Thank you Westboro Baptist Chuch
Apr 24, 2013

Thank you Westboro Baptist Chuch

Westboro Baptish Church - made infamous for picketing military funeral in a protest against homosexual tolerance in America - has reached, unbelievably, a new low. They are now threatening to picket the funerals of victims of the Boston bombings, again for some incoherent homophobic reason. As disgusting as this all is, and as much as I feel for those who actually have to experience these bigots first hand in a moment of grief, there is, perhaps surprisingly, an upside. Indeed, I submit that there is a fairly strong positive social consequence of the wide spread attention that Westboro Baptist Church has gotten.

Any time Westboro Baptish Church comes up, there is unanimous, unqualified condemnation of their actions. Most issues manage to find some way to be divisive and fit into existing sociopolitical schisms, but this example is so egregious, so ridiculous, that no halfway reasonable person can condone it and, indeed, effectively nobody does. Instead, we get to engage in a round of collective condemnation and give ourselves pats on the back for having done so.

Going through this process every once in a while, I think, is a positive thing for a society to do. Particularly for those who don't normally find themselves supporting LGBT rights and equality, this gives a practical example for people to defend gay citizens even if they oppose, say, marriage equality. It gives us practice and gets us into the mindset of defending LGBT people. As a society we should have limits on acceptable behavior, and it is a positive experience to be able to come together and agree that a certain action is indeed out of acceptable bounds. It helps build our social cohesion and create a common moral framework that we can build from. If nothing else, we can't be hurt by this exercise. 

The discussion also tends to bring out a rather robust affirmation of the great American value of freedom of speech, a value that is somewhat more firmly entrenched than in other countries like Canada with our hate speech laws and the like. Core values tend to be eroded first at the extremes which is why we should be especially careful to affirm them in extreme cases. One could be tempted, for instance, to try and punish Westboro Baptish Church for hate speech or hateful actions. Thankfully, the overwhelming thrust of conversation on this point seems to have people agreeing that while Westboro Baptish Church certainly is allowed to do and say the things they do and say, the correct response is to condemn it, not to prevent it. In other words, the general consensus is exactly correct.

On related note, I was briefly worried, when checking Twitter sometime after the Boston bombings but before the suspects were identified, to see that #Islam was trending. It was quite refreshing to note that people were overwhelmingly affirming the basic idea that we should not judge the entirety of the religion based on the actions of a few, particularly when we didn't even know the religion let alone the full motivating of those few. Hear, hear. Of course, this issue is very polarizing and undoubtedly we have seen in the last few days considerable Islamophobia and fear mongering and generalizations and that won't go away any time soon. But briefly, the narrative was focused on a positive point. This isn't always the case. I still have not quite forgiven the American public for the "controversy" over the so called ground zero mosque. That was an example when the public narrative got lost on very negative sentiments, sentiments that I fully reject.

So thank you, Westboro Baptish Church. Thank you for providing an example of homophobia so extreme that all of us can come together and universally condemn it while affirming the kinds of basic values that provide the bedrock for our society.

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