OP-EDS

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April 3, 2009

The wrong kind of counter-protest

Irrational groups like Westboro Baptist Church thrive on attention and are best ignored

It was going to be the great showdown between love and hatred, tolerance and intolerance, intellect and fear, rational thought and irrational prejudice. Yes, the grand arrival of the agents of intolerance from Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was…well, sort of lame. I was expecting a congregation of homophobic and ignorant individuals, but it turns out there were fewer than 10 wackos basking in the attention. I can’t fault anyone for counter-protesting, and I’ve never been prouder of our university than after witnessing the hilarious and beautiful response to such intolerance. But maybe it wasn’t the best possible response; though it was well intentioned, the counter-protest and the subsequent attention it has received have given Westboro exactly what it wants: attention. I doubt that the WBC will be back, but the lesson is clear: You can’t reason with hatred. A shrug of a cold shoulder can be louder than a thousand voices when the opposition is as hollow and overblown as the WBC.

One of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement was of African Americans simply walking to school and ignoring the crowds of ignorant, hateful, and sometimes violent whites purporting prejudice and segregation. By flaunting their hatred and isolating themselves from the mainstream, the segregationists undermined their own position. Yes, homophobia and prejudice exist, and yes, the fight for tolerance is still ongoing (as is the fight for racial equality). But Christians and actual churches have repeatedly denounced the WBC as a hate group in church’s clothing. The belief that God hates anybody goes against the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. And while there is still plenty of political opposition to gay rights, these political issues do not revolve around whether such despicable hatred is acceptable. By simply going about our daily business and ignoring the six wackos holding signs, we would have isolated the WBC by demonstrating that their views are irrational and warrant no reasonable response, as such hatred is immune to reason.

I understand the motivations behind the counter-protest, and they were admirable. Like so many others, I felt somehow obligated to demonstrate that neither my university nor I tolerate intolerance and hatred, but in retrospect, it was already obvious that we don’t support hatred. Protests are meant to promote controversial positions; I don’t think there is much controversy on our campus about whether ignorant hatred is OK. Sure, six people disagree with us, but you could get six people together to oppose anything. Alpha Delt’s demonstration was admittedly hilarious, and the video of the brothers’ protest has received more than 100,000 views and been featured on such high-profile websites as videogum.com. But with every view, the WBC receives more attention and is further thrust into the national spotlight. Westboro’s members aren’t rational, and there is no reason why such a fringe group deserves national attention (not to mention that our counter-protest probably didn’t change any more minds than their protest did).

So why do they protest if they don’t change minds? Largely for the same reason that Joe McCarthy purported to know of communists: shameless self-promotion. Obviously, some members are misguided by a false sense of religious conviction and some are just hateful, but the leaders know what they are doing.

I think it’s great that there were parties and counseling available to combat the hateful spirit on campus. That said, the ideal response to the WBC would have been to completely ignore the ugliness outside the Seminary while holding a celebration of diversity elsewhere on campus so that the WBC wouldn’t get any satisfaction from knowing that they had gotten to us.

In our counter-protest, I fear that we gave WBC precisely what they wanted in unwarranted attention to their views. “It is so awesome when you juxtapose this little group of servants of God with this restless mob of humanity,” stated Shirley Phelps-Roper, the WBC’s spokesperson. While frat boys dancing to ABBA don’t exactly constitute a “restless mob of humanity,” she was clearly pleased that our well-intentioned efforts made what should have been a pathetic event into a newsworthy one. It isn’t like we did anything too original; the WBC has seen enough kissing gay couples, mocking signs, and flamboyant dancing by now for us to be certain that nothing short of an Annie Hall moment with Jesus himself proclaiming “That’s not what I meant at all,” will help these people. (On second thought, they’d probably just make “God hates Jesus” signs.)

It’s difficult to find fault in a sincere effort to show support for tolerance in the face of its polar opposite. But the WBC is kind of like the socially challenged and super annoying kid from elementary school—the only way to shut him up is to ignore him. The WBC will continue doing whatever it can to make news and shock people. The real battle here is pushing irrational fringe organizations out of the national spotlight and into their deserved obscurity. Whether it is the WBC or any other irrational hate group, it ought to be treated like a television show we want cancelled; instead of getting up in arms and screaming about it and bringing it to attention, let’s just change the channel and find something worth our time.

Henry Phillips is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.