More on engaging “insane” views
posted by Howard Wasserman
Paul Gowder took the comments from my post about debating Westboro and the Phelps into his home forum. I wanted to respond more fully here. At one level, I think we are misunderstanding one another; at another, we are proceeding from different premises.
First, Paul writes that the Phelps message of “God hates fags” is a “foul, false, and offensive message.” True enough, but so are a lot of other messages and a lot of other speakers. Later, Paul argues that there is a difference between “non-mainstream but sane views (consider the various versions of anarchism, on both the socialist and the capitalist side) and completely nutso views.” As I said in the Comments, the whole point of my first post was to find the line between those two. Lots of messages are foul, false, and offensive and lots of messages–how do we decide which ones are OK to engage with?
Paul insists that “I know it when I see it” is close enough and, ultimately, all we have, since a meaningful objective line is impossible. And he probably is right. Of course, some people would have a very different views of the “sanity” of the Church’s views or, say, the views of the KKK or the views of many other speakers. This subjectivity works at the level of one individual’s choice about whom to engage with in a debate–my history professor’s flat refusal to sit down with deniers.
But it becomes problematic when it is the government doing the defining. And it is a short step from saying that a group is too insane to include in a debate than to saying it is too insane to be given access to a public forum where people will have to encounter that group’s expression–which will require a government definition. As I noted in the first post, that is the gravaman of the criticism directed at FIU by some faculty and students over allowing the Genocide Awareness Project onto campus–the group’s views are “non-mainstream-and-insane” and it was inappropriate to allow them onto campus and subject unwilling members of the FIU community to their “foul, false, and offensive” images of aborted fetuses and specious analogies.
Second, as to where I think we misunderstand each other. Paul objects to imposing an “obligation” to engage with insane views, which he argues entails and obligation to debate Phelps and Grand Wizards. I agree with that, because I was not suggesting any obligation to debate someone; clearly an individual can choose for herself with whom to debate and engage. I generally believe it is worthwhile to engage, however cursorily, with “non-mainstream-but-insane” speakers, even if only to expose them and their crazy views to the light of day. But there is not a requirement that anyone do so and I did not and would not argue otherwise–indeed, imposing such a requirement would itself run afoul of free-speech.
But the situation that provoked the post was different. Stonewall did choose to engage with the Phelps and with their ideas and views–and were being sharply criticized for that and subjected to pressure (or attempts at pressure) to rescind the invitation. I was trying to understand and identify the point at which a group is not worthy or entitled to be included in the debate, thus the point at which a group is doing something wrong to invite a speaker (such as Westboro) to debate. And I think an objective line beyond “I know it when I see it” is necessary to decide when such criticism is warranted.