Friday, December 12, 2008

Becket Fund Ad: Below the Propaganda

Recently, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty ran a misleading ad in The New York Times regarding vague "mob"-like behavior in the wake of Proposition 8's passage in California.

The Human Rights Campaign has countered the ad and members of its Religion Council had some valid criticisms of it. Yet, I do wonder how widely HRC's counter-message will be heard. As far as I've seen, HRC's message has only been disseminated via Email Alert and posts on its own website. That sort of preach-to-the-choir communications strategy is unlikely to reach those who, you know, might have actually believed the Becket Fund ad. I certainly hope they would consider running a counter ad in mainstream publications, as Wayne Besen's Truth Wins Out recently did. HRC and GLAAD have more resources at its disposal to run such ads than most of us mere individuals, and accordingly it should be countering such ads on the same playing field where defamatory ads are running.

There are 3 major problems with the Becket ad that need to be pointed out to a larger audience than the LGBT community:

1. The ad never specifies who is being violent

If you haven't read the ad yet go read it now. Notice anything odd about it? Immediately, I was struck by the fact that the ad is a vague, passive-voice written accusation against someone yet no one at all. The purpose of the ad is to say "no" to "mob" behavior, but it never specifies who is actually engaging in all of this alleged "mob"-like "violence and intimidation."

Like the National Organization for Marriage's version, the Becket Fund ad's general accusations are not actually targeted at any one specific group or individual. The closest the ad comes to being specific is when it accuses "some public voices" of excusing the "threats and disruptions" (that were also never specified). Yet, given the context of the ad's relation to Prop 8, the implication is very clear: it is the marriage equality movement that is the "mob"-like entity engaging in religious-based "violence and intimidation."

Readers are quite capable of filling in the blanks themselves. Even though the Becket Fund can back up with its hands in the air and claim that the vague ad is not defamatory, the ad does indict the entire marriage equality movement. The Becket Fund ad is basically just throwing a bunch of scary accusations at the wall perhaps hoping that some of will stick to the marriage equality movement.

2. The ad blurs the lines between legitimate protest and violence

Along with vagueness, the ad grossly exaggerates the "violence and intimidation being directed at the LDS or 'Mormon' church." Just as the ad never names anyone engaging in "violence or intimidation" the ad never actually cites specific instances of violence, mob or otherwise, directed at the LDS church by marriage equality advocates. The ad essentially just says over and over again how "wrong" violence and intimidation are. How big of them. The thing is, not many reasonable people would disagree with such general moral pronouncements. What most people take for granted as moral in a civil society, this group feels the need to publicly pat itself on the back for. What next, a daring Becket Fund ad against genocide? How "brave."

Furthermore, no distinction is made between the peaceful, lawful protests that most marriage equality advocates have engaged in versus the very few instances of actual "violence and intimidation." Thus, what we're left wondering is what the Becket Fund's definitions of "violence and intimidation" are. What constitutes a "threat" in their eyes. How many gay people does it take to make up a "mob"?

Here's a primer. I think most would agree that the following Prop 8 protest that drew thousands of people in Chicago, for instance, was peaceful:


I think most would agree that the riots that are occurring in Greece right now, are violent, threatening, and intimidating. Perhaps "marriage defenders" are just delicate little butterflies, but I think they're wearing their Hyperbole Goggles again if they think the nationwide Join the Impact protests have been anywhere near violent rioting. What's next, comparisons to terrorists? Oh, right then.

3. White Powder-Gate

Most egregiously, the ad obfuscates the notorious White Powder Incident by claiming that "thugs" sent "white powder" to "terrorize" the Mormon church. Although the ad never outright accuses LGBT rights' advocates of sending the powder, again, given the context there really is no other implication that could be drawn. Silence goes a long way and in this silence people fill in the gaps with their own preconceptions of what the anti-Prop 8 "mob" is like.

Yet, in the reality-based community it is still unknown who sent the white powder. Despite this lack of evidence, "marriage defenders" all over the internet have been blaming this incident on The Angry Gays never stopping to think that they are stating as fact what no one knows for certain. And, even if it was someone in favor of marriage equality who sent the white powder, I don't know of many reasonable marriage equality advocates who would agree that doing so is appropriate action to take. So again, neat-o to the Becket Fund for "courageously" pointing out how wrong such behavior is.

In conclusion, the ad ends, "even the crudest anti-religious propaganda isn't illegal, and may not constitutionally be outlawed. But it's nevertheless wrong. It has no place in civilized society." With that statement, I think many of us would agree. Indeed, I'm pretty sure HRC and most LGBT rights advocates would agree. But you know what else has no place in "civilized society"? The use of sweeping generalizations, lies, and false innuendo to attempt to silence one's political opponents.

The beauty of our nation is that we have free speech and perhaps the Becket Fund has forgotten that. As no one holds a monopoly on truth and political debate necessarily includes inherent tensions, competing viewpoints are not "outlawed." We certainly are not expected to censor ourselves just because our opposition characterizes our criticisms as religious bigotry, hatred, or intolerance. See, the Beckett Fund does not hold a monopoly on defining which actions and messages constitute "crude anti-religious propaganda" and we will not be silenced just because this group paints us all with the same sloppy, overbroad "mob" brush.

Speaking of which, topping the ad in big bold letters is the headline "No Mob Veto."

The over-the-top use of the word "mob" not only is unfortunate, it is simply inaccurate. The dictionary definitions of the word mob include:

1: a large or disorderly crowd ; especially : one bent on riotous or destructive action

2: the lower classes of a community : masses , rabble

3 chiefly Australian : a flock, drove, or herd of animals

4: a criminal set : gang ; especially often capitalized : mafia

5 chiefly British : a group of people : crowd

By referencing a "mob," the Becket Fund ad by definition references a large or disorderly crowd possibly bent on riotous action. Yet, while the crowds were large, most groups of Prop 8 protesters were neither disorderly nor riotous. The word choice also connotes a criminal element (ie- the "gay mafia"), lower classes of people, and sub-human herd of animals. Given how over-the-top many "marriage defenders" are being about the peaceful Prop 8 protests, their cry of victimization at the hands of an oppressed minority group rings hollow.

A pretty apt cartoon illustrating the Christian Persecution Complex reminds me that it takes much more than protests and a few random acts of violence for those who hold virtually all power in our society to truly be bullied. Perhaps because LGBT rights have come so far in the past few decades, some defenders of "traditional values" truly do feel threatened in some way by a gay "homofascist" mob. It is all so ironic in light of the fact that it is they who, throughout history, have relied on nothing but their brute, shear numbers to bypass the protection of judicial review and deny us equal rights.


Yet, it is also dangerous for the powerful and the many to suggest that a historically oppressed small minority group is a "powerful, well-funded political force" and a less-than-human mob that holds the power to destroy society. It is dangerous to suggest that small groups of people are responsible for virtually every social ill facing our nation. Other-ing groups of human beings makes it easier to commit violence on people who have been dehumanized.

As a gay person, I take these claims personally. As such, I've been likened to terrorists, the Nazis, Al Qaeda, and "enemies" of America. If you're gay or an advocate of LGBT rights, public officials and organizations have claimed these things of you as well. You. You who are probably as kind, non-violent, law-abiding, and tax-paying as I am.

We all need to realize that when organizations like the Becket Fund take out ads like the one they posted in The New York Times, they aren't vilifying some abstract group of people, they are vilifying us. Allies, they are vilifying you and people you know.

I urge you, in whatever capacity you are able, to counter these dangerous messages. Don't be silenced by misleading, innuendo-filled ads. We know the truth about ourselves. The problem is that so many Americans do not.

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