. If EQPA wants to be the preeminent org for our state, then I am going to call them out when they aren’t living up the bravery or gumption that such a title as “preeminent” demands. They’re afraid NOM will make it look bad, they’re afraid they can’t pull it off, they’re afraid it won’t be worth the time or the money, and heck, maybe they’re afraid that they won’t RAISE money. In making this decision, they have discouraged many in the community from participating, thus encouraging the corporate model of activism that has worked so well for our movement: people give money, show up to a few fun social events, and never have to engage in activism at all because the org takes care of all the lobbying. It hasn’t worked nationally with HRC, and I do not want to see it not work here in Pennsylvania. It’s a spirit-crushing strategy that discourages members of our local community from taking real action to stand up for their rights (and in this case, their families). It’s also a selfishly political strategy that ignores the real challenges people face and the real pain of seeing NOM on our capitol steps.

    By the way, there needs to be a logical fallacy for this whole “we shouldn’t in-fight” meme. It’s absurd. Of course we need to in-fight. Are we that weak that we can’t call each other out on decisions? That our organizations can’t work if they don’t have blind allegiance from the community? “We shouldn’t eat our own” (as others have said to me) is hardly egalitarian; so often it comes from the leaders (or financiers) of orgs that don’t like the bad press. Portraying this façade that we’re all unified and totally on the same page is ridiculous. We all have different points of view and we should all be able to disagree and still support each other, which is exactly what I am doing.

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