A few days ago I spoke about the First Amendment and my belief in the freedoms it grants us all, and the responsibilities it also charges us with. It's something I believe in quite strongly; sometimes if only for the reason that I've also found the best way to defeat your enemy is simply to know them, and the best way to expose them for who they are is give them a free platform to go ahead and do precisely that themselves and you end up not having to do anything. I also believe strongly in the freedom of -- or from -- religion part of the First Amendment as well; each of our relationships with the Grand What It All Is is something so deeply intimate for each of us, that there is simply now way to enforce one set of standards that applies to all. The best and fairest thing a government can do, and that each of us should also aspire to do, is simply regulate that "as long as what you do does not affect others' ability to also do what THEY do, then we're good."
But this is still a tricky tightrope, and sometimes my faith in these principles get tested. This week my belief in the First Amendment has been tested twice -- on both fronts.
The simpler incident first. In Massachusetts, a performer named Mike Daisey is currently engaged in a run of his one man show Invisible Summer. In it, he discusses his recollections of the summer of 2001 -- a summer in which he moved to New York for the first time, his parents divorced, and 9/11 happened. Sounds like a ripe field for discussion, yes? But -- still not all that controversial, I'd wager.
And yet -- a couple nights ago, in what was clearly a pre-arranged move, 87 members of a Christian group got tickets to the show, and then in the middle of the show they all walked out en masse. But that's not all -- as they were leaving, one of the members of the group came up onto the stage, grabbed the water pitcher from the stand beside Daisey, and poured it out all over his notes, the notes to which he referred to do the show every night. For Daisey, that move was akin to someone breaking into the studios of Aardman animation and stealing all the Wallace and Gromit animation models.
Now. I claim to be a supporter of the First Amendment for all. A few days ago I argued that with the right to speak, you also had the responsibility of accepting the consequences. But my initial reaction to this story was -- sheer outrage, and the belief that they had gone too far. How dare this group do this? We needed to do something, didn't we?...Discussion in the theater blogging world is low now -- I only just learned about it this morning from collisionwork -- but the little I've read seems to be calling for tracking this group down (no one really knows what group it is) and bringing some kind of charges in some fashion.
But -- then again, is that really what I think should be done? What was I angry about? Didn't this group also have the right to speak? What was it about this gesture that angered me so? Where do you draw the line in this case?
And still, I'd draw it to allow the group as much freedom of expression as possible. No matter how much I think, I simply can't find anything overboard about the group itself buying tickets and walking out as a group. Bringing charges against the group would only make martyrs of them, I fear, and -- those who do would be just as guilty of suppressing their right to expression. All they were doing was getting up and walking out of something they disliked, and I don't know a person alive who hasn't done that at some point. Even them arranging to all do that as a group, I don't find fault with -- the theater stopped the performance at that point, but if they'd just left, then all that would have happened is that the rest of the audience would have looked at each other confused, the show would have gone on, and some theatergoers would have something interesting to tell their friends about over drinks later.
The one person who I feel is guilty of any kind of crime is the man who got up onto the stage and vandalized the notes. In that act, he took the step across the line from expressing his own views to preventing the playwright from expressing his views. It wasn't like the case of CBS firing Don Imus -- in firing Don Imus, all CBS was saying was "just not here." But in destroying Daisey's notes, that man was saying, "not just not here, but not ever." That is the line that I believe no one has the right to cross. And thus, that is the one man whom I think is guilty -- and, moreover, I absolutely believe that Daisey, the theater company itself, and anyone else is well within their rights to bring that man up on charges.
The bigger challenge to my beliefs, though, came with a familiar challenger -- Fred Phelps, the minister of the Westboro Baptist Church, has announced that he is considering picketing the funerals of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre; if you're familiar with Fred Phelps, then you're probably familiar with his particular kind of insane troll logic, but the best way to sum it up for those who haven't heard of him is that Phelps pretty much attributes all of the ills of the world to the fact that he is homophobic. Well, in his case, he would phrase this as "God allowed [fill in the blank] to happen because He wanted to punish us for not killing gay people."
We've seen other clashes akin to Phelps in this country before. The first I was aware of them was when I saw a bit of the film Skokie, based on the true story of a case in which the Aryan Nation was allowed to stage a march in a town where several Holocaust survivors lived. In a controversial decision, the town allowed the group to march, despite the disgusted pleas from the rest of the town asking them not to. When I first saw the movie, I thought that that decision was nuts -- but in time, I came to realize that as abhorrent as the views of some are, they do still deserve that platform -- and that if you prevent them from having their platform, then they absolutely have the right to complain that they enjoy lesser rights than the rest of us. Singling one group out as being exempt from the liberties of the First Amendment creates a second class status for a group, and that creates an even bigger human rights issue.
So when Phelps stages a demonstration, he applies to the town for a permit, just like everyone else. He is given the same restrictions as anyone else would get when it comes to where he can stand, how long he can stand there, and how far he can move. And I support that, even though I find his views utterly and completely abhorent.
Because I also support the rights of other groups to counter his actions. The best example are the Freedom Riders, a grass-roots group of volunteers who started counter-protesting Phelps when he started demonstrating at soldiers' funerals (again, Phelps' logc was that "God's letting us lose the war in Iraq because we don't kill gay people"). Even though Phelps' group was standing the proscribed distance from the church or the funeral, their chants and their signs would still be profoundly disturbing to the grieving families ("thank God for dead soldiers," I believe one common sign says). So the Freedom Riders began quietly contacting the families to offer their support, and explain their plan -- they would attend the funeral as invited guests of the family, which would allow them to get closer to the service proper, and would counter the effects of Phelps' group visually (by unfurling flags and using them to shield the sight of Phelps' signs) and aurally (the Freedom Riders are bikers, and at times rev their engines to drown out the sound of Phelps' chants).
This, I believe, is the better solution, rather than preventing Phelps from speaking. Mind, I absolutely believe Phelps is an utter fiend, a hugely cruel man who is deeply, deeply mistaken about the message of the Christ in which he claims to believe. silent_r_infork also speaks about this issue on his site, and points out that one of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount even reminds us Jesus Himself said "Blessed are they who mourn...", so in protesting these funerals Phelps is targeting a group of the blessed in Jesus' name, a contradiction so huge I find it incredible they don't even see it themselves.
But -- let's say someone did prevent them from speaking. The outcome of that would be that they would be in their bunker, tucked away from the rest of us, thinking -- rightly so -- that they were being treated differently from everyone else and that it wasn't fair; they believe they are being singled out for their beliefs, they believe that the government is persecuting them as Christians, and preventing them from speaking just feeds into their delusion, while it keeps them hidden from those who don't believe it's possible for anyone to be that hateful, and can't understand why people dislike Christians. But -- letting them speak takes away their perceived martydom and persecution, and it also lets people see that they exist; it uncovers the rock so people can see how many maggots are underneath. And it lets others counter their statements to their face. And my hope is that it also rallies other Christians to see exactly how far one of their brothers has fallen, and makes them realize that wow, someone needs some help there, or at the very least they need to also start speaking up about what the church actually is about.
Because the greatest danger in this is for people to start ascribing the actions of the protestors to their faiths as a whole, and that couldn't be further from the truth; these are the actions of demented individuals who step too far, and use religion as their excuse to do so. I do not believe these people are motivated by their faith, I believe they were motivated by their hatred. They are just trying to clothe their hatred in faith to make it more palatable. Any of us writing off all members of their faith just because of a demented one is just as great a challenge to the First Amendment.
What all the people involved in these cases are doing is abhorrent. But not so many are doing something illegal. And at the end, it is the legality that we need to look at, and the only right thing to do.