More on engaging “insane” views

Paul Gowder took the comments from my post about debating Westboro and the Phelps into his home forum. I wanted to respond more fully here. At one level, I think we are misunderstanding one another; at another, we are proceeding from different premises.

First, Paul writes that the Phelps message of “God hates fags” is a “foul, false, and offensive message.” True enough, but so are a lot of other messages and a lot of other speakers. Later, Paul argues that there is a difference between “non-mainstream but sane views (consider the various versions of anarchism, on both the socialist and the capitalist side) and completely nutso views.” As I said in the Comments, the whole point of my first post was to find the line between those two. Lots of messages are foul, false, and offensive and lots of messages–how do we decide which ones are OK to engage with?

Paul insists that “I know it when I see it” is close enough and, ultimately, all we have, since a meaningful objective line is impossible. And he probably is right. Of course, some people would have a very different views of the “sanity” of the Church’s views or, say, the views of the KKK or the views of many other speakers. This subjectivity works at the level of one individual’s choice about whom to engage with in a debate–my history professor’s flat refusal to sit down with deniers.

But it becomes problematic when it is the government doing the defining. And it is a short step from saying that a group is too insane to include in a debate than to saying it is too insane to be given access to a public forum where people will have to encounter that group’s expression–which will require a government definition. As I noted in the first post, that is the gravaman of the criticism directed at FIU by some faculty and students over allowing the Genocide Awareness Project onto campus–the group’s views are “non-mainstream-and-insane” and it was inappropriate to allow them onto campus and subject unwilling members of the FIU community to their “foul, false, and offensive” images of aborted fetuses and specious analogies.

Second, as to where I think we misunderstand each other. Paul objects to imposing an “obligation” to engage with insane views, which he argues entails and obligation to debate Phelps and Grand Wizards. I agree with that, because I was not suggesting any obligation to debate someone; clearly an individual can choose for herself with whom to debate and engage. I generally believe it is worthwhile to engage, however cursorily, with “non-mainstream-but-insane” speakers, even if only to expose them and their crazy views to the light of day. But there is not a requirement that anyone do so and I did not and would not argue otherwise–indeed, imposing such a requirement would itself run afoul of free-speech.

But the situation that provoked the post was different. Stonewall did choose to engage with the Phelps and with their ideas and views–and were being sharply criticized for that and subjected to pressure (or attempts at pressure) to rescind the invitation. I was trying to understand and identify the point at which a group is not worthy or entitled to be included in the debate, thus the point at which a group is doing something wrong to invite a speaker (such as Westboro) to debate. And I think an objective line beyond “I know it when I see it” is necessary to decide when such criticism is warranted.

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5 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    Thanks for the further thoughts, Howard.

    One thing I definitely want to highlight (and I may follow up with more in a couple hours, if I have the chance) is that we reach different conclusions partly because of our perceptions of the role of government. I understood the original post to be talking about what it is good for academics to do (whether as an obligation, or as superogation), qua academics, and notwithstanding their affiliation or lack of affiliation with the state. To the extent that state coercion or access to a public forum is at issue, I of course agree with you. I was talking about normative requirements and constraints on academics and universities, not state action.

    On the requirement question (and leaving aside the free speech questions that, again, are raised only when states come into the picture), let’s distinguish four possible moral states that an act can have: obligatoriness, superogation, neutrality, and forbiddenness. I meant to defend neutrality — that is, I meant to defend the position that there is neither normative credit nor discredit to deigning to debate with these speakers. At the time, I thought you were defending obligatoriness, but I take it now that you’re saying that it’s superogatory? To that extent we disagree, but we agree, I think, in rejecting the pressure that others imposed on those who agreed to the debate — such engagement is certainly not forbidden.

    Actually, I’m not sure about that last point. It does seem like in certain cases, it’s wrong (though, again, of course not proscribable by the state) to inflict certain kinds of speakers on others. We’d look rather askance, for example, at someone who, in the name of airing the debate, invited the KKK to a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I tend not to think this applies in the university environment, however.

  2. Quidpro says:

    Professor Wasserman: How are the views of the Genocide Awareness Project “non-mainstream and insane”? This would appear to be a label applied by some within the FIU community to silence those with views they oppose. Is opposition to abortion a sign of insanity?

    I can understand how some might be offended by pictures of aborted babies. Does that make such a display “false”? Or is it rather that such a graphic display of the truth of abortion is precisely the reason that such pictures are deemed “offensive” and “foul”?

    People do not have a constitutional right to be free from mesages that they find offensive. Truth, by its very nature, divides. Those who oppose the views of the Genocide Awareness Project are free to offer their own arguments. They should not be allowed to silence the Project.

  3. Howard Wasserman says:


    I think you just proved my point. No, I do not find the GAP “non-mainstream and insane” or uniquely offensive, but some people do. Just as some people would not find Westboro’s message insane or uniquely offensive, but some people do. But it is entirely subjective–any line based on the unique offensiveness of some speech or other will depend on exactly whose perspective is applied. What I know to be beyond the pale when I see it may be different than what you know to be beyond the pale.

  4. JP says:

    I’m conflicted about this question. First, though, I think most commenters have essentially agreed on a formal, or objective, line. Participants in an academic debate are expected to abide by rules and norms of rational discourse. The line is (or should be) related more to means of expression than content.

    The problem arises with groups like Westboro, the KKK, and 9/11-conspiracists that are widely known for expressing their views without following those rules. Their speech is characterized by personal attacks, appeals to deity, violence, intimidation, etc….

    Individuals from those groups might be willing and able to participate in civil discourse. (As, apparently, in the Stonewall case, where the Phelps’ apparently had more to say than ‘God hates fags’). However, the source of the criticism is that inviting a member of such a group legitimizes not only the group’s substantive message, but also their publicly known, non-civil means of expression.

    I’m conflicted because I wonder if a few such groups resort to non-rational expression because of their exclusion from ordinary academic discourse. On the other hand, I think it’s the case that most of these groups understand that their views are not defensible under the strictures of logical argument, and would continue to express their message in whatever manner garners the most publicity, regardless of whether they were invited into mainstream discussion or not.

  5. Quidpro says:


    Always glad to help. I did not mean to imply that you harbored the views that you atributed to certain members of the FIU community.

    Although drawing the line may be difficult in most circumstances, I disagree that there are no objecetive standards. “God Hates Fags”, I believe, is objectively beyond the pale. Not only is it hateful, and designed to hurt, but it is also a mockery of Christian theology. Both Christians and atheists should be able to agree on this point.