How to deal with the crazies

You all know them: those awful loud little men who travel from campus to campus to preach apocalyptic hateful nonsense on the sidewalks, who rant and howl and condemn everyone who passes by as a sinner, damned to hell, and reserving a special hatred for women and gays. One of the virtues of being on a small campus in a remote rural part of my state is that we don’t get many of those jerkwads here, but they infest the main campus and any other college that is more conveniently located.

What do we do about them? Tarring and feathering is illegal, and you can’t just silence them because you don’t like what they say. I think James Dimock at Minnesota State University Mankato takes exactly the right approach.

“The answer to speech you don’t like isn’t to suppress it. The remedy is to speak back,” said James P. Dimock, associate professor of communication studies at Mankato State. “That is what those kids did and why I am proud of them. They could have gone to the university administration and fought to keep this guy off campus — a fight they would probably have lost. But instead they answered speech with speech. I support what they did 100 percent and I think that they should be a model for how people should respond to these preachers everywhere.”

What he did was encourage students to politely protest the noise of a gay-hating preacher going by the name of John the Baptist by taking him up on his invitation to attend his church services. They did. They sat in the front row, quietly, with signs showing gay people who had committed suicide, thanks to homophobic bullying. They didn’t interfere with his preaching at all, but no one could look at him in the pulpit without also seeing the victims of his hatred. It’s perfect. It’s the kind of peaceful protest that makes people think.

Of course preacher John Chisham doesn’t see it that way. He’s angry about it all, and is whining that the university is promoting anti-Christian attitudes (anyone want to bet against the idea that many of the students who were protesting were also Christian?)

But Chisham said that was unfair. “If a professor said ‘Why don’t you come and attend my class?’ I would take that to mean I’m going to go into the class and sit, and listen respectfully, and I would expect the same kind of decorum.” (Both Chisham and those who protested agree that while the students held signs in front of the room, making it impossible for the congregation members to see their pastor without seeing images of gay youth who have killed themselves, the protest was a silent one — and did not stop the prayers or any other part of the service.)

Chisham said he has filed a complaint with the university, asking it to impose sanctions on Dimock, the professor who advised the students and who attended the service with them. But Chisham said he does not believe Dimock is being punished. “I think there should be sanctions,” he said, “unless Mankato State doesn’t mind being associated with someone disrupting a service of worship.”

Oh, the hypocrisy, it burns.

They did not disrupt the service. They silently highlighted his message. They also listened to every word he said, they did not shout him down at all. When creationists come to Morris, I’ll often encourage my students to attend and listen, too, and I’ll tell them to be polite and non-disruptive (although I’ll also assure them that good, calm questions are also a good idea). The creationists don’t particularly like this, because it means some of their audience are there to think and criticize rather than affirm and gullibly swallow whatever they say, but there’s not much they can do to stop us without looking blatantly hypocritical.

There’s also the fact that Preacher John sees no problem in proclaiming his message, but is offended that anyone would quietly reject it. There’s this whole evangelical principle of, well, evangelizing … but any pushback, no matter how mild, is regarded as wicked. We’re not supposed to ask questions in church, but there’s a whole evangelical literature praising the idea of promoting Christianity in the science classroom — see Chick’s “Big Daddy” for the classic example.

Despite Big Daddy’s puffery, one thing I’ve learned is that fundagelical Christians are typically cowards. They fear and hate being criticized. I occasionally get protests at my talks, and my response to the sign-bearing chanters lined up outside the auditorium is always to invite them to come in and feel free to ask questions in the Q&A. They rarely do. I’d actually welcome a mob of creationists who showed up and sat up front and quietly listened, and might even make sure to keep the talk a little more brief than usual, because I’d expect a lively post-talk discussion. It just doesn’t happen, much as I’d like it to, and here’s Preacher John complaining because he’s got an audience with specific issues to debate. If he’s so sure he’s right, he ought to be overjoyed to have an opportunity to publicly rebut specific questions.

Just in case the opportunity comes up, any time I give a public talk, the creationist versions of Professor Dimock are welcome to show up, take a front row seat, and carry signs that object to evilutionism. I shall joyfully address any concerns that you might have at the appropriate part of the hour, and all you have to be prepared for is the laughter of myself and the rest of the audience.