Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)

As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil.  The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming.  If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).

Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not.  Most have good intentions – like most people in general.  Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends.  So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.

When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that.  That goes for any major demographic, really.  But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.

On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address.  In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications.  They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to.  Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives.  Most people don’t set out to do evil.  Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.

Fred Phelps hates gay people.  He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do.  Probably most don’t.  Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc..  But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.

When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings.  I’m talking about their implications.  Their practical, real-world effects.

This is how oppression works.  Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction.  And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture.  We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good.  We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.

We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable.  But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one.  It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.

This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand.  Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell.  But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does.  Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people.  This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow.  The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.

And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand.  Being called out is not a comment on who you are.  It’s not a comment on your intentions.  It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did.  We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil.  It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.

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14 Comments on “Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)”

  1. Jordan says:

    I was all set to go off on a whole rant, and then I watched the fantastic video at the end of this post. Now I’m tempted to just sum up my feelings thusly: CO-SIGN! Emphatically co-sign!

    I have a lot of conversations with people about what they did. It is something of an obsession of mine for personal reasons. Mainly, as most rational people, I prefer a reasonably predictable and stable life, which grows out of predictable behaviors from people on whom we rely. To that end, understanding the what and the why for decision-making of those around you is crucial. In fact, it is really all that matters. This is a fact conveniently ignored by the teachings of, well, most people. What is in your heart really doesn’t matter if you hurt me and you intended to do the act(s) that hurt me and you continue to use that same decision-making paradigm.

    Another way of putting it is this: “I didn’t mean to hurt you” alone is never a valid excuse. If it were, it could be used in every situation ever. “I meant to swing my elbows, I knew you might be there, but I never meant for you to get a black eye from my elbow-swinging.” Sure, fine, you didn’t specifically design the action to create the outcome, but you intended the act that created the result, you possessed the information necessary to understand the outcome was possible (even probable) and you engaged in the act. So what I want from you is not “Well I didn’t mean to” but an “I’m sorry” combined with an “I will be more careful” that impliedly or even explicitly acknowledges that you, as the one in control of the outcome more than any other, should have and shall prioritize my well-being more in the future. THAT is what should be in your heart.

    Applying it to racism is pretty much explained by the video. It isn’t hard to extend to lifestyle decisions too. If you love me, but hate my actions, where my actions are sexual behaviors that are the result of me following the very essence of who I am, newsflash, you hate me. No one would ever accept a rapist saying “I meant to get off, and meant to use that person’s body to do so, but I never intended to disrupt that person’s quality of life.” And no one would ever say “Well, I love that rapist, but I hate his raping.” It doesn’t make any sense. The rapist isn’t some person who happened to violate another person in a degrading, violent, and sexual way. He is some person who chose to take a certain course of action that resulted in degradation, violence, and the like.

    So if you don’t like who I have sex with/how much sex I have/what gender my sexual partner(s) are/where I have sex/what time of day I have sex/sex, you don’t like something deeply personal and vital to my identity. Who I have sex with is part of who I am. Your decision to hate on “sex between gays” if I am gay, means you hate something vital to my identity. That hatred is communicated to me in overt and subtle ways. In directly intended and unintended ways. And it has an impact on me whether you want it to or not. You don’t get to say “Well, golly, I don’t mean for gays to get upset just because I think they will all burn in hell. I certainly didn’t mean to upset you when I called the couple across the hall hell-bound fairies (or usually much worse).” It is completely ridiculous. People’s behaviors and attitudes have intended and unintended consequences. If you INTEND the behavior, then you live with the consequences. Sure, sometimes you can say “I’m really sorry that your shirt got ruined. I didn’t mean to drop my coffee on the countertop while you were standing next to me.” But that doesn’t mean I get to say it again if I don’t use a cup-holder again next time and drop my too-hot-coffee again. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean I get to say it if I was playing toss the full cup of coffee across the room and you happened to walk into the room and path of the projectile coffee.

    You choose to pick up (and throw) the coffee, you live with that choice. Don’t hide behind “how could I know the coffee would hit you in the face after I threw it?” Especially when you hit me in the face with the coffee every day.

    • Grace says:

      If you INTEND the behavior, then you live with the consequences.

      Yes. Precisely this. Anti-gay, anti-trans Christians want to treat LGBT people in ways that are objectively and demonstrably harmful to them, and want this treatment to be enshrined in federal law, but also want to get credit for intending to do “what’s best” for LGBT folks. Sorry, you can’t have both. You don’t get cookies for wishing someone well in the abstract.

  2. Jordan says:

    Damn, I guess that was a rant.

    Also, totally forgot to include: I have to confess I enjoyed myself when the Westboro nuts came and protested my law school (I don’t even think we were doing anything that day, they just hated that we have a female dean, I guess?). Sometimes when there’s nothing good on tv, screaming at racist, homophobic, xenophobic half-wits can be good entertainment.

  3. Kat says:

    I was with you entirely until the very last sentence. I think we can only really judge people by their intentions. If someone TRUELY intends to be loving and compassionate, but is misguided in how to go about this (ie: buying into the “love the sinner, hate the sin mentality), then their intention should still be the same after they are called out on the true effects of their actions and statements, but their methods will change. If, after being informed of said effects, they continue to say and do the same things, then I sincerely doubt they were ever motivated by love to begin with. There are any number of other possible motivations (repressed homosexual tendencies of their own, political expediency, and fear of damnation being ones that I find most likely), but no one could ever honestly say that they are doing something out of love that they know is causing such terrible suffering, unless they have twisted the definition of “love” into something utterly incomprehensible.

    • Grace says:

      Hmm, I don’t think I can agree. I think it’s difficult (not impossible) to comment reliably on what’s going on in someone’s heart or mind, even with people we know really well. And I also think it’s quite possible for someone to sincerely feel they love another person and are behaving with their best interests in mind even as they treat that person very poorly. I have no doubt that a number of our family members, for example, truly feel they love us even as they behave in mean and abusive ways towards us. People are easily deceived by their intentions – they think that because they intend good everything they do must be good, and if not, it must be excusable. Which is why I think we have to keep the focus on actions and effects – it’s way too easy, as the video points out, to derail a conversation about abuse or oppression by making it about whether the abusive or enabling person is good or bad. We can know that their actions are bad without making any claims about their inherent goodness or badness. And really their inherent nature is besides the point – it’s what they do that matters.

      • Faith says:

        Grace, you have it right. I am sure my brother truly believes he loves me. But that does not make the way he treats me and the rest of our family OK. Wrong actions done “in love” are still wrong.

  4. Kat says:

    I didn’t mean that someone should get a free pass or that what they are doing is “ok” just because they claim to be doing something out of love. The actions are still wrong, and they are still accountable for those actions, but I question the honesty of anyone claiming to do something out of love or caring for someone else that they KNOW is hurtful to them. They may believe they are acting out of love, but only because they have bought into their own con. Claiming to do something out of love that is cruel and destructive is a smokescreen, an attempt at a free pass. Over time, some can actually begin to believe it themselves, but the fact remains, the true motivation is not love. The very definition of “love” leaves no room for intentional malicious actions, so it is either a smokescreen, or that person has a warped view of love to begin with, and therefore cant really be said to be motivated by it, but rather motivated by a warped view.

    • Grace says:

      I understood that you weren’t talking about excusing bad actions! But I think the question of intention is incredibly complicated. I think it’s not all that common for people to intentionally set out to hurt other people. A lot of the harm done in the world is done by people who are absolutely convinced that they know and are doing what’s best for other people.

  5. Angie the Anti-Theist says:

    I hope you know about Fred’s son Nathan Phelps. He works for the Center for Inquiry in Calgary now and is an atheist father and husband. He speaks out against his family a LOT.

  6. Angie the Anti-Theist says:

    My grandmother rocked me to sleep when I had nightmares. She made me hot breakfast every morning. She also taught some of the worst, most destructive, and deadly theology imaginable.

    Yes, good people do bad things. Bad people do good things, too.

  7. Kat says:

    Angie just nailed it. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. So, where is the line? How many bad things do you have to do before you are a “bad” person? I think the only arbiter we can use with any efficacy is intent. It is one of the lynchpins of our criminal justice system (I mean the U.S. justice system) a person cannot be found guilty of a crime if it can be proven they did not act with malicious intent (the concept of mens rea is long and complicated, but that’s the gist). Figuring out what a person’s true motivations are can be complicated, but if we are going to make any judgement on whether or not that person is good or bad, that is the only arbiter that really gives a clear picture.

    A lot of people make serious mistakes and end up hurting those closest to them because they have a misguided view of the world, and it causes them to make decisions that in reality are harmful. This does not negate the fact that the person doing the hurting is acting out of love, and the love doesn’t negate the damage, but it does put it into context. If the person is truly acting out of love, then being educated on the damage they are causing will cause them to, at the very least, reconsider their actions. It just sucks that sometimes, you can only discern one’s intentions in hindsight after the damage is already done.

    • Grace says:

      It is one of the lynchpins of our criminal justice system (I mean the U.S. justice system) a person cannot be found guilty of a crime if it can be proven they did not act with malicious intent (the concept of mens rea is long and complicated, but that’s the gist).

      I thought it was more that intent factors in to how the nature of a crime is determined, e.g., killing someone (apart from in self-defense) is a crime whether one intended to or not; that’s the difference between murder and manslaughter.

      I think we’re saying similar things, but with different emphasis/conclusions. I guess part of where I’m coming from is that it’s taken me years to see how certain of my past beliefs and actions were hurting people in various ways, even as I thought of myself as a good person. There were many respects in which if someone told me I was doing something hurtful, I would change my behavior or beliefs. But there were other respects in which I felt I knew better than others about what hurt them and what did not. People can be willing to reconsider their actions and beliefs in certain spheres but not in others – good in some respects but not in others. And again, I really don’t think it’s always possible to extrapolate from harmful actions – even ones that someone has been repeatedly informed are harmful – to unloving or malicious intent, which is why I think the focus has to be on the concrete effect of people’s actions.

    • Jordan says:

      “I think the only arbiter we can use with any efficacy is intent. It is one of the lynchpins of our criminal justice system (I mean the U.S. justice system) a person cannot be found guilty of a crime if it can be proven they did not act with malicious intent (the concept of mens rea is long and complicated, but that’s the gist). Figuring out what a person’s true motivations are can be complicated, but if we are going to make any judgement on whether or not that person is good or bad, that is the only arbiter that really gives a clear picture.”

      This is a really slanted view of the justice system, which is itself a slanted view of fairness. First of all, in a blog that is discussing the right and wrong way to treat people, the justice system is not a very good analog because the purpose of the justice system is to control behaviors so that people are safe. Like the saying goes, it isn’t illegal to be an asshole. But beyond that, you are not giving a very accurate description of intent. Mens rea, the requirement of malice aforethought, is not necessary in every crime. As Grace points out, you would need it for Murder 1, but certainly not for some of the lesser manslaughter crimes.

      I think a more reasonable legal principle to look at comes from torts: the eggshull skull doctrine. ESD holds that you take your plaintiff/victim as you find him or her. All that matters is whether you intend the act. In a classic example, a prankster gets a fake spider and puts it on the teacher’s chair. The teacher happens to be extremely phobic to arachnids and have a weak heart. Neither of these facts are known to the prankster. The teacher comes in, pulls out the chair, sees the spider, and has a heart attack. Tort liability for the heart attack? Yes. The prankster is liable even though the damages were not reasonably foreseeable and even though the degree of damages was unintended.

      This is a good way of looking at interactions with people. In other words, if I’m gay, and you tell an offensive gay joke, you don’t get to say “I didn’t mean anything by it, I didn’t realize you were gay.” (Of course, if I’m not gay, I also may very well be offended by the joke, so it isn’t a perfect analogy.) It doesn’t matter whether you “meant anything by it” it only matters whether you meant to do it.

      This is the basic point: If you intend the act, you’re stuck with the consequences. If you have a gun to your head and someone is telling you “Say that you hate all gay people or I’ll shoot” then we’re not going to hold you liable for that hurtful comment. But if you’re making hurtful comments, putting people in painful situations, et cetera, through your own free will, it isn’t okay to try to excuse that by saying “I didn’t mean anything by it.” You meant to make the comments. The comments hurt. That’s your fault, not your victim’s.


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