Was Mill Right? Is all speech useful?
In the spirit of Mill’s argument that all opinions should be tolerated because they serve a purpose to the truth, I decided to test this hypothesis with the most epically hurtful and useless speech I can think of: that of The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). For those of you who are unfamiliar, they are the group whose website is “godhatesfags.com” and amongst other things protests funerals of soldiers thanking God for their deaths. Here is a video to illustrate:
The WBC seems to serve no purpose but to insight anger and divisiveness in society via their rhetoric. I sat and watched literally hours of You Tube videos about the WBC; from documentaries, WBC promotional videos, and videos that were critical and mocking of their positions. I found that the WBC refuses to have their ideas challenged in any way and actually shut down any dialog that could be had. What’s worse is they seem to inflame those who disagree with them with a sense of rage to match their own, which is also not in service to the truth in any way. I was waiting for any of the makers of the critical videos to challenge the logic of the WBC or to put their flawed ideas to the test of reason, but it never happened. The filmmakers only became caught in the emotional storm that is the message of the WBC. There were those trying to change the individual member’s minds, those trying to directly confront the protesting church members to shut them down, and a few who even attempted to assault them. Shouting out of anger and attempting to intimidate the opposition into silence are not the same as debating the relative merits of differing ideas with the intent of separating right from wrong, which is supposedly the reason that these ideas need to be tolerated and embraced.
It was in the videos that mocked their point of view that I began to see some usefulness of the WBC’s existence, specifically the videos by a man named Brick Stone. His videos were better written and produced than the others I saw, and by this had a more substantial impact. By laughing not only at the message, but also showing the inability of the WBC members to acknowledge humor in the situation and the absurdity of their positions, Stone sets up the church members in the position oppositional to society at large. In this way “God Hates Fags” is a useful tool, by being so overt it requires us all to come down on one side of the issue or another, and this well-done comedy can serve as a tipping point of cohesion against an issue, further marginalizing it as an extreme viewpoint. Additionally, there surely are more people who hold this anti-gay position than are members of the WBC, and when the issue is brought to the forefront by comedy at its expense they are forced to publicly take a stand (either they laugh or are offended), and then they can no longer keep their ideas hidden in a sort of half-hearted acceptance that informs their decisions perhaps without their realization. Those who disagree with the message also have an avenue to voice their opinions in a less confrontational manner via laughter rather than a destructively visceral hateful reaction. This is how society evolves toward more informed and truth-based ideas. I now have a much more secure belief that no matter how inflammatory or useless someone’s ideas may seem, they do indeed serve a purpose for society and truth; even if it at first seems that there is no possible way they ever could.