Monday, February 7, 2011

Insanity: Westboro Baptists and The Power of Words

[I wrote this a few weeks ago when every other word being uttered online was "Arizona." Sorry I'm late, but I need to get this off my plate so I can feel justified moving on to more current matters. --RR]

In the wake of the recent shooting incident in Arizona, an absurd battle began to erupt in the public arena, social networking media, and the press, regarding the subject of violent language and imagery, and its power to incite. From the common arguments we can reduce down to two basic opposing points of view: 1) the poster displayed by Sarah Palin last year with crosshairs next to members of congress, including Congresswoman Giffords, definitely played a role in the shooter's action, or 2) the role of the poster is inconclusive without further evidence. The second premise is well-supported since we have reasonable information that the shooter was insane or deluded. While this doesn't rule out the influence of the ugly semiotics of Sarah Palin as an influence, it certainly provides for the possibility that he could have been influenced as much or more by other input, or even nothing one could directly connect. For what is insanity? Insanity by its very definition is the absence of reason, the absence of rational decision, and the absence of rational cause and effect relationships between influence and action. The shooter was no doubt influenced in his faulty thinking, like anyone, by a wide array of input over the course of his (so far) short life. But someone irrational or insane often distorts this input to either support beliefs they already hold, or to dismiss information that defies their crazy beliefs. Without digressing into the question of whether religious beliefs that are disproved by factual evidence constitute insanity (don't get me started), the only rational conclusion about the Arizona shooter (based on the reliable information that he was insane) is that the role of external influence on his actions that day cannot be ascertained without a lot more evidence than has been provided so far. The proponents of premise #1 above, believe that it is conclusive enough to say that because one of the targets in the Palin poster was Ms. Giffords, then Palin's poster is partly responsible. However we do not even know for a fact yet whether the shooter ever saw the poster, or if so, what he thought of it. So even if we assume he was sane (which he clearly wasn't) then we still don't know whether the Palin poster, or the "political climate" as some have substituted for the poster in arguments, was in any way an influence on this cruel and violent act. Of course the Palin poster was meant to offend her opponents and rally her base, and it worked on both counts. The outrage of Palin's opponents has continually served to garner her more attention, and cause her influence to appear larger than it really is.

Meanwhile, a new controversy rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of this nightmare. The Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to picket the funerals of two of the victims (the ones whose funerals were going to occur first) to advance a pretty crazy message, namely that God sent the shooter to do his deed because of the tolerance being shown to gay people in our society. These fools have done or threatened many similar actions and their power, like Palin's, lies largely in their ability to offend, since very few take their views seriously, but the Westboro Baptists know what their opponents don't, namely that once they have leveled their threat to picket they have won the game, because so many will leap to oppose them that it spreads their message widely without their having done anything more than announce an intention. Panic gives immense power to these religious nincompoops. Their message so offends people that the very threat of action is more powerful than their actual ability to act. If they appear, in the puny numbers they embody, outside a funeral of an innocent victim, and harass their mourners with idiotic anti-gay messages, it may be offensive to most, and upsetting to the mourners, but it is so overwhelmingly opposed by the public that groups have even been organized to oppose them with counter-protests that block their visibility to the mourners at these events. One group, who use giant costume angel wings, pledged to oppose the Westboro picket with their own action in order to nullify them. A beautiful example of citizen action. I mean that. Instead of denying the Westboro morons their right to assemble and speak, those opposed to their message pledged to exercise their own right to free speech in blocking the Westboro peoples' offensive message from being in the faces of the mourners. This is what properly takes place in a free society. The KKK marches down your street and you line up along the sidewalks with signs that say "go home!" Unhampered by laws, speech polices itself.

But this self-policing aspect of free speech evidently isn't enough for the fearful--mostly so-called Democrats, who may adopt somewhat left-leaning rhetoric when it comes to social welfare programs, but are seldom the best defendants of free speech. They commonly argue that "words have consequences" and use this justification to argue for restrictions on speech. One of their favorite analogies they use when trying to justify the limiting of speech is the one where someone yells "fire!" in a crowded theater. The foes of free speech love to use this ridiculous metaphor as an example of why some speech is dangerous and should be limited, completely leaving out the context. Context is huge. The analogy in fact depends entirely on there being no fire. If there is no fire, then I'm guilty of intentionally misleading a crowd and endangering them. This may be considered a crime if direct harm comes to some of the crowd in the ensuing panic, but the crime is that I mislead them, not the words themselves. After all, if there really had been a fire I'd be a hero for alerting them.

In the case of Westboro, panic set in before the offending speech was ever brought to the funerals. The Tuscon legislature quickly passed an emergency law to make protesting within 300 feet of a funeral a misdemeanor, and admitted it was a direct response to the threat made by Westboro Baptists. The irony is that this didn't diminish Westboro's power at all, it only nullified the response being organized by Tuscon's citizens. In the end, Westboro cut a deal with two radio stations to call off their protests of the first two funerals in exchange for airtime, allowing them to reach a much larger audience than they would have at the funerals, and unencumbered by "angel actions" or other counter-demonstrations, still leaving their options open for future funeral protests. Brilliant use of the power and consequences of free speech, really. By simply announcing an intention to protest, Westboro got huge press coverage, radio coverage in two countries (on of the affiliates was in Toronto) and caused a permanent law to be enacted that won't even need to be enforced now, but could be in the future against anyone of any ideology who protests too close to a funeral. Has the whole world gone crazy? Remember the advice anyone gives a kid who's being teased in school: They just want to upset you. Just ignore them and they'll stop.

There are of course deeper levels of meaning to the response by the Arizona legislature. Another bit of fallout in the wake of the shooting incident was the demonizing of Arizona characterizing it as a state that loves loose gun laws, and a lot of far-right political policy. Hard to argue with the facts there, just ask a Mexican, but politicians saw a PR problem and saw an easy way to address it. Arizona lawmakers from both sides of the aisle jumped over each other to vote for the new law prohibiting funeral protests. In this "political climate" it's going to score a lot of points. Who is going to come out against it and appear to be on the side of crazy people who think a nine-year-old girl was shot because "God hates fags?" No one, of course. Meanwhile, the same lawmakers left the loopholes in place that allow people like the Arizona shooter to easily buy Glocks, extended clips and ammo. Words are of course far more dangerous.

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