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The Phelps family: speech and slippery slopes

We live in a heterosexist society that largely creates homosexuality as deviant to maintain its undeserved privilege. All of the agents of socialization are dedicated to promoting this imbalance of power on a systemic level. This translates to discrimination in housing, employment, marital rights, medical coverage, and can lead to acts of violence. This kind of bias is socially constructed and is maintained by language. We have a tendency to underestimate the value of language but in truth what we choose to communicate forms discourse and this maintains our disharmony in worth and value.

When we use phrases like “that’s so gay,” we are necessarily attributing negativity to homosexuality and yet many continue to understand such common colloquialisms as not necessarily prejudicial. Calling gay and lesbian relationships “lifestyle choices” while continually using language that sets heterosexuality as the norm reifies difference.

There are those that are not content to employ what have become universal standards of “othering” in reference to homosexuality. The Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church are renowned for their vicious hatred of gays and lesbians. They proudly bare placards with the words “God hates fags,” and have gone as far as to claim that the Iraq war is a punishment bestowed upon America for its tolerance of homosexuality. In the United States this kind of language us protected as it is deemed free speech.

Recently the Phelps family were denied entry to Great Britain.

It was their goal to protest the production of the “Laramie Project” which details the life and death of Matthew Sheppard. Matthew was a gay man that murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998 as a direct result of homophobia.

On their website, the Phelps declared their intention to protest by publishing the following message:

“God hates the Queen Mary’s College, and the fag-infested UK, England, and all having to do with spreading sodomite lies via The Laramie Project, this tacky bit of cheap fag propaganda masquerading as legitimate theatre.”

The government of Great Britain rightly determined that this was hate speech and therefore counter to the proliferation of a free society. This is a concept that so many fail to acknowledge.

There is a clear difference between hate speech and free speech. Expressing dissent against the tyranny of a government or an individual dislike of a person does not necessarily lead to violence and “othering”. When lesbians and gays are referred to as fags or blamed for violence that is no way their fault, it forms the foundation that legitimizes the social stigmatizations that they must deal with on a daily basis. Not all speech is free; there is a cost and this must be recognized.

I fully support the government in this regard and wish others would have such courage to declare such language unacceptable. The ideas that are promoted by hate speech allow people to benefit undeserved privilege. Those that are not targeted by hate speech are in no position to judge exactly how harmful their language is. It is like a straight person declaring that something isn’t homophobic; if one does not exist in the body of the marginalization in question, you simply do not have the experience or the right to make a declaration based in negative harm.

We are an interdependent species and therefore the actions of the individual affect the lives of the community. Governments have enacted various laws to counter act the tyranny of the majority and I see no harm in mandating that hate speech be outlawed. Why should one individual exist with the right to continually place the life of another in jeopardy by encouraging hate based in supposed difference?

Though the Phelps were banned for their homophobic language, hate speech is not only directed at the gay and lesbian communities. White racists have used language to attack people of colour vehemently for generations. When one can compare a human being to an ape, or announce that blacks have the smallest brains thereby conferring on them the status of a childlike mentality; it reduces life chances. Announcing that blacks have larger genitalia than any other group is meant to characterize them as necessarily hyper sexual beings. This is not the language of observation; rather it is the expression of power.

Challenging hate speech is a necessary part of dismantling the privilege knapsack. If we can agree that language is how we express and perform discourse, permitting the perpetuation of hate is to tacitly approve hierarchy and social imbalance. For a society to be successful it is necessary to acknowledge that we need both positive and negative freedoms, i.e. the freedom to and the freedom from.

Ideas that minimize an individual cannot flourish if people are not granted the tools to perpetuate their bigotry. Some would argue that by instituting any regulation at all to free speech that we risk turning into the mythologized society made famous by Orwell in 1984. Yet there is a difference between restricting hate and restricting all thought. The limitation of one does not necessarily lead to the other.

In our consideration of what is acceptable we need consider what kind of society we wish to live in. Do we believe that continually constructing the most marginalized members as somehow deviant increases the concept of equality that we claim to whole dear? If we cannot legitimately claim that hate speech ads any value and is inherently damaging allowing it to continue only symbolizes our commitment to a hierarchy of beings. We either believe that all people are created equal or we don’t.

21 thoughts on “The Phelps family: speech and slippery slopes

  1. “Challenging hate speech is a necessary part of dismantling the privilege knapsack.”

    Indeed, CHALLENGING hate speech is necessary. But SILENCING hate speech, without clear evidence that the hate speech would likely incite crime or material destruction, doesn’t change anyone’s mind. And the point is to actually change minds. The best way to change minds is more speech, not less of it.

    Keep in mind that silencing disfavored speech (censorship) is understood by the public as nothing more than a naked act of power. Censorship doesn’t convince anyone that the forbidden speech is morally or intellectually unfounded.

    But such censorship can leave the impression, probably in most minds, that the censors themselves find the speech threatening. That’s true in any society, any economy, and under any form of government.

    That’s why, in the U.S., the only speech that can be constitutionally banned is either incitement of a riot or calling for the violent overthrow of the government.

    The supposed addition to these First Amendment exceptions to free speech is Justice Holmes’ dictum that the First Amendment doesn’t confer a right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater is based on two assumptions: First, that the individual shouting “fire” in the crowded theater is knowingly lying, and second, this individual is shouting what he knows to be a lie IN ORDER TO cause harm. So Holmes’ dictum is in line with the First Amendment exceptions for preventing crime or material harm.

    “… there is a difference between restricting hate and restricting all thought. The limitation of one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

    In the just-quoted comment, I assume that, by contrasting “hate” and “all thought,” you actually do mean not merely hate speech but hateful thoughts themselves.

    The problem is that not even a totalitarian government has succeeded in restricting thought itself. Censorship can indeed create an atmosphere of public deceit, where citizens publicly assent to statements that they know they do not actually believe, but censorship itself does not encourage belief. In fact, censorship is a stimulus to disbelief, since, as noted above, most people assume that the forbidden speech is censored because the censors themselves find the speech threatening.

    What you’ve advocated in your column is actually the attitude of most Christian clergy from the 4th to the 17th centuries C.E., namely, that speech itself has genuinely magical power and therefore needs to be controlled by the clergy. Your own (apparent) attitude toward other people’s free speech does sound premodern.

    But in real life, restricting speech, except for the reasons noted above, does not allow any society or any individual to cope with rapid social and economic change, which is part of what modernity is about.

    In practice, censorship is a tool for controlling change so as to meet the needs of those in power, which the powerful call “the common good.”

    I apologize for this long response (as always). But I’ve noted, in your columns, that the attitude you show toward OTHER people’s autonomy is markedly like that of pre-18th-century Christian clergy. By the 18th century, most educated Britons, at least, recognized that censorship does not improve people. That insight is still true. People who want to put a dent in homophobia need to stay aware of that.

  2. Correction to above comment, fifth paragraph, third line:

    “… crowded theater is based …”

    Should read:

    “… crowded theater, WHICH DICTUM is based …”

  3. Poeschl, you’ve very eloquently missed the point of the article. Their speech is indeed free- the WBC has every freedom to spout hateful nonsense, and it is right and correct that they should be prosecuted for doing so. It’s speech designed to harm others, specifically. You made the example that one does not- and should not- have the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre. Then why should one have the right to shout racist or homophobic language at people who have identified that they are harmed by it? It’s harm. It’s hurtful and hateful and I do think, yes, there is a time and a place for discussing the ethics of freedom of speech, but more importantly there are people who live in the real world who suffer real harm from real hateful language, and that needs to be stopped. Suspending action against hate speech while we work out exactly where to draw the line helps nobody.

  4. Hate speech where will it end and who will police it. Lets think about that, I agree we should all be mindful of other races, ability, physical appearance and upkeep, sex preference and so on.
    A question was asked who would you rater live next to, someone that keeps up their home like you do or a person that keep their yard a mess, I explained to him that was a form of racism. It took a while but he then caught on. So the same with hate speech where will it end.

  5. I think that bringing out arguments about the first amendment is not particularly useful in talking about this case, which took place in the UK, where there isn’t a first amendment. Despite all our problems (what society doesn’t have problems?) we’ve not suffered any noticable calamities from putting restrictions on hate speech. Just because things are done one particular way in the US, does not mean that’s by nature the superior/best possible way to go about things.

    “Your own (apparent) attitude toward other people’s free speech does sound premodern.”

    Well, the UK’s first hate speech legislation was introduced in 1986, and expanded to cover sexual orientation last year. Which doesn’t suggest Renee’s argument is “premodern” to me.

    Speech doesn’t have “magical powers”, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have an impact in the real world. Speech is already regulated, and can be criminal in other circumstances; it can constitute harrassment, for example.

  6. I’d like to respond very quickly to the comments following my initial comment.

    First, I should have made clear in my initial comment that I was not putting forward a brief for Fred Phelps or for his Westboro Baptist Church.

    Second, I should also have made clear that I have no problem whatsoever with the U.K. government denying entry to Fred Phelps or other members of the WBC. As I see it, the U.K. has the right to deny entry onto U.K. territory simply as an act of sovereignty, for any reason whatsoever established by the U.K. government.

    Third, I should also have made clear that I am aware that the U.K. not only has no equivalent to the First Amendment, but that, since the Middle Ages, both the English and then the British government have taken a very guarded view of freedom of the press and of freedom of speech in general, over the protest of British intellectuals starting in the 18th century. In Britain, starting I think under the Licensing Act in the first half of the 18th century, theatrical performances in London had to be licensed by the British government before they could be publicly performed (I think this was repealed in 1968). In the 21st century, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 is the latest example of the British government’s policing of speech on the grounds that such speech might offend a protected party.

    Fourth, I should have made clear that, although the columnist Renee Martin is Canadian and she was expressing approval for an act of the U.K. government, I was interpreting Renee Martin’s comments as they might apply to the U.S. (since I’m American). I was not suggesting that American-style First Amendment protections necessarily must be the model for every society that aspires to be an open society — but it troubles me when any government, that aspires to preserve an open society, tries to do so by forbidding speech purely on the grounds that it offends some protected party.

    It’s one thing to ban speech that is meant to either (1) incite behavior that is already criminalized, or (2) intimidate others with threats of previously-criminalized behavior, or (3) provoke behavior that would result in material destruction (which exceptions #1 & #3 are allowed by the First Amendment). These bans on speech are actually meant to prevent certain physical acts which are already criminalized or to prevent people from being intimidated by threats of acts that are already criminalized.

    The bans on speech that make me uneasy are bans on speech because the words that are spoken/printed impair someone else’s psychological quality of life, even without including threats of previously-criminalized behavior. This second kind of ban is not meant to prevent previously-criminalized physical acts or intimidation by the threat of previously-criminalized acts. The second kind of ban forbids speech itself on the grounds that a protected party might be offended. In other words, the U.K. law creates privileges the peace of mind of specified protected parties over the freedom of speech of the public. That’s the slippery slope that leads to laws like Turkey’s law forbidding speech that “defames the nation.”

    I have to sign off now because I have to get back to work.

  7. Correction to last comment:

    Second-to-last paragraph, fourth line from the end of the paragraph:

    “U.K. law creates privileges”

    should read:

    “U.K. law PRIVILEGES” (read ‘privileges’ as an indicative active verb — delete ‘creates’).

  8. I find the most vile hate speech of all to be that espoused by intransigent people who wish to gag others on grounds that their non-mainstream opinions are founded in…well…what else? “Hate speech”.

  9. In the end, I rather think this is not really a matter of freedom of speech – but sovereignty of nation.

    If a British man were to stand up and say such vile things, well, they may be prosecuted for hate speech. They may not. The law is rather patchy in the area.

    However, freedom of speech doesn’t mean any nation is required to allow another nation’s undesireables into our territory. Phelps does not have a right to come to the UK. he doesn’t have a right to come here to cause trouble and offence and we don’t hjave a duty to accomodate him in his vileness.

    Other than that, i do completely agree with the original article. People do not understand the power and devastating impact that hate speech has on disempowered groups

  10. I grew up 30 minutes from Westboro church, and attended the University of Kansas. I regularly had to wade through Phelps protesters simply to get to class. On a college campus, they could find eternal reasons to show up and hold their offensive and insulting signs.

    I recall one incident where my best friend was walking to class. The sidewalk was thick with Phelps people holding the usual signs. He tried to get through, but they blocked his path while shouting anti-gay slurs at him. He tried to wiggle his way through the crowd so he wouldn’t be late, and his backpack bumped a woman’s sign.

    She started shouting even louder, “He’s attacking me!” and something about her freedom of speech being silenced. She called for a police officer to come over.

    My friend managed to get through the crowd and rushed to class.

    It seems to me that that is taking freedom of speech pretty dang far.

  11. Fred Phelps is the best possible spokesman for the anti-gay faction, at least as far as (many) gays are concerned. Straight people see Phelps and think, “what a malignant loon, if that’s the argument against gay equality, time for me to support LGBT rights”. Most gay communities have Phelps-a-thons when he comes to town – pledge a buck to the local LGBT rights organization for every minute a Phelps speaks at a local venue.

    Really, what a way to win English hearts – call the Queen a ‘ho. Phelps makes satire obsolete.

  12. I want to agree with the premise of this article. As someone who is negatively effected by this kind of speech, the argument that Phelps and his ilk are engaging in speech that is not covered by free speech laws in the US is compelling to me, and legally correct to the best of my knowledge.

    However, I am uncomfortable with censorship in these cases for the same reason that I am uncomfortable with European laws that necessitate legal ramifications for Holocaust denialists who publicly express their views. In short, it paints them as martyrs to their cause, oh so oppressed because the nasty-bad system won’t let them speak. I was raised an atheist heathen-child so I’m not sure the exact passage, but isn’t there something in the Bible about the righteous being oppressed because they are so very righteous? Censoring them on an official level only reinforces their will to do what they do. Gives them a fight, a purpose.

    I’m honestly not sure what alternative to suggest.

  13. Poeschl – There’s a massive difference between the censorship of the past and this type of legislation. These protections are not put in place to prevent people being offended or on spurious claims about public decency or to protect the government or to protect power from truth; they’re there as a measure to reduce and prevent hate crimes.

    Moreover, it’s not like it’s illegal to say something racist or sexist or homophobic – it’s only when that speech is inciting hatred and violence that it becomes illegal, in my understanding. Otherwise the prisons would be stuffed with journalists from the Daily Mail and Daily Express.

    It’s incorrect to paint the issue as one of protecting people’s feelings.

  14. @Jess — “… it’s only when … [racist/sexist/homophobic] speech is inciting hatred and violence that it becomes illegal, in my understanding.”

    If your understanding is correct, then I have no quarrel with the British law.

    It had been my impression, from reading summaries of the British law, that the law effectively privileged specific audiences themselves to subjectively “test” speech to determine whether the speech should be banned.

    But if that’s not the case, then my impression was mistaken, and I appreciate being corrected.

  15. Hmmm. If the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faithful are correct in believing their prophets were actual conduits for the word of God, and if what God says about homosexuality in the Koran and Bible are literal truths, then doesn’t it follow that if God showed up at Heathrow Airport bag & baggage, immigration officers would deny him entry on grounds of “hate speech”?

  16. “I find literal readings of holy texts to be terribly reductive, myself.”

    Yea, me too….except for the Kama Sutra of course; oh, and “Candy” by Maxwell Kenton. That book was so holy it lived under my bed pretty much from the time I hit puberty. So anyway, rambling through all these posts in which hate speech, and hate thoughts, and hate groups, and hate puppies, and hate prams, and hate doughnuts, and hate Egg McMuffins, and anything else tangible or abstract that can possibly be denigrated by the PC left’s favorite noun (or verb as the case may be), got me thinking about why the name “Geert Wilders” hasn’t crept into this thread yet.

    After all, just like Phelps, he was denied entry into Britain on pretty much on the same “hate speech” grounds: his portents regarding radical European Islam were “hate speech” and “inflammatory”, and posed a danger of inciting internecine friction. Lefties are tripping all over themselves screaming “He’s not a Jew! He’s not a Jew!” in order to deflate suspicions that a more and more common aspect of bureaucratic British bigotry held some purchase here. Yet if Wilders had been alive in Nazi Germany, he’d be on the A List for an Auschwitz gas chamber, since both parents were German Jews -they managed to escape Germany and to hide in Holland. That’s the only reason Geert Wilders came into this world in 1963. He went to Catholic schools as a boy. That’s all. Wilders can no more distance himself from his Jewishness, than an Arab with two Arab parents can deny he’s an Arab.

    So I wonder, can any of the British posters here huffing and puffing self-righteous over the horrors of “hate-speech”, please reassure me that Lord Ahmed was immediately arrested on threatening to call out 10,000 Muslim terrorists to foment riot, bloodshed, and anarchy on the steps of the British parliament (if the Dutch Jew were allowed into the country)? He’s in jail this very minute for that insidious, racist, “hate speech” outburst, right? For that act of treason? He’s in jail, right? Or has that yellow streak up the collective British backside just widened another inch or two?

  17. Tom Sweetnam, please do not resort to insulting an entire country. Reductionist statements like “Or has that yellow streak up the collective British backside just widened another inch or two” just serve to antagonise and shift focus away from your argument.

  18. Tom, as de facto moderator of this space, I am going to agree with what Magpie said. Be civil.

  19. “Be civil”? Actually I’d rather “be gone” after deducing what this web site is really all about. I regret posting several pieces here (having been invited to so….and even solicited to do so), to help get this web site kicked off in its formative days. In no way do I want my name associated with a web site that promotes race-baiting, racism, intransigence, and anti-Semitism. Remove everyting with my name attached.

  20. Tom, I can’t find anything by you within my database, which leads me to conclude that your content was deleted when we re-vamped our policy (I believe I e-mailed you the new terms for the website and, having not received a reply, removed the content – perhaps your e-mail had changed by then or else I was caught in your spam filter).

    Unless I am mistaken, you have not been associated with us for some time.

    As for your comments on the website, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, though I disagree completely.


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