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Feb 20 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them-3

When it comes to how to find and push hot buttons in the US (see here and here for the first two parts of this series), we can all learn from the master, the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. These people are so off-the-wall hateful in their message that they are almost a self-parody.

Phelps and his small church consisting of mostly his extended family (he has 13 children of his own) hate gay people with a passion. He and his church members started their crusade by traveling around the country demonstrating at the funerals of gay people (especially those with high profile deaths like Matthew Shepard where they knew media would be there), with anti-gay signs.

This was annoying enough (especially to the grieving people at the funerals) but did not create enough of a ruckus to satisfy Phelps. After all, picking on gay people is hardly newsworthy, given the strength of anti-gay sentiment in this country. So Phelps cast around, trying to find ways to create a bigger impact, something that would really get under the skin of a lot of people. And he found one. His church members decided that in addition to protesting gays, they would also protest “enablers” of the gay lifestyle. This broadened the targets of their attacks to almost everyone.

They struck it big when they started demonstrating at the funerals of dead soldiers. At one such funeral “members of the church stomped on the American flag and held signs thanking God for the explosives” that killed the soldier being buried. How are soldiers “enablers” of gays, you ask? Easy, at least for Phelps, who displays an affinity for syllogistic arguments. Soldiers defend the US. The US harbors gays. Ergo, soldiers enable the gay lifestyle.

So members of the Westboro Baptist Church travel the country picketing military funerals with signs saying that the soldiers deserved to die because god hates them for defending a country that tolerates homosexuality and adultery.

They also demonstrated at the funeral of the miners killed at the Sago disaster, with “God hates miners” signs in addition to the standard signs against gays and gay enablers. How are miners gay enablers, you ask again? Well, miners support the US economy and keep it running. The US harbors gays. Ergo, miners are gay enablers.

They even demonstrated at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Why her, you ask? I’m sure you can fill in Phelps’ reasoning for yourself.

What do you do with people like this who are being so obnoxious? It seems to me that publicity and attention is what such people really crave. And Phelps found a really hot button with the military funerals because now state legislatures are proposing laws that restrict demonstrations at military funerals, at least to greater than a certain distance.

That is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong thing to do. What it does do is guarantee that Phelps will get the spotlight as he goes to court and eventually, as seems likely, win his case (perhaps in the Supreme Court) on first amendment grounds. And Phelps will take credit for being a martyr for free speech rights.

His case is like that of the Maryland man who got annoyed with his neighbor over some triviality concerning his dog, and mooned his neighbor. He was taken to court for indecent exposure but was acquitted because of the first amendment. That man now actually calls himself as an “American hero.”

If we could only learn to take control of our hot buttons we would take away the only weapon these obnoxious people have.

If the families of the slain soldiers could, instead of looking for laws to protect them, ask the military to designate a few people to go up to Phelps’s crowd at these funerals and smile and thank them for their concern and for taking the trouble to come to the funeral, then Phelps might get deflated. Or if people come with other signs saying things like “God loves gays” and “Only gays go to heaven” and stand near Phelps group, then that shifts the attention away from Phelps. Or they could stand with those signs outside Phelps’s church before and after Sunday service.

In my opinion, humor, parody, satire, and gentle ridicule are far more effective at neutralizing obnoxious people than physical threats and legal actions, because the latter enables them to play the hero role while the former makes them merely figures of fun. People who deliberately set out to be obnoxious are (going into pop psychology mode for a moment) usually humorless and insecure, and it is disturbing to them to be ignored or considered ridiculous.

As I have said before. I am a firm believer in the first amendment and free speech rights. We have to protect them because those rights are needed to protect those who are using it in the service of the common good. If in the process of protecting them, we also allow people like Phelps to pester grieving families or some newspapers to goad some Muslims into intemperate behavior, then so be it. (See an interesting article on this in the Guardian.)

But my right to say what I feel does not mean that I am to be commended for using that right whenever and wherever I please. It is true that I have the right to insult someone (within limits). If that person is provoked enough that he or she threatens me with physical harm, I should have the right to be protected. But I shouldn’t expect praise for my exercise and subsequent “defense” of free speech rights. It seems like praise is what the newspapers who published the Muslim cartoons, Phelps, and even the Maryland mooner, expect.

The so-called Golden Rule of human behavior, that says that we should treat other people the way that we would like to be treated, is articulated almost universally by religions and societies. It sets a high bar for behavior and is a hard rule to follow.

I would like to suggest a somewhat lower standard of behavior, say the Silver Rule, and that is: We should try not to be gratuitously offensive to others and we should try not to take offense easily.

If people simply followed that rule, life would be a lot more pleasant.

POST SCRIPT: The Cheney Chronicles

Trying to shed himself of his secretive and reclusive image, the VP has been making the rounds.

David Letterman shows clips of the VP giving a speech after the shooting, talking frankly about himself. . .

. . . and then Jay Leno interviews him . . .

. . . and then Cheney, showing that he has talents other than starting disastrous wars, gives a concert where he sings his version of the Johnny Cash hit Folsom Prison Blues, the song that contains the immortal line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” (Warning: Explicit lyrics because in the song Cheney repeats the phrase that he used against Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the US Senate.)

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