Demagoguery and the Westboro Baptist Church: Deconstructing the Tactics of Hate
Success from Retaliation
Since the church began protesting, there has been major backlash from not only those offended by their callous, hateful protests, but they have now become the target of vigilante retaliation. In response to Westboro's protests, average citizens have taken it upon themselves to "protest back," so as to block out the disheartening words of the church. A group of motorcycle riders donning large American flags, calling themselves the "Patriot Guard Riders" will follow the caskets of soldiers to the burial ground in order to drown out the shouts of the Westboro Church, for example. Some people will hold up larger signs with humorous or inspiring messages on them and stand in front of the church in another attempt to cover up their hate. Others have organized groups to simply block out the hateful signs and shouting by standing in their way.
These tactics can often be effective in the sense that they successfully inspire and generate support for the victims of Westboro's hurtful message. But as the intensity of these conflicts increase, interest in videos and news coverage of the anti-protests rise. These videos have remained popular online, and continue to generate buzz whenever they are posted. Some have even reached into the millions of views. The popular rock band Foo Fighters even have a video in which they perform an impromptu concert on the back of a flatbed truck in order to block out a Westboro protest. Word of these anti-protests is beginning to spread as quickly as the church announces their next target.
Along with these videos, Internet memes, or photographs with often-humorous messages, have begun to emerge and spread around Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. One example, posted by username Hokie200proof (2010), shows an unflattering image of Shirley Phelps and reads, "[Westboro] believes Gods hates Jews…Jesus, Mary, all twelve apostles, and everyone in Old Testament was a Jew."
Although these videos can be exciting to watch and images easy to laugh at, they play a major part in Westboro's rhetorical strategy. There are currently more than 840 websites linking in to Westboro's website currently, including Twitter, Wikipedia, and Stormfront (Klein, 2010, p. 110). Videos involving Westboro, like the ones previously discussed, account for millions of views on YouTube, and have been covered on news stations and websites throughout the country. According to Webstatzone, their website now receives over 15,000 views per day (2012). Penetrating these numerous channels of media and online social communities like Facebook and Twitter was likely no mistake, and if it was, it can be considered the best mistake the church could have made. According to Klein (2010), "The most popular online genres among today's younger generation are social networks, gaming, video-sharing, and music download sites." (p. 77) The web and viral content have become a major part of the young generation's life, and therefore a free channel of expression without censorship for Westboro's message of hate. If the church's main goal is to create polarization and create anguish, pain, and hurt in their target outgroup, they will certainly achieve that if everyone simply hears their voice.
When the bombing of the Boston marathon happened in early 2013, pictures and messages began to appear online warning the Westboro Church not to protest the funerals of the victims. The success of the church's rhetoric is best represented by the fact that these messages were posted before the church ever announced a protest. As mentioned before, the Westboro Church's main goal is to polarize, demonize, and attack. They intend to create an ingroup and an outgroup, and preach punishment and aggressive hatred of the outgroup, while never offering a chance to join the outgroup. But, being "proponents of nonviolence," and in an effort to maintain legitimacy, Westboro never preaches for violence or direct action. In fact, in their "memorial" site to Matthew Shepard, they even say, "WBC does not support the murder of Matthew Shepard: 'thou shalt not kill'" (Matthew Shepard Memorial).
If the goal of the church is neither violence nor eradication of the outgroup, then their aim must be to punish or cause anguish to the outgroup. They do this by successfully making common, innocent people worry about encountering the embarrassment and sadness of the Westboro Church showing up to protest the funeral of a loved one. Their choice of picketing victims is calculated so as to be as mainstream as possible and to shock people into listening to their message. The Westboro Church shows little interest in recruitment, but rather in causing mental anguish to those that they hate. By taking advantage of our curiosity and newfound interest in viral media, the Westboro Church has been successful in having an impact on our lives. Although they are unlikely to persuade people that they are right, they have unquestionably impacted the lives of many victims by making us expect their presence and forcing us to hear their hateful rhetoric.
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