So I've been thinking about the verdict against Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church. Though it's true that very little moral ambiguity surrounds Westboro, this whole lawsuit thing raises some very uncomfortable questions. Or perhaps I should say it highlights some questions that have been floating about since Westboro started picketing at the funerals of soldiers killed in the line of duty.
Setting aside the court case, the judgment, and all of the delicious (for Westboro) publicity, I'm wondering about the nature of the outrage that allowed this judgment. I think it is fair to say that the lawsuit, and the judgment, are motivated by outrage, and understandably so.
Fred Phelps and his family (who make up nearly all of Westboro Baptist Church) have been picketing funerals for a decade now. Most famously, they protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard in 1998, after Matt was beaten and left for dead on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. They have protested at the funerals of numerous AIDS victims, and at the funeral of a San Francisco lesbian killed when she was attacked by pit bulls outside her apartment.
Funeral protests have gotten them a lot of attention, and they like attention.
There's been a shift in the reaction to those protests, though. While there was a general sense of disgust at the Westboro folks picketing the funerals of AIDS victims and at Matt Shepard's funeral, I don't recall anyone trying to pass a law against it, or sue the Phelps clan over it. Those things didn't happen until Westboro began picketing the funerals of service members.
I think the reason behind this disparity was expressed by someone who called in to "Voices," the Kansas City Star's voicemail-to-the-editor service. Here's that recorded message:
"Regarding the Fred Phelps situation: What’s at issue is not the church members’ right to free speech, but that the protests are done in a place that causes harm or distress to people having nothing to do with their issue. The Constitution was written to give us freedom, but not freedom to harm other people."
If I understand what that caller is saying, and I think I do, what is really troubling about Westboro picketing service member funerals is that the service members are not necessarily gay. Gay is definitely Westboro's "issue."
I think that caller speaks for a lot of people, as evidenced by the marked increase in moral outrage (and legal maneuvering) after Westboro shifted its funeral focus from AIDS victims to service members. The sentiment seems to be that if you actually are what a hate group targets you for, it is somehow more okay for you to be the victim of their hate.
That kind of sentiment goes a long way to explain a lot of the persistent "isms" in our society. Underneath the tacit tolerance of glass ceilings, unequal access, and even hate crimes is the notion that a lot of the anger and discrimination directed toward African Americans, Latinos, Asians, women and LGBT folks is probably justifiable, or at least understandable.
As Jon Stewart said last week, "You've come an imperceptibly short way, baby."
I think the time has come to set our resources toward The War on Hate. All of the other wars would surely end if we could win that one.