religion / Rights · July 24, 2008

The noose as free speech, or as a form of intimidation

When I was in Boy Scouts (a long time ago now) I was taught how to tie rope. Bowline, half-hitch, square knots. One knot I was never taught was that for a noose. “A noose is only used for one purpose,” said our scout leader, “and I hope you kids never want or need to know it.”

He was wrong. A noose has three purposes. It can be used to kill someone, it can be used to intimidate others, or it can be used as a form of free speech. As a form of free speech it is insensitive, vulgar and crass – but I will still support your right to use it in this manner. Use it as a display to remind us of the horrors of lynching and of racial segregation. Or use it as part of your Halloween display. Don’t be surprised at my distinct lack of enthusiasm.

But if you hang it in order to intimidate others, or worse – in preparation for use, then I hope you get arrested for your hate. For the safety of our society, I hope you are locked away.

Using the noose for intimidation purposes has increased since the Jena six incident, it has increased to the point where some people are talking about outlawing, or have outlawed the noose entirely. I don’t agree with outlawing it. I do agree with outlawing hate crimes, and I think it might be a good idea to add a multiplier of some sort to any hate crime committed in which a noose is used.

Lewis Allan wrote about lynchings in the poem “Strange Fruit” which was then set to music and sung by Billie Holiday. This was during the McCarthy era, and anti-lynching songs were determined to be a sort of “attack” by communism on America. “Strange Fruit” was blacklisted, and not played on any radio station at the time, but it still became one of the top ten songs of the time.

It’s a beautiful, chilling song. It’s easy to understand why it was successful – it’s a story that needs to be told and retold in order to avoid repeating the past.

And lynching is an excellent example that ethics and morals must be based upon sympathy and empathy for others, and upon the reduction of human suffering. It is only when people live according to a dogmatic moral code that this sort of atrocity becomes acceptable.

The story behind this song is fascinating, and very sad. I’ve been reading about the story behind the song, and the people involved. And I’m impressed with Billie Holiday’s abilities to bring the beauty of her music to such an ugly thing.