Last week the United States Supreme Court voted eight to one in favor of a definition of free speech that includes hate speech on what the court considers “moral and political” issues in the case of Westboro Baptist Church, a small organization that uses the funerals of military and public figures as a platform to express their belief that certain deaths are evidence of God’s punishment of the United States for its so-called tolerance of homosexuality.
Most people were not surprised at the results of the case. Most scholars of free speech statutes know that this is nothing new. This is certainly not the first case of its kind with a similar result. Anyone who is shocked might have a misunderstanding of the function of the state. The state is not convened to prevent hate. The state is not a medium through which we are trained or encouraged to love each other. The state, particularly the form of the state that we are surviving here in the United States in late capitalism, is in fact invested in moderating love as a more dangerous social factor for hate. Hate, an individual and systemized behavior based on a profound belief in the separation of people across multiple lines of difference, can actually be quite useful in a capitalist society in which it must somehow make sense for people to abandon each other into exploitation, to enjoy rights and access at the expense of other people. Love on the other hand, that force, that possibility that would require us to look at each other eye to eye, to refuse any exploitation or violence against any being, that powerful force that could make us indivisible is dangerous to the status quo. And love cannot be legislated.
As a student of the Lorde (Audre Lorde), I think it is important to remember in a mundane moment, where hate has renewed and relegitimized its normative role in U.S. social behavior, that we have precedent for a response that goes beyond the apathy of the law. When I see the images of the sensationalist signs of the Westboro Baptist Church, I find them appalling, but not original. In 1983 in her groundbreaking essay “Eye to Eye: Black Women Hatred and Anger,” Audre Lorde recounts a remarkably similar pre-Westboro demonstration of hate in the name of God:
“The bicentennial, in Washington, D.C. Two ample black women stand guard over household belongings piled haphazardly onto a sidewalk in front of a house. Furniture, toys, bundles of clothes. One woman absently rocks a toy horse with the toe of her shoe, back and forth. Across the street on the side of a building opposite is a sign painted in story-high black letters, GOD HATES YOU.”
In the face of this particular instance characterized by Westboro Baptist Church, a particular family and the outrage of another family, the bereaved relatives of Marine Matthew Snyder we need black feminist memory. We need to remember that hatred is not only instance, but also institution in the United States. We have to see the connections between the emotional and economic reality implied by a God who can hate.
The logic of the decision of all but one Supreme Court Justice to decide that Matthew Snyder’s father’s claim of being personally harmed by the Westboro protests at his son’s funeral was ungrounded is based on their determination that the protests were about moral and political issues and were therefore not a personal attack, but an engagement in admittedly offensive and hurtful free speech in the public realm. The one dissenting Justice’s main basis for disagreement is based on the counter-belief that in fact the funeral protest did constitute a personal attack against the Marine’s father.
In other words, the words of the Supreme Court majority to Mr. Snyder could be summarized as: “don’t take it personal.” But as black feminists, we believe that the personal is political and that the political is personal. And not only is it obvious that the bereaved family would take actions like this personally, as a queer black woman hundreds of miles away, I take it personally myself. The fact that the protesters were a thousand feet from the church door and the fact that the story Lorde recounted happened decades ago can’t numb a breathing person. I am impacted personally by the implication of a human insistence on a God who hates. I am angry about the consequences of such a profound separation. I am not content to respond to separation with more separation. I take it personally.
So what are the politics that this implies? In “The Uses of Anger: Women Against Racism,” Audre Lorde explains that anger and hatred are not the same thing and that “anger is a justified response to racism” and other forms of systemized hatred. I think the Westboro church brings home the fact that anger is indeed justified as a radical form of intimacy and investment, and the distance and discipline of the court system is useless in an engagement like this. In fact, the Westboro Baptist Church, which claims to have no donors or outside institutional supporters actually gets most of its money from court fees. Every time someone channels the hurt they feel when the Westboro Baptist Church shows up full of hate at a funeral into a civil suit, Westboro wins on the grounds of free speech and the money goes into their bank account, supplying that many more florescent poster boards of hate. It seems then, that civility, at least in the legal sense, is not an adequate response to hatred.
Let us take this moment to see the signs. Literal and implied. Let us take a moment to remember what we all know, especially as people of color and queer people overwhelmingly targeted and locked down by the state, the U.S. court system is not a place of love and transformation, no matter the decorations of lady justice on the wall, it is not a place of balance because it is not a place where we can engage each other eye to eye. The revolution will not be legislated. There are those of us who believe in transformative justice, accountability beyond punishment also known as prison abolitionists, who are spending our days and nights imagining and practicing what it would look like, what it would look like to create a world free from harm, and systems in the mean-time that actually address the root causes of harm instead of settling for a economy of punishments that separate us further.
If we believe that this is not all about money, that the bereaved father is not trying to protect his million dollar lawsuit victory in smaller court against the Westboro church, or above that is making a claim, like Antigone, that the dead must be respected, that he and his family deserve a sanctuary in their grief, that compassion is not optional but necessary in these times…. If we believe that the Westboro stunts are not just a strategy to bait people into unsuccessfully suing them but the expression of so much fear and desperation that they must invent a God who hates, that they must project the separation and disconnection that they feel from the other people in the United States onto their idea of God (I, too, have sometimes imagined a wrathful Lorde and briefly wished that she would obliterate those who oppress and violate my people through capitalist greed and racist hatred); if we can see that they have truly stopped believing in love as an option, that they are trapped in the short-term and toxic refuge of their hatred…then as Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter says, “the ceremony must be found” to transform the situation and it won’t be found in a courtroom in the United States.
What is the ceremony that heals us from needing, wanting, inventing a God who hates? What is the form of engagement and accountability that could make the unimaginable behavior of the Westboro crew actually unimaginable, useless and ridiculous to the haters themselves? If we follow the words of the (Audre) Lorde, liberal ideas of self-expression as neutral sides of a political discussion are not enough. Audre Lorde says we have to face each other, in our commonality and our difference, eye to eye.
Thus saith the ever-loving Lorde:
“America’s measurement of me has lain like a barrier across the realization of my own powers.”
And the ceremony happens here in every encounter if we affirm challenge of our very existence together: “I am…acting on you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.”
This week, that measurement could be an understanding of law that channels us into supposedly equally hateable equally forgettable masses of flesh. For those of us who know that none of these things are equal and that all of our lives are unforgettable manifestations of the infinite, I’ll see you, not in court but in that intimate place where a ceremony is happening that is more powerful than a God who hates.
In the name of the Lorde, who loves,
Alexis Pauline Gumbs