Should the universities engage with Fred Phelps? (Answer: no.)

On Con-Op, Howard Wasserman seems to think that it’s useful for universities to conduct debates including the likes of Fred Phelps, on the grounds that … uh, I’m not really sure what the grounds are (and unfortunately, I can’t find the more elaborate defense allegedly linked). See if you can tell.

The common theme, left and right, is that Westboro is not (and should not be treated as) part of the legitimate public debate or public discourse on these issues. The Phelps are not capable of engaging in an intellectual or academic debate, because their views are too out-of-the-mainstream, and thus should not be included. They are a hate-spewing, bigoted circus show that either (from the left) does not deserve to be legitimized and treated as having something useful to say or that (from the right) should not be allowed to make the case for the conservative, anti-same-sex-marriage side because they cannot make it well and will have the effect of making those who agree with their conclusions, but for legitimate, non-bigoted reasons, look like bigots. Westboro is not part of the “mainstream” of public views and thus should be excluded from the discussion. Not to say that they cannot speak in their own fora (although multi-million-dollar civil judgments will curb that); only to say that they should not be invited into the fold of “polite” public fora, such as at a university event.

Jose’s post offers a strong defense of expanding the range of speakers and ideas to be included in the debate, a position I share. It is not clear how one defines “mainstream,” a politically loaded term. And even the most reprehensible views (or most reprehensible manner of expressing some views) should be given the opportunity to be exposed to the light of day, if only to be ridiculed and defeated appropriately.

Later, in response to a comment suggesting that all positions in a debate be represented by at least the semi-rational, he elaborated:

It seems to me that this begs the question with respect to Westboro. Why are Westboro people not “articulate and skillful people? Why are they “unworthy adversaries”? Why is a debate with them not a “useful exercise”? Many people disagree with or object to their views–including many people who otherwise reach the same conclusions. But that is inescapably an objection to their message and viewpoint, not to a more neutral-seeming concept such as quality of their advocacy.

Some points on all of this.

First, it’s impossible to separate things like “quality of their advocacy” from “their message and viewpoint.” If someone makes bad arguments for an indefensible position, is that bad advocacy or a bad message? Fred Phelps’s speech is, pretty much in its entirety, “God hates fags.” Obviously, that’s a foul, false, and offensive message. But isn’t it also an example of very poor-quality advocacy? A competent advocate would at least address why people who had different religions or no religion at all ought to consider his position, where his evidence for this alleged divine hatred came from, the failures of divine command theory, etc. etc., and doing those things would change essential features of Phelps’s “message and viewpoint.”

Second, where does this stop? There are some people with insane views — who think that the government is transmitting messages into their brains, who think that an international Jewish conspiracy planned 9/11, etc. etc. Are the universities obliged to engage with all of them? Must the faculty debate astrologers? (“Actually, the data predict a rise in atmospheric CO2 over the next…” “No, you fool, Venus is transiting Orion!”)

It seems to me that there’s 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. The former ought to have a hearing. The latter? Why bother? I, for one, have better things to do with my time than patiently (and futilely) explain reality to some lunatic screaming about who God hates this week.

Further discussion from the con-op comments:


All these comments are great. But, again, they all take as a given that Westboro is too extreme and too beyond the pale. But that is the question at the heart of my original post: What places a group, such as Westboro, beyond the pale? When do views become “too extreme”? Who decides which views are (to quote Paul) “insane” or (to quote Note) which groups amount to a “cheap rhetorical stunt”? When are views too far out of the “mainstream”? Is it just “I know it when I see it”?


Yes, Howard, ultimately it is just “I know it when I see it.” Why shouldn’t it be? Anything else would require precisely what I, like those on the left and right you mention, reject, namely, giving those views serious time.

That is, the moment we declare a standard to pick out the insane, the argument becomes about whether they meet it, and then we’re again forced to engage with the loonies.

Rational person: “Insane views are those which pick on a discrete and insular minority without a plausible public policy justification.”

Insane person: “We have a plausible public policy justification! God will destroy America because he hates fags!”

And suddenly we’re in the quagmire.

Put differently, there are no *formal* differences between the views of Fred Phelps — or the KKK grand wizard — and the views of a sane person, that we can condition the refusal to engage on. It’s purely a matter of the substantive absurdity of their views, and there are so many ways that a view can be substantively absurd (everything from racism to space aliens) that it’s impossible to describe them beyond simple “I know it when I see it” reference to their insanity. Given that there must be some way to reject engaging with the insane (on pain of never getting any real work done), it must be done on “I know it when I see it” grounds.

That paragraph might not be super-clear. What I mean to say is that the same difficulties that make it hard to devise formal criteria to distinguish Fred Phelps from sane and non-evil people also make it hard to devise such criteria to distinguish the KKK, or holocaust deniers, or tinfoil hat wearers, from sane and non-evil people. If the absence of any such criteria, beyond the proclivity of reasonable people everywhere to say “your view is just nuts and evil,” entails an obligation to engage with someone with a crazy view, then there would be an obligation to debate Grand Wizards. Which is a reductio of the whole thing.

Finally, what does one even say to people like Phelps? How would such a debate go?
Phelps: “God hates fags.”
Reasonable person: “Well, you know, not everyone agrees with your religion, and, besides, isn’t toleration a Christian principle?”
Phelps: “No. God hates fags. It says so right here in the bible.”

What good does this do, exactly?

Daniel, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this if you have a moment — do you think that it’s a civic virtue to engage even with the insane?


8 Responses to “Should the universities engage with Fred Phelps? (Answer: no.)”

  1. Ed Says:

    Hey Paul-

    Good post. I totally agree with what you’re saying. There are too many senseless efforts to engage with viewpoints that are just beyond the pale. The problem with Phelps and people of that ilk is that they don’t even have a “view” in any meaningful sense. There’s nothing internally consistent in what they argue. There’s not even a recognition that texts can be read in different ways.

    Trying to engage people like that is not just a waste of time, but deeply irresponsible. Part of the reason that they speak out like they do is precisely to get attention. The last place they need to get attention from is the academy.

  2. Howard Wasserman Says:

    My thoughts (too long for the Comments section):

  3. Mike Says:

    If you’re planning a panel, time and resources are scarce. You can’t invite *everybody*. So who do you exclude?

    I think the answer is pretty obvious – the nut jobs.

    But…….. Is it really an easy answer?

    Is communism beyond the pale? Should it be, in light of its track record? I think so. I think communism is pure evil. If I tried to exclude communists from a panel on, say, wealth redistribution, how many in academia would accept my value judgment?

    So there are clearly biases that affect what’s beyond the pale. Also, consider……

    Galileo’s view on heliocentrism was once beyond the pale.

    Saying that gay people *should* be able to get married would have been beyond the pale just 50 years ago. Imagine what would have happened to you if you were a professor making equality arguments.

    What university, 200 years ago, would have hosted you to claim that blacks should be given the right to vote?

    Many views that are now, “No duh” views were once beyond the pale.

    So it’s easy to say, “Exclude the nuts.” We must remember, though, that many (most?) of today’s commonly-accepted views were once nuts.

    In 200 years, “God hates fags” may be a commonly-accepted “truth.” (They are breeding, and we are not.) In which case, arguments that “God loves fags” will be beyond the pale.

    Would it be right of *them* to exclude *you*, 200 years from now? If not, then why is it right for you to exclude them?

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thanks Ed — one of these days, I’m going to try to talk you into guest-blogging, you know. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say it’s actively irresponsible to engage nutjobs — it seems more futile than anything else. If its irresponsibility consists mainly in lending an air of legitimacy, then I think Howard’s point about displaying their folly might be enough to balance that out (cf. Mill, natch.)

    Mike, there’s definitely a socially subjective element to what’s beyond the pale. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — it’s a major piece of an argument I’m trying to put together about the acceptable (normative — not legal, of course) bounds of political advocacy. But there is an objective element too — the notion of picking on discrete and insular minorities makes sense as a way to identify those views that ought to be beyond the pale, and one that does not depend on the particular moral views of a given society.

    Also, my view gains strength if one accepts, as I (tentatively) do, the highly controversial proposition that states evolve toward more just, democratic, etc. conditions over time. The defense of that proposition is, alas, rather difficult and I’m not quite sure how it should be done yet.

  5. Mike Says:

    I am becoming more of a cultural relativist each day. What we did yesterday is just clearly wrong. And what we’re doing today is just wrong. And yet, what was wrong was accepted as right. And what is wrong today is accepted as right.

    In 200 years, will people still eat animals? I can’t conceive of that – at least if societies evolve towards being more just. Really….. We hold sentient beings in cages. They suffer diseases and feel pain.

    We slit their throats or pound their heads with clubs or stun guns. We do this even though the amount of flesh we need to eat is less than 20% of what we actually eat. IOW, even if we *need* to eat some animal flesh, most of us eat too much.

    Yet if you went around telling people that killing other animals (esp. in cases like foie gras where the animals are abused and the flesh is consumed not for nourishment, but for pure sensual enjoyment), you’d be looked at weirdly. Imagine saying that at dinner? Sure, we tolerate vegans…. But in the sense that we might tolerate other whackos.

    Yet in 200 years, I simply cannot imagine a just society viewing the issue any differently than vegans do. Can you?

    And yet we both each flesh and cheese. (Or at least, I think you do.)

    What is wrong with us?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    We are imperfect. We struggle. We’re bundles of drives and desires and impulses and fears with a thin layer of rationality on top. That is what is wrong with us.

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    (Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to write an Overcoming Bias post on self control.)

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