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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Laughing at the Devil

I am personally offended by my own post.  So proceed at your own risk.  :-)

So, in my last written post I shared with you a rather hilarious trend in Fred Phelps counter-protesting: silliness.  Irresponsibly, horrendously fun silliness.   From what I can tell, many protesters have realized that 1) Fred Phelps makes no sense, and 2) they like to protest because they just want the attention, so the counter-protests are making fun of these same two traits.  But if we compare these kinds of civil protest to operation "Angel Action,"  many of the counter-protests don't seem to have coherent message anymore. Others take the opportunity to undercut the power behind the one-two punch of hate that Fred Phelps dishes out by distorting his message, satirizing it to the point of absurdity.  You know, like these fellas.  (No points for originality there, fellas, but you get a B+ for style and an  A+ for chutzpah.) 

Part of me, I have to admit, absolutely loves this trend because it's so subversive.  Part of the power of hate is the ability to control somebody else's emotions or actions by making them feel small, or even worse, making them hate back.  That's the wonderful thing about satire: it breaks the blade of hate and sharpens the handle instead.  If nobody takes Fred Phelps seriously, if he has no emotional impact, then he doesn't have any power to hurt people anymore.  He just becomes the desperate, masturbatory attention slut he really has been the whole time. (Sorry for the language.  Just sayin'.)

On the other hand, I look at these protesters' refusal to take Phelps seriously, and I think that they don't understand how dangerous of a game they're playing.   Just pretending that a rattlesnake doesn't have fangs isn't going to keep people from getting bit.  The problem with Fred Phelps' rhetoric is that it leads to things with very real consequences: gay-targeted violence, intolerance, racism.  You can't make those real-world problems of evil go away by holding up a "FRED PHELPS IS GAY" placard in a protest.  To borrow a cliche from The Usual Suspects, the biggest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing people he didn't exist-- and convincing people that he's merely a buffoon isn't too far off.  Likewise, the worst thing that could possibly happen to social justice in this country is to convince the world that rhetoric like Phelps's doesn't matter.  It'd be too easy to ignore him, let this hate fester, and then when it breaks forth in a real way, wonder where it had come from.

For a different example: are you offended by "Emo Hitler?" Good-- he offends me, too.  That's why I put him in this post.  In some ways, pulling out Hitler as an exemplar in any debate feels like "jumping the shark," but that picture crystallizes so many of the ethical dilemmas of satirizing Phelps: how is the picture at left any different than what those two guys are doing to Phelps above, I have to wonder?  In a weird way, I kind of think they are equally dangerous-- and the humor in the satire undercuts the seriousness of the threat they pose. 

There's no good way to talk about the following subject without offending at least somebody, so I'll just let "Emo Hitler" and his Flock of Seagulls haircut ask the question for me: when is it okay to laugh at the devil? Or, do we have a moral imperative not to laugh, but to combat evil seriously, and head-on? That's what I'd like to explore today. 

Seeing as we're in the middle of the Easter season and I'm a Christian, let's look at this question from a religious perspective first.  In the Middle Ages (my area of study), laughter was regarded as highly dangerous.  On the one hand, laughter took the people's minds away from their sin, gave them a temporary way to forget the calamity of the Fall.  On the other hand...  the idea that "the Devil is an ass" isn't really Johnson's.  It's medieval-- just read the Gospel of Nicodemus.  There's something just funny about Satan trying to hold the doors of Hell shut against God Himself during the HarrowingThis particular text, which was regarded as a serious piece of writing in the Middle Ages, makes Satan look like an absolute buffoon as Christ storms the gates of Hell, kicks butt and takes names, and marches out of Hell with all the righteous while Satan wrings his hands. 

Likewise, any given play cycle in medieval England which featured Satan as a figure generally satirized him.  He's a buffoon-- and the playgoers were openly invited to laugh, scorn and jeer at him.   It was a kinetic way to reinforce a very, very Christian idea: to reject God and pursue rebellion is to embrace absurdity.  So, from this perspective, recognizing that such evil (and hate, I'd argue) is absurd and rejecting it as nonsense is, in a way, a very moral thing to do.   There's a very fine line between the one kind of laughter and the other, and perhaps that's part of the reason that most theologians had serious reservations about passion plays and playgoing-- and with laughter itself.

*     *      *
But to pull us back to the modern period, let me give you an example from personal experience.   In the spring semester of my freshman year, I had just declared English as my major and had enrolled in a film class with Dr. Loffreda.  That was the same spring of the Russell Henderson trial; I saw Fred Phelps protest on my campus for the first time, and it was also the same time as Romaine Patterson's "Angel Action" protest.  That semester was defined for me by hateful protest, counter-protest, and some serious personal growth as I tried to figure out how to respond to the storm of anger and the political maelstrom on campus.  

At the beginning of that semester, Dr. Loffreda made us watch Griffith's 1915 cinematic epic Birth of a Nation in her film class.  If you're a film scholar, you can no more ignore Birth of a Nation any more than you can enjoy it; it's an important part of the film canon.  The plot is about how the Ku Klux Klan apparently saved America from the evils of civil rights after the Civil War.  (I guess I missed that part in my history class.)  It has all the terrible stereotypes about African Americans you can possibly think up (and a few I bet you wouldn't), and to be honest, after we got done watching it in class, I wanted to go home and take a really long shower.  With sandpaper.  We had some very interesting conversations about racism, film and early American identity with Dr. Loffreda regarding that movie.  But it still horrified me, just like Fred Phelps terrified me, and I didn't like discussing it even in the safe environment of Dr. Loffreda's classroom.
A year or two later,  I was an RA and in charge of a group of honors students of my own, and the entire Freshman Honors Colloquium was required to view the film as part of their freshman seminar.  (If I remember right, they had a focus on intolerance that year.)  I tagged along with my freshmen because a couple of my residents asked me to come, and besides--  I knew what they were in for and they didn't. I was curious to see if I could handle it-- and I was equally curious to see how they'd react. 

At first, all the assembled honors students sat in the darkened lecture hall in silent horror as the plot unfolded; I saw many of them start to squirm in their seats, and some furious, whispered muttering broke out.  The tension really started to build as that disbelief turned to horror and then to outrage.  But then, about twenty minutes into the movie, the first catcalls started:
"Holy shit, man. What'd she put her eyeliner on with, a toothbrush?"
"Why not?  She styled her hair with a weed-whacker, didn't she?"  
From there, the viewing descended into giggly, infantile chaos.  It was like being in the middle of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a running comedy track by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.  They laughed at the "evil mulatto" character with his ridiculous, rolling eyes; they laughed at the miserable excuse for a heroine; they laughed at the stupid bedsheets, the black grease paint and overblown captions about "Aryan brotherhood" and "birthright."  The viewing went from completely mortifying to surreal, carnivalesque.  I bet this went on for a good half an hour. 

But then one of the freshmen stood up in the middle of the crowd, a skateboarder in a ripped jean jacket full of skull patches and safety pins, and he screamed, 
"Why the hell are you all laughing at this racist shit?  Don't you know that the f$%#ing Ku Klux Klan uses this for a recruiting film?" 
Then his girlfriend pulled him out of the seminar classroom yelling a blue streak about how we all didn't take evil seriously, and that racism is no laughing matter and we were all just a bunch of a$$holes.  Everyone looked at each other guiltily, and the rest of the film ticked along after that in relative silence.

So, looking back on this event, I'm a little conflicted about the propriety of our response to Birth of a Nation.  On the one hand, you could absolutely feel the tension and disgust building up in that room before the first insults broke out.  Giving that angst an outlet let that roomful of kids dissipate their rage into something harmless, keep themselves from getting spiritually bent by the film's message.  All of a sudden, Griffith's grand vision of white supremacy couldn't hurt them anymore.  As somebody who had watched the film before, I was actually a little envious of these students' ability to dissipate that hatred and racial violence before it could hurt them.  Even with Dr. Loffreda to help us put it in perspective and understand it from a critical distance, it still scarred me deeply when I had seen it as a freshman.   If only I could have done that with Fred Phelps and his creepy, scary threat tactics when I had to deal with him, too.   

On the other hand, the anger from that kid who stormed out makes sense, too.  The thing you need to know is that that angry skater kid belonged to a religious tradition which is one of the KKK's favorite targets.  He'd seen the result of that intolerance firsthand, and so laughing off Birth of a Nation, in a sense, threatened to undermine the gravity of the attacks that the KKK had perpetrated against his culture and against him personally.  Nobody wants to think that their suffering at the hands of evil is somehow funny or unimportant. 

Okay, so in this instance at least, it seems like laughter is powerful-- but it's also perilous.  Those of us who laugh needed to realize that there is a fine line between laughing at evil people and laughing at evil itself, and crossing that line could lead to disaster.  In the middle of all that jeering about blackface and bedsheets, we forgot about the lynchings and terror portrayed in between.  We can find something funny about a picture of "Emo Hitler" in this postmodern age of satire and multiple perspectives, but what about a funny Holocaust? Is that even possible? I personally hope not. 

That angry kid needs to realize, too, that thinking something is funny is not the same as assuming that it is harmless.  One can laugh at the devil to defuse his punch without belittling the damage that he does.  That kid might have been right, and that those laughing at the film might have blurred that distinction far too much.  But would it have been any better if all hundred and fifty honors students left that room sick to their stomachs, depressed and enraged, unable to process the evil they had just seen?  Having been in that situation, I don't think that's a healthy alternative, either.

So, to come back to our zany protesters satirizing Fred Phelps: how should we approach this situation?  I feel like we have a moral imperative to fight against injustice, and for me, Phelps is the perfect example of that.   In a sense, that's what these uber-counter-cultural protests are doing.  Perhaps that's the fine line we're treading-- they are defusing the bombs in Phelps's rhetoric by showing how ridiculous he is.  But they're not making fun of hate crimes.  Maybe the way to look at this is to realize how passionate the protesters are: they take hate crime so seriously that they're willing to rip Fred Phelps into little tiny bits-- one laugh at a time.


1) The first two photos are widely distributed internet memes, so I don't know whom to credit for them. If you actually want to claim responsibility for either of these travesties, by all means-- let me know and I'll credit you.

2)  "Would you like to Dance?", a redwork stitching by Bascom Hogue, from his Flickr photostream: 

3) Still from Birth of a Nation opening credits, which is in the public domain.  Shamelessly punk'd by me.

4)  One final picture from the Dutchtown protest: Anti-WBC Protest Signs, originally uploaded by antelucandaisy. Used with permission. Thanks a ton, antelucandaisy!


  1. One often uses humor to console oneself for the things one can't change. It helps keep one sane.

  2. Very true. We certainly can't change Phelps-- so laughing is a way to keep him from driving us nuts.