Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Answers and Conclusions

Fred Phelps,  personalmoneynetwork.com
The paradox of protesting Westboro pickets is that it both helps the pro-gay community by galvanizing the pro LGBT movement, and yet supports the Westboro Baptist’s goals by bringing attention to their cause. In view of this, one may ask: What is the best way to deal with incendiary social movements such as the Westboro? According to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, all people are equal and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the persuit of Happiness" (Britt 2010:640). Those offended by their actions may turn to the law.  However, despite some attempts to accuse the Westboro of emotional damage as a result of their speech, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the Westboro Baptists. On a broad scale, all the group is doing is expressing their beliefs and opinions just as any other religious, or non-religious group can do.  Even if most of what they say is negative and harmful to some, “most forms of speech, even “hate speech” are protected by the Constitution unless, as in cases of incitement, they are clearly linked to other kinds of criminal action or injury (Britt 2010:634). What the Constitution does not recognize is the impact of some forms of “hate speech” – such as ones the Westboro uses. In his article, “Hate Speech and Biblical Tradition”, Brian Britt suggests that “hate speech” – or as he calls them “curses” – of a Biblical nature have a different meaning to those who follow the Bible; this meaning and subsequent social consequences are not addressed through secular laws.  In the numinous, magical world-view characteristic of the Bible (and those fundamentalist groups who follow it) curses are powerful and harmful weapons. He writes: “Powerful religious speech can be used in a strategic manner and even recanted, despite the tendency to think of such utterances as irreversible” (Britt 2010:637).  This demonstrates that there are loopholes in the laws of a secular society that is in conflict with an entirely different and more ancient world-view of fundamentalist social movements such as the Westboro.

Rick Santorum, addictinginfo.org
The dichotomy between the secular and religious world-views is taking an increasingly powerful hold over American politics. Homosexuality has become a central axis in politics where opposing world-views play out. This issue has become a feature of the recent election primaries. Louisa Bertman writes of Rick Santorum, “a consistent and unapologetic homophobia has been one of the central aspects of his long career in politics” (2012:1). Santorum is increasingly gaining support over his anti-gay rights but less radical opponent, Mitt Romney. Anti-gay views of these Politian’s attract other fundamentalists – such as those of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The rise of such fundamentalist, religious perspectives may have economic roots. Amy Adamczyk and Cassady Pitt suggest, “when a nation is regularly faced with political and economic uncertainty and insecurity, people are more likely to support values and norms that emphasize the familiar. As a result… people may be less tolerant of non traditional ideas and lifestyles” (2009:340). Since the U.S. is in an economic crisis, it now makes sense why strong fundamentalists such as the Westboro, and Rick Santorum are appearing and gaining support.  

The unsuccessful attempts of turning to the Constitution to stop radical anti gay movements raise the question: What is the best way to look at anti-gay groups such as Westboro? They form a complex part of American culture. As of now, the Westboro has triggered LGBT supportive communities to voice their opinions and organize counter-protests such as the one I attended. They have also sparked the formation of another group called Patriot Guard Riders (whom are depicted in the surrounding images), who “form a human shield in front of the protesters so that mourners cannot see them, and when necessary, rev their engines to drown out the shouts of the Westboro group” (Brouwer, Hess 2007:83) If the Constitution stopped the Westboro Baptists, would those pro-gay supporters still take such strong, peaceful actions in response?

 In the end it is important to remember that, what seemed at first to be a black and white issue depicting a radical and pernicious social movement, turned out to be a multi-colored, complex matter. As Rebecca Fox wrote of understanding and interpreting movements such as the Westboro, “the goal is not to create an apologetic portrait of racists or anti-Semites or homophobes, but one that captures the complexities of their lives” (2011:16). 

Works Cited:
Adamczyk, Amy, and Cassady Pitt
   2009   Shaping Attitudes About Homosexuality: The Role of Religion and Cultural Context. 
       Social Science Research 38(2):338-351

Bertman, Louisa
   2012   Bigots and Enablers. The New Republic Journal of Politics and the Arts 243(4916):1

Britt, Brian M.
   2010 Curses Left and Right: Hate Speech and Biblical Tradition. Journal of the  
       American Academy of Religion 78(3):633-661
Brouwer, Daniel C, and Aaron Hess
   2007   Making Sense of ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’: A Thematic
       Analysis of Milbloggers’ Responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro
       Baptist Church. Western Journal of Communication 71(1):69-90.

Fox, Rebecca Barrett
  2011 Anger and Compassion on the picket Line: Ethnography and emotion in the Study
      of Westboro Baptist Church. Journal of Hate Studies 9(1):11-32.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Personal Encounter

Photos I took of the counter-protest:
There is only so much one can learn when researching a group of people indirectly. Bias is a constant issue: the media depicts Westboro in the same way, and there is only so much one can obtain from reading online articles or research papers. In anthropology, in order to achieve a more in depth understanding of a subject, one has become immersed within the group through participant observation.  Rebecca Barrett did this with the Westboro Baptist Church members, and subsequently gained a different perspective than most people have of Westboro. She explains that the “Westboro Baptists have nothing against you personally.” Everyone is “equally hell-bound” for supporting a “fag nation” (2011:15).  Authors Daniel Brouwer, and Aaron Hess also come to a similar interpretation of Westboro – in regards to their pickets of funerals, “the soldier him- or herself is constructed as an extension of the military, which carries the symbolic power of the nation… WBC protests become symbolic attacks on the United States as a nation, not on individual solders” (2007:79). Again, it is not that Westboro doesn’t like the individual, but rather the nation as a whole.

Barrett witnessed interactions between Westboro Baptists and an openly gay journalist who was interviewing the group. To her surprise, she observed that the “church members were consistently polite to him, never using the language they use on the picket line to describe other gay men…  They were considerate of his needs and encouraging of his questions” (2011:15). She herself was only chastised once for not being aware that the Bible says women should not cut their hair. Barrett’s experience with Westboro is one that is not depicted in media; her observations give the anti-gay group human and civil qualities.

My own personal experience with Westboro is very limited. Before November 2010, my knowledge of Westboro was non-existent. I then heard that an anti-gay group was coming to my city to protest the production of “The Laramie Project”. Coming from a society with liberal values in comparison to the group, the Westboro Baptist’s were both abhorrent and intriguing. Who, and why would someone want to protest against something so sensitive and personal? I decided to attend the “God Loves Fags” counter protest that was organized. However unlike Barrett, I did not observe the protest through an anthropological perspective – by remaining an outside, objective observer – but rather was caught up in the whirlwind of intense emotions. My perceptions of the Westboro were obscured by negative depictions from the media.

"You're not in Kansas Anymore" Sign
From what I witnessed - despite the Westboro not showing up - supporters of the counter protest still attended and collectively created a peaceful, humorous environment, and a common area where people –no matter what their sexual orientation –were accepted.  Despite the welcoming environment, there was an underlying feeling of strong hatred towards the Baptists amongst the attendees. This was understandable, as it was the collective strong opposition to the Westboro that drove them to participate in the counter-protest in the first place.  To many, the Westboro were violating their values of acceptance of the LGBT community. Many comments overheard expressed hatred towards the Westboro group.

By gathering and discussing and inflaming hatred, are the counter-protesters allowing themselves to be part of the hate cycle Westboro creates? Despite the Westboro being explicitly anti-gay, does it do good to draw further attention to the group by attending protests? Do counter protests further help them to achieve their goals? This is a paradox that those in support of the gay community face. At the same time, something that the Westboro Baptist’s probably unintentionally do is mobilize the pro-gay community into action.  They inadvertently create environments - such as the counter-protest I attended – that exhibits public displays of acceptance and love for the gay community. Because of this, it is not entirely counter-productive to counter-protest the Westboro’s pickets. 

Works Cited:

Fox, Rebecca Barrett
  2011 Anger and Compassion on the picket 
      Line: Ethnography and emotion in the 
      Study of Westboro Baptist Church. Journal 
      of Hate Studies 9(1):11-32.

Brouwer, Daniel C, and Aaron Hess
   2007   Making Sense of ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’: A Thematic Analysis of 
       Milbloggers’ Responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Western 
       Journal of Communication 71(1):69-90.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Protest Style Analysis

Remember that the main goal of the Westboro group, is that they want to preach the word of god and save those condemned. In order to achieve this, they need to spread awareness of their cause. They do this in part by carrying signs with eye-catching colors and messages. The location of the protest is equally – or even more important. These locations are typically ones that are emotionally sensitive, and heightened with strong feelings – including Ground Zero, soldier’s funerals, etc. They justify their presence at these locations by explaining that God is punishing those who have died for supporting a gay-supporting nation, and that they need to spread the word of God. Westboro does not tend to picket the same locations twice or picket events that are permanent. For instance, a funeral may only last a few hours, but the emotional results of their protest may last months.

By varying locations and selecting ones that are already heightened with emotion, the Westboro group are effectively achieving their goal; they are spreading their beliefs and raising awareness in many areas. Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook (the authors of “Rhetoric of Place in Protest”) describe how using the same locations for a protest can be constraining. They use the example of free speech zones on college campuses, they “often have the result of framing free speech as something that happens only in specific, designated areas” (2011:277). By altering their picketing locations, the Westboro avoid these constraints and imply that their beliefs apply everywhere – making everyone a vulnerable victim.  Cook and Endres acknowledge that using the same or designated protest locations can also have benefits; it can remind those attending of previous powerful memories, and gives permanent meaning to the location. However, considering that the main objective of Westboro is to spread the word of God among diverse communities, using the same location would not aid in spreading their beliefs, and achieving their goal.

Combined with select locations, the attitude and emotion of the group creates a strong effect on those around them. Compared to the Westboro church members, Canada and United States can be considered a liberal society. Members of the group use this to their advantage: their strong fundamentalist and conservative beliefs - as well as the way they express them - are so powerful and emotionally stimulating that they create a ripple of emotions. As a result, some people respond instinctively with anger, confusion, and frustration. However, some react to Westboro with humor. For example, I would like to draw attention to two particular interviews. In the first video, Tyra Banks attempts to understand Westboro’s motives and is willing to have a discussion, but emotions take over and as a result of the Westboro’s harsh and accusatory tone, Tyra begins to respond in frustration and annoyance. In the end she is more successful in obtaining information from them than the second video, where the reporter is not very respectful of the protesters, and treats them entirely as a ludicrous joke. Both of these interviews are examples of how Westboro’s hatred towards the “fag enabling” nation offends others, but they use this offense to create awareness of their views and thus achieve their main goal.  This creates a dilemma for those who are pro-gay, and against the Westboro’s beliefs. By protesting against them, and giving them more media coverage, they are unintentionally helping the Westboro achieve their goal in spreading “God’s word”, and hatred towards homosexuals. The Westboro members have effectively created a cycle that is difficult to break.

Works Cited:

Endres, Danielle, and Samantha Senda-Cook
  2011 Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest. Quarterly Journal of Speech 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Protest Style


The Michael Moore video posted in my previous post shows the main way in which the Westboro group advocates their anti-gay beliefs. In the video - if you look at the member’s actions at the surface - you see a group of people standing on the streets holding anti-gay signs, loudly vocalizing their beliefs. The radical image that Moore creates is only one aspect of their protest style. It is important to analyze the Westboro actions, understand why they might choose a certain vocabulary for their signs, discover where they choose to protest, as well as uncover why they get so much attention from the media. Protest style is important and unique to each social movement. Depending on their goals and what they stand for, a group may conduct a protest that suits their beliefs while ensuring their voices be heard. For example, the Westboro do not believe in violence, as a result their protests are peaceful in the sense they cause no physical damage. Their protests help draw attention from the public, create controversy, and hopefully generate  change that the group advocates. 

Looking at the Westboro group holding up their signs is shocking – they certainly aren’t subtle when expressing what they believe in. Common messages on their signs include: “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for 911”, “Soldiers die for fag marriage”, etc. As the images and the Michael Moore video show, they draw attention to themselves by using controversial messages, which alone attract attention – but with the use of bright colors, their location choice, and vocal exclamations, the Westboro members successfully create a spectacle that is impossible to ignore. Their choice of vocabulary is not sophisticated, but it is effective in getting attention and causing an emotional stir; the repeated use of “fag” is a good example. It is a highly emotionally charged term for homosexuals. On their website the Westboro claim that the word “fag” comes from the Bible and is a term to describe a form of kindling, and just as kindle fuels a fire, homosexuals fuel “God’s wrath”. Just like their incendiary vocabulary choices, the locations where they choose to express their beliefs tend to be emotionally charged – including American soldier’s funerals, and performances of The Laramie Project (a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student).

All components of their protest tactics combined create a blunt, seemingly straightforward, and emotionally raw situation. Is having such a strong emotional impact on viewers a beneficial thing? Ultimately, are the Westboro achieving their goal by causing such controversy? Next post, I will attempt to answer these questions, as well as analyze the pros and cons of their protest style.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Origins and History

Though homosexuality is an issue that has been of great interest as of late, it is not at all a new addition to culture. Dating back to as far as 9660-5000 BC, Mesolithic rock art found in Sicily depicted homosexual couples engaging in intercourse. The image to the right is an example of ancient Egyptian art, portraying two males kissing. The acceptance or rejection of homosexuals has varied over time, and differed from culture to culture. Michael K. Sullivan, the author of "Homophobia, History, and Homosexuality" gives the example of one Native American culture, where it was okay for a male to have sex with those who were labeled as being gay – as they were considered a third sex called Beardache – but taboo for those in the “third sex” to have intercourse with one another (2003:4). This particular Native American cultural attitude is but one of many interpretations of homosexuality in history.  

So where does strong opposition to gays originate? It most likely stems from the few occasional anti-gay references in the Bible. The most well known statement often cited from the Old Testament states that, “if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Lev. 20:13 KJV). With the Bible having such a powerful influence on the western world, it is understandable that it would have a pivotal effect on the acceptance of sexual orientation. Subsequently, issues surrounding homosexuality have been integrated into many areas including medicine, psychology (up until the 1970’s being gay was considered a disease), and even politics -  in the current US republican primaries, views on same sex marriage and gay rights form a part of the debate in candidates’ campaigns.

Like many radical anti gay groups, The Westboro Baptist Church bases their hostility toward gays on various excerpts in the Old Testament. They aim to follow the moral laws of the Mosaic Code which claims that partaking in sodomy is a sin.  On their website, they proclaim they “have a Bible basis for recognizing that homosexuality is a particularly heinous sin in the eyes of the God of Eternity”. They are quite thorough in providing quotes from the Bible that indicate homosexuality is a sin, giving examples, such as under the Law of Moses being gay resulted in punishment of death, as well as the already cited famous excerpt by Leviticus.

To view the Westboro group from an anthropological perspective it is important to understand where their beliefs stem from, this provides a deeper understanding of their cause. While they explain that their anti-gay convictions come from the Old Testament, they leave out the broader biblical context; any act that interrupts the production of offspring was considered a sin – including masturbation, and intercourse with menstruating women. It is interesting that they focus exclusively on homosexuality and leave out the other offences included in the Old Testament. On their website they explain that their goal is to preach the word of God and to save those who may be condemned. The various tactics they use to achieve their goal, will be outlined in my next post.
 In the mean time, here is an interesting video that has a pro-gay critique on the Westboro group, and introduces one of the main ways Westboro protests.

Works Cited:
Sullivan, Michael  K.
   2003    Homophobia, History, and Homosexuality: Trends for Sexual Minorities. Journal of      
        Human Behavior in the Social Environment 8(2/3):1-13.

Westboro Baptist Church website
     http:// www.godhatesfags.com/faq.html#Fag, accessed 16 March 2012.

1974  Holy Bible
  New American Library

Friday, 9 March 2012

Introduction and Purpose

When we think of a “social movement” it’s easy to think that it’s just an angry group of protesters with signs. Certainly, when you Google “social movement images”, the majority confirm that stereotype. In reality social movements are much more complex - protesters with signs are only one manifestation of something bigger. 


Definitions of a social movement vary, but each movement has elements in common. For example, John Steckley and Guy Kirby Letts define them as “sustained, organized collective efforts that focus on some aspect of progressive social change” (2007:149). The Encyclopedia Britannica, however, defines it as “collective enterprises acting on emergent ideas or values and endeavoring to bring about change in certain social institutions or entirely new orders” (1976:313). As a final example, Mary L. Gray emphasizes in her article the importance of group identity in a social movement, and the use of “identity to mobilize constituents” (2009:216). Collectively these definitions focus on group identity based on common values, and goals achieved through various actions to direct some kind of change.

One social movement that you are most likely familiar with is the pro gay rights movement. Homosexuality rights such as same sex marriages have been a trending topic, particularly in the States. But who are the people actively opposed to gay rights? Why are they against gay rights? This brings me to the purpose of this blog. As part of a Cultural Anthropology project, I will attempt to explore the broad issues of the anti-gay social movement in the United States, using the Westboro Baptist Church as a primary example. I have chosen the Westboro group as they are known for being exceptionally vocal, and organized in their anti-gay campaign. This blog will attempt to unveil the motives and meanings behind their cause and actions, as well as discover the origins of the anti-gay movement, through research and application of anthropological principles. 

Works Cited:
Gray, Mary L.
  2009 ‘‘'Queer Nation is Dead/Long Live Queer Nation': The Politics and Poetics of Social                
     Movement and Media Representation," Critical Studies in Media Communication 
     26(3): 212-236
Preece, Warren E., ed.
  1974   The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 

Steckley, John, and Letts, Guy Kerby
  2007  Elements of Sociology, Second Edition. 
     Oxford: Oxford University Press.