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Was Mill Right? Is all speech useful?

April 3, 2011
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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.

11 Comments
  1. willscheffer permalink
    April 3, 2011 4:22 PM

    Great Post. The WBC is certainly an interesting group and the extremity of their “protests” draws a lot of attention in our country. In terms of examining the usefulness of the WBC message, you hit the nail right on the head. As Mill states, the value that we take away from another’s opinion has everything to do with how we interpret it. We can use differing opinions to strengthen our own beliefs. The 2 youtube videos that you showed did a good job of contrasting 2 different approaches to thinking about the WBC. I, too, was a fan of the guy in the second video. This daily show/colbert report type approach to difficult issues is great in my opinion for the exact reasons you listed. Humor is a great medium because it is outwardly passive whereas argument is inherently not.

  2. cfrankel permalink
    April 3, 2011 4:37 PM

    You present a captivating video in this post pertaining to the WBC. I am familiar with the WBC and have see these videos before. It’s almost like a car accident, you just can’t stop watching. Mill would be strongly opposed to this group in regards to where you say that they refuse to let anyone challenge their ideas and how they react to those who disagree.

    You take an interesting route in explaining the usefulness of the videos. The video does in fact make others who are anti-homosexual to take a stand on the issue and publicly present their opinions. Mill would also see the value in this aspect because he stresses the importance of everyone expressing their opinions. It also does promote those who disagree to voice their opinions.

    I think this post is well done in how you point of the values of the video. The connection you make to Mill with both the opposition and supporters accurately portrays the ideals written in the text.

  3. Bri Kovan permalink
    April 3, 2011 4:38 PM

    I understand how humor is often a good way of dealing with difficult issues, like has been stated above. Yet something about how Brick Stone goes about dealing with the members of the WBC irks me. Regardless of how obscure their beliefs are, they’re still human beings. Stone makes a complete joke of them, which I find really hard to accept.

    If anyone’s interested in learning more about them, Louis Theroux of the BBC does a really good job at following the family and passively talking to them about their beliefs. I started watching it one day last semester and couldn’t stop watching. So if you’re busy, take heed.

    Here’s a link:
    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-most-hated-family-in-america/

    • apnash permalink
      April 3, 2011 6:12 PM

      I watched the documentary you mention as part of my research for this post. Louis Theroux is one of the commentators on the WBC that I take issue with in the post. He doesn’t actually attempt to put their views into context, he simply attempts to change their minds via interpersonal interaction. This did nothing to change their minds; it appears that their minds cannot be changed. It was after watching the documentary that I began to think that the speech of the WBC had no value and decided to look further into it to see if I could find an example that would show it to be worthwhile. I feel that Theroux falls victim to their incendiary rhetoric and doesn’t accomplish anything that shows the value of their speech, but Brick Stone’s humorous commentary disarms the confrontational nature of their speech and allows us to see it for what it is: utterly ridiculous.

  4. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    April 3, 2011 5:15 PM

    Good post, the two videos really showed an interesting and sad take on the WBC. I found the second one especially interesting because the lady would not even listen to the other opinion, but instead rudely kept singing and ignoring the reporter, which is something Mill would not agree with. But although it seems like it would be better without hate speeches and protests like these, there is always the question on where to draw the line. How much freedom would we need to give up to stop that, and where would it end? If we take Mill’s viewpoint that wrong opinions can help strengthen what is the right opinion, we may be able to find a small benefit to this hatred.

    • lernerm permalink
      April 3, 2011 6:50 PM

      I am pretty much in agreement with your comment, Melissa. However, I think that we would be worse off without the right to express our own opinions, even those as extreme and hurtful as those of the WBC. I actually think that we would be worse off without the WBC. They give a voice to an opinion that a substantial number of Americans hold and its important to be aware of it. I think their contribution to our society is much more powerful than the respectful and reasonable opinions are. As Mill said, the voicing of an opinion can do two things: if it is true, then it adds to knowledge, and if it is false, it makes what is true even clearer.

      By so stridently fighting on the side of intolerance, the WBC makes progressiveness and tolerance that much more appealing.

  5. Zack Orsini permalink
    April 3, 2011 6:54 PM

    The WBC is an abomination to Christianity. How could they possibly think that the Nazerene carpenter who said, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), and said that God did not wish to condemn the world but, rather, He wished to save it (John 3:17) would approve of them saying that “God Hates Fags”? A God who “is love” (1 Jn 4:8) could never “hate” anyone; just as the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) ran with his arms outstretched to greet his returning son who had squandered his inheritance on prostitutes and on other inordinate pleasures, God loves and welcomes back into his home even the most wretched, deplorable sinners. (Please note that I do not intend to imply that people who are homosexual are necessarily “wretched, deplorable sinners”; I simply intend to point out the ridiculous nature of their belief that God could “hate” anyone.)

    OK. Now that I have gotten that out of my system, I would like to discuss the relevance of the WBC to J.S. Mill. As Mill says on page 603 of Wootton, “The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself.” Mill would argue that WBC’s opinion that “God Hates Fags” is an opinion that is open to public discussion and that the value of the opinion itself is also an opinion that is open to discussion. I would happen to agree with Mill in this regard. No matter how ridiculous and immoral we may think the WBC’s claims are, we must admit that we are fallible human beings and can make mistakes; we must consider their opinion. It is better for them to be able to state their opinion and to have its absurdity plainly visible for all to see than to have it hidden from sight for us to wonder whether or not they are correct (being unable to test their claims via discussion and reason). This way, those who disagree with them can rip their opinion to shreds in an open forum. In an open forum, where the most rational opinion ought to prevail, people climb higher up the mountain of truth.

    In closing, I would like to pass on a message to the WBC:

    “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned . . . . Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but you do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.” ~ Jesus Christ ~ (Luke 6:37,41-42)

    Works Cited:

    The New American Bible. Canada: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1987.

    Wootton, David, ed. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

  6. Chris J permalink
    April 3, 2011 8:37 PM

    What is perhaps most disheartening about both sides of this debate is how deeply rooted in emotion it becomes. Those on both sides begin to portray each other as two incompatible entities, rather than two groups having a debate. I feel that Mill was more focused on allowing others to speak up, than protecting people’s right to speak so loudly they silence others. The way the WBC uses their free speech when confronted is what is most disgraceful, they use it to express their side and shut anyone who disagrees down.

    Mill would probably not approve of the WBC, because “the particular evil of silencing a particular opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion still more than those who hold it.” This is especially true if the dissenting opinion that they are silencing is right, which, lets face it, it probably is.

    The fact of the matter is: if they want to use free speech they should allow others to do so in a calm, equitable manner (I have seen plenty of videos of heated WBC members not allowing people to reply to their heated claims). Likewise, the punnents making fun of them should provide a level playing field where they allow credible church leadership to put their opinions in public in a calm, unprovoked way. I say credible church leadership because you can find whackos in any group of people. They make easy targets, and I feel like they are purposely being sought out when interviewers want to be shocking.

    • rebeccabirnbaum permalink
      April 3, 2011 8:44 PM

      I agree with this. There’s a difference between expressing your opinions and debating them with others who think differently and expressing them as being absolute. I think Mill values different opinions because amongst all of them there is the truth (somewhere).. but it may take some discussion and debate to find it. The WBC clearly takes expressing opinion to a whole new level. Not only do they not engage in any constructive debate but it doesn’t seem like they even listen to others who talk to them.

      • apnash permalink
        April 4, 2011 11:09 AM

        My feelings on the issue were exactly the same as yours (rebeccabirnbaum and Chris J) when I decided to look to the WBC for the truth of Mill’s claims. After some consideration I believe that Mill actually would agree with the WBC’s right to their speech, not because of the member’s ability to be swayed or because they engage in honest debate, but because of what it shows to the rest of us. Through their actions the WBC members show not only the moral bankruptcy and hatred of their opinions, they also show us that true and honest debate is a good thing. The actions of the WBC and others like them allow us to publicly rebuke both hate speech and intellectual dishonesty, both of which deserve a thorough thrashing in the court of public opinion that might not otherwise be had if the WBC wasn’t out in the streets confronting us with them. And for the religious among us, they truly are doing the work of God; they are living examples of false prophecy and the deadly sins of rage and pride.

  7. Christina Beckman permalink
    April 6, 2011 9:02 PM

    I absolutely enjoyed reading this post. Not necessarily for it’s content, for that video falls under a category I like to call “disturbing.’ Although we had problems in lecture defining what harm was or could be considered, I think that this group definitely exemplifies any definition of harm. It’s verbal, sure, mostly never violent, but that does not make their words any less hurtful. In my opinion, they’re fully abuses their freedom of speech that the Constitution gives them, surpassing harm.

    Interesting post! Definitely gives us all something to think about.

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