January 11, 2011

Attacking Symbols: Westboro goes to Arizona

There are some things that never cease to provide that grating sense of irritation, and the Westboro Baptist Church is one of them. Who ARE those people, and what on earth are they doing? Why are they so angry, and why do they choose such seemingly random targets for their expressions of fear and hatred? Last time I checked, the WBC folks hate homosexuals, soldiers, and even Coretta Scott King. I don't know about YOU, but I don't really see a consistent theme in their hatred. It seems to me that they just randomly pick individuals or groups that "god" supposedly hates. Hard to tell. Supposedly, they ascribe to a certain "primitive" Calvinist or Baptist tradition--but I think pretty much every reputable church has forsworn any affiliation whatsoever with the Westboro Baptist fools.

And the latest target of their attention is the funeral of nine year old Christina Green, who was killed during the atrocious shooting in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday. Considering the prior actions of the WBC, I suppose I should not be surprised, but this one makes even LESS sense than all of the rest. Or maybe it's all just equally senseless. Supposedly, they are protesting Green's funeral because she was a Catholic, and according to them, god apparently hates Catholics. But their motives seem a little suspect, if you ask me.

It's pretty clear that the WBC folks are basically clamoring for attention. They attach themselves to newsworthy events, and then seem to work backwards from there. If you have ever seen an interview from any of the Westboro crowd, it is pretty apparent that their "logic" is not all that well thought out. This recent focus on Green and her family is both stupid and pretty transparent--it's all about getting more air time, and it doesn't matter who pays for it. In an age where media and politics are so closely intertwined, the Westboro folks are like a radically stupid inversion of the Zapatistas (who used media to promote anti-globalization and pro-indigenous movements in Mexico). Media can be marshaled for all sorts of purposes, of course, and this includes hatred as much as democracy or human rights.

Cultural relativism is a key foundation of anthropology. Anyone who has taken an intro to anthropology class knows that. But there is a key difference between this concept and what might be called "extreme relativism." There are, in fact, boundaries--and where we draw the line depends on particular moral or political choices. Many people mistake "cultural relativism" for "extreme relativism" and assume that the former means that anything goes, or that any human behavior should be tolerated. The idea behind the relativistic approach to socio-cultural behavior is methodological--this means that in order to gain a better understanding of what people do, and why they do it, it is first necessary to attempt to analyze heir actions from THEIR perspective. The moral decision--about whether or not to accept, tolerate, or even stop such behaviors, is another matter entirely.

In this case, I do think it's important to look into why the Westboro Baptist Church, with Phelps at the helm, is doing what they do. Now, I have by no means conducted a thorough study of this group, let alone spent a year studying their behaviors. So I'm no expert on their motives or way of life. But I think I can make some preliminary conclusions based upon what I have seen and read about them. They are clearly attacking cultural and political symbols in an attempt to garner attention and some sort of notoriety. Admittedly, I am not quite sure what they think they are really gaining by this--but I am pretty sure that the media attention they receive is EXACTLY what they want. And yes, this very blog post adds to the detritus of digital information that feeds their collective egos. I know that. But this is why I like the solution that some people have proposed in the CNN link above (here it is again for those of you who don't want to go look above). Basically, one group is going to go to the funeral and shield the family from the idiocy of Phelps and company. Since the Westboro folks are seeking attention, the best thing to do, as I see it, is to deprive them of attention. Or, at least, the TYPE of attention they seek. They definitely crave drama and controversy...so that means they deserve exactly the opposite. Maybe this means that a good dose of silence is what they should get. Either that, or maybe another dose of THIS TREATMENT.

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