This morning on my drive to work I heard a radio ad for a local doctor’s practice…”Dr. Smith.” After about 20 seconds of a third-person description of the clinic, a woman’s voice introduces herself as “Karen Smith.” I thought to myself, “Hmm. Dr. Smith must employ his wife in his practice, and she’s part of this commercial.” A few seconds later I realized I had assumed the doctor was male and I was a sexist jerk. Right?
Wrong. Later in the morning I zeroed in on the fact that the woman had introduced herself as “Karen Smith,” not “Dr. Smith.” This isn’t to say that “Dr. Smith” couldn’t possibly have used her first name in a radio spot. However, to my recollection, I have never not heard a doctor refer to himself or herself as “Dr. X” in an advertisement. That was the cue I took that the woman was not the doctor. I thought it was an odd choice, but I “corrected myself” like a good little politically-correct minded man and continued on with my day.
Lated I looked up the clinic online. “Dr. Smith” is a man. The woman was probably his wife.
The point of this story is that life is full of social cues and we make innumerable decisions based on things we don’t fully think through. When a person makes a decision that could be attributed to a politically incorrect discriminatory cue, we are quick to form the PC lynch mob and force that person to be more open minded. What often gets lost is the fact that there are dozens of other cues that could have been contributing, if not deciding factors in the issue at hand. It gets lost because the lynch mob phenomenon is rooted in the primal satisfaction of banding together as a group to defend against threats, whether external (repelling an invasion) or internal (ostracizing the heretic).
So then this afternoon, I happened across this news article, and saw a connection. Because of course I did:
In 1998, two men pistol-whipped a gay man to death in Wyoming. It became national news and was a rallying point for hate crime legislation and LGBT discrimination/violence-prevention.
Matthew Shepard was gay, so of course he was murdered because he was gay, right?
Maybe. The facts of the case aren’t really the focus here. Instead, let’s look at the author and his detractors:
Author: Stephen Jimenez, who, “as a gay man, he felt an added moral imperative to tell Matthew’s story. But what Jimenez eventually found in Wyoming was a tangled web of secrets.” He presents a case that this was a run-of-the-mill robbery-gone-wrong that happened to involve a gay man, rather than the targeted-murder-of-gay-man it was made out to be.
Matthew Shepard Foundation: “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law,” the statement reads. “We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead, we remain committed to honoring Matthew’s memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it. We owe that to the tens of thousands of donors, activists, volunteers and allies to the cause of equality who have made our work possible.”
Again, we’re examining the dialogue, not the facts of the case themselves.
The author is a gay man himself. Presumably he’s pretty supportive of not being murdered, or discriminated against in any other, less severe fashion, because of his sexual orientation. If he is presenting a case that this was not a hate crime at the end of an investigation which didn’t set out with this agenda, it’s hard to read any ulterior motives into this guy.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s comments, though, are more interesting. First, they repeat that this was, in fact, a hate crime in their view. This is the commonly accepted opinion and was upheld at court, so it’s hard to begrudge them this. However, they then proceed to:
1) Personalize the issue: “we remain committed to honoring Matthew’s memory.” They are invoking the social taboos against speaking ill of the dead and victim-blaming in an attempt to shut down a discussion of the facts of the case.
2) Vilify their critics: “refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it.” I doubt the author is attempting to intimidate an anti-hate crime foundation, as their words imply. This is, again, a cheap ploy to shut down discussion.
3) Defend their narrative: “We owe that to the tends of thousands of donors, activists, volunteers and allies to the cause of equality who have made our work possible.” The Matthew Shepard Foundation would not exist if the narrative of his murder was “man killed in botched robbery.” The foundation risks looking less relevant with their martyr discredited, which is why they are rallying to defend “their work.” The truth has become less important to them at this point, because the truth can only set them back in their cause. They need this to be a hate-crime, and so they will continue to insist that it is, no matter what additional evidence may come to light.
Regardless of whether one thinks hate crimes are especially heinous and deserve harsher punishments or one falls into the “all crimes are hate crimes” camp, what shouldn’t be up for debate is whether or not the truth should be allowed to come to light. When trying to understand a crime, we can’t limit ourselves to one cue. Not the first one we see, not the most inflammatory one we see, and not the most politically charged one we see. The narrative constructed must make sense when viewed from all angles, not just the angle of one affected group looking to advance their own cause.