Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WBC Gets New Neighbors

Across from the extremely anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a nonprofit called Planting Peace has bought a house which will serve as a hub for anti-bullying initiatives. The house, which will be called "Equality House," has been painted to match the gay pride flag.

I like that concept as it is a literal and symbolic challenge to the WBC's rhetoric. And, I agree with Planting Peace's co-founder Aaron Jackson when he notes that the WBC has waning relevance, especially in light of formerly anti-gay politicians and Republicans "jumping ship" from anti-gay activism as it seems to be losing popular appeal.

Yet, I want to address his comment here:
 "[The Phelps'] own the majority of the homes in the community, and I walk through the area every day, and I see them running in between each other's houses," [Jackson] said. "One day I was walking, and Shirley Phelps [one of Westboro's main spokespeople and the daughter of the church's leader, Fred Phelps] was on her four-wheeler. And I said, 'Hey guys, how are you?' And [she and her husband] responded, 'Oh, we're good. How are you?' We had a short conversation, and she was extremely nice, and she made a joke and we all laughed."

"It's the craziest thing -- and it really throws you off -- because she's the type of woman who calls you 'hun' and 'darling' -- she's very Southern," he said. "It's like, aren't you the lady that's supposed to be casting me into hell? It's truly mind-boggling, but I can't say anything personally bad about her because she was kind to me and she made me laugh. She'd probably be fun to hang out with."
To me, this commentary reveals much about the binary, dehumanizing manner that "culture wars" in the US are waged.  The WBC is often put forth as perhaps the most problematic anti-gay hate group in the US.  Indeed, if opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage can agree on anything, it's that the WBC is hateful and extreme. And, I would agree.

Yet, are we truly confounded by the fact that Shirley Phelps isn't 100% pure evil?
doesn't actually spend her days cackling into a cauldron and turning her neighbors into toads? Is it a shock that she can, say, be friendly in some contexts and really problematic in others?

It seems to me that an important step in recognizing, owning, and acknowledging problematic beliefs is ridding ourselves of the notions that (a) if a person holds bigoted views then that person must be entirely evil, and likewise, that (b) if a person is nice in some (or even many) contexts than that person is largely incapable of wrongdoing in other contexts.

That seems obvious to point out, but it's not often treated as an obvious proposition.

[Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog]

[Update:  A reader brought it to my attention that my previous wording of this post perpetuated negative stereotypes about people who practice paganism and who identify as witches. I agree with her, and apologize.]

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