Today at 6:30 pm, Kenton Ngo and Johnny Camacho will host a podcast with Kansas freakshow Shirley Phelps-Roper (yep, Westboro Baptist “Church,” God Hates America, the embarrassing step-children that even the hardcore Anti-Gay Industry holds at arm’s length). The call-in number for those who want to participate is (646) 478-5825.
The podcast announcement was met with the criticism that “giving these people a forum for spewing their hate” only encourages them, a version of “if you ignore them, they’ll go away.” The problem is, they won’t. That advice for dealing with bullies doesn’t work in the middle school setting, either.
This is a perennial conversation that occurs when obviously disturbed anti-gay people express themselves in some public venue. Some people argue that the hate speaks for itself, and that engaging the speaker validates it in some way. I disagree, and will just share my comment here:
That’s an interesting question – should such people be ignored? Does ignoring them send the message that they are so fringe as to be inconsequential, or does it send the message that their views are a harmless and acceptable part of political discourse?
We’re dealing with a similar issue right now in Loudoun, in which at least two local newspapers have accepted a paid advertisement from a “church” (actually a political organization that needs to be investigated by the IRS) that is a patently offensive attack on the GLBT community. We had another incident last year in which a letter to the editor crossed the line into libelous statements that invited violence against some of our members. In both cases, we held the editors of the newspapers accountable for the decision to publish material that violates basic standards of decency and non-discrimination.
In both instances there have been individuals who took the position that such ugly speech undermines itself and that the best course is to ignore it. In both instances, I strongly disagreed. I tend to think that people underestimate the real danger of failing to condemn such speech. Ignoring it has an effect – it sends the message that it’s ok, it’s just one of many valid opinions. To me, the issue is not preventing the Phelpses and Ahlemanns of the world from getting the attention they crave, it’s preventing observers from concluding that, since no one opposes such offensive behavior, it must be an acceptable part of the discourse in our community.
“Giving them a forum” in this case could mean validating Shirley – acting as if she has something worthwhile to say – or it could mean giving her the means with which to hang herself. It all depends on how you frame it.
What I mean by framing it is otherwise known as moral leadership. It’s not acceptable to single out a group of people in a community on the basis of a personal characteristic, and attack them. Period. Our Constitution guarantees the legal right to engage in such speech, but that doesn’t make the underlying idea valid or acceptable in civil discourse. There is great power in calling it what it is.