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Silence Against the Westboro Baptist Church

Michaela's picture

“I’m not going to dignify that with a response.” In my family, we use this as a jokey phrase when one family member insults another in a facetious manner. Though it becomes a laughing matter as the insulting party is chastened and the insulted vindicated, choosing not to dignify a truly offensive action with any sort of reply or reaction can be a powerful and provocative use of silence as a statement in and of itself. At my high school, we used our silence as a tool to combat the hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), in a different manner of protest than that used by the Occupy demonstrators in Esty’s picture, who used their voices loudly to make a statement.  Instead, we stood united against the WBC’s attempts to get a rise out of us or tear us apart.

            For those unaware, the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the most hateful organizations in the United States today. Though the Baptist Church denounces them, they are committed to spreading their message of intolerance across the country in the name of their religion. Their twisted ideology of scare tactics includes “God Hates Fags”, “God Hates Jews”, “God Hates America” and other appalling slurs. The WBC protests at the funerals of soldiers and celebrities, at performances of The Laramie Project, and, in my case, at high schools that allow groups like a Gay Straight Alliance and Diversity Club to convene.

            In my junior year of high school, the WBC came to my hometown in the DC area, first to protest at the private Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama sends his daughters to school, and, the next day, at my own Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (BCC). The school brought in dozens of police officers to keep the situation orderly (or as orderly as possible), and kept us students behind the fence that separated the school from the busy street in front of it. The prospect of these people getting in our faces and doing their best (worst) to get us to react in the way that I so very much wanted to, was daunting. As a heterosexual (straight, but not narrow) young woman with several semi-closeted friends in a pretty liberal high school, I was angry that these people were here solely to upset us and make students who were different from the norm (whatever that meant) feel even more alienated. And so I was proud when, as a large population of the school, we gathered on that still-dark November morning to stand in absolute silence in counter protest, with signs only displaying support for our diverse classmates, as the WBC shouted vulgar, ugly things and distorted folk songs to try to scare us into seeing things their way.

            Our silence was complicated, I feel, by the intersecting notions of silencing ourselves in solidarity and being silenced, both by the shocking hatred of the WBC, and by the administration of our school and of the county public school system, wanting to avoid a messy confrontation. While I felt that our silence was indeed a potent way of refusing to grace the WBC’s ire with a rise of anger from our community, it was frustrating to feel as though there was nothing more that we could have been doing. They say that bullies will go away when they don’t get the reaction that they’re hoping for, but, although the WBC has not been back to BCC since, they are still out in the world, terrorizing people unlike themselves. I was also frustrated that silence hadn’t been our choice in the first place, but a tidier plan than fighting back, presented by our principal to unite the student body in a non-aggressive manner. And while we all agreed to silence as a term of being there, we took our turns at silencing one another when a student’s urge to respond to the WBC, or make comments to a friend, threatened the quiet that we had created.

            Silence as a political statement is a more comfortable concept for me than silence in daily life, and I appreciated that we as a school used it strategically to be the bigger person, so to speak. Despite the relative effectiveness of silence in a situation like ours, uniting the community against a threat, I am less engaged by it in protests like those that Esty posted pictures displaying.  In these situations, where a disadvantaged party wants to make their concerns heard by the usually larger and better-resourced party that they are addressing, it seems counterproductive to spend much time on silence when the main goal is to give voice to the disenfranchised. Can you make a point, using silence? Absolutely, and I hope that we did, and that others who the WBC confronted did the same. But as loudly as silence may speak to one’s displeasure or disgust with the actions of another, using our words to express ourselves is an old preschool lesson that we could all take a moment to relearn when taking a stand.



Anne Dalke's picture

The complexity of silence

This is such a good story to illustrate what you name, so acutely, as the complexity of silence, demonstrating as it does the intersecting notions of silencing yourselves, in solidarity, and being silenced as a form of control.

Having shown the effectiveness of silent protest, the refusal to engage in unproductive confrontation, you end your essay with a clear statement about the limits of silence--"it seems counterproductive to spend much time on silence when the main goal is to give voice to the disenfranchised." I wonder if Jo's essay, which steps off from the same image as yours, offers you a counterclaim to that one?

And I wonder whether the essay by Kim and Markus on different cultural practices of speech and silence--the ways in which speaking can silence thinking, for instance--will complexify these ideas for you further?

I'm also quite struck by the distance you've traveled from your first image of silence--as being "unplugged," as removing yourself from all sensory imput--and this story, in which silence is so clearly in relationship w/ sound, w/ protest. Can't wait to hear where you'll go next w/ this thinking!