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?