Editorial: The weakness of hate speech

Last updated 05:00 24/03/2014

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Turns out there's a feelgood story to be had from people brandishing placards like "God Hates Fags" and "God Is America's Terror".

The so-called Westboro Baptist Church took its poisoned message to a Lorde concert in Kansas City, just days after the death of the movement's earthly leader Fred Phelps.

The grace that the Lorde fans showed in the face of the protesters became the story.

They unfurled their own banner that said, simply, "Sorry for your loss".

It wasn't sneering. That was the beauty of it.

Lorde had encouraged concert-goers to wear rainbow colours and even to kiss a same-sex member of the protest group.

That last idea was, we grant you, ill considered. The tweet was deleted and the fans had the good sense to eschew what would have been, technically, an assault.

Instead the group's breathtakingly ugly messages flapped around on the ground while the stronger message that travelled the world was one of generosity of spirit - by a group of predominantly young people showing poise in the face of what they perhaps saw as a fairly empty provocation.

There's a case to be put that Westboro receives more attention than it should, given its boutique size - it's largely comprised of members of Phelps' own kin - and increasing irrelevance.

It calls itself Baptist although its embrace of the ugliest rhetoric in the Bible has long since alienated it from the Baptist church, much as that one is, itself, one of Christianity's more fiery outfits.

Every group has its extremists. Even those extremist groups have their own extremists. And somewhere out there, those extremists must be asking themselves what they're going to do about those nutjobs in Westboro Baptist.

It's a hate group. Unabashedly so. The god it upholds is a hateful one, imposing judgment on an ever-darkening world. And it dismisses media inquiry into who leads it following Phelps' death by contending that it had not had a defined leader for a long time.

Whatever. The question does arise, of course, whether this is just an outfit best ignored.

Not entirely, it isn't. Much as Westboro's own views are of scant interest to the public, and arguably to anyone who wants to show an intelligent interest in the Bible (unless it's to assess the extent to which it disregards the book's more redemptive message) Westboro's exercise of its right to protest is a fair test of social tolerance and of how robust our sense of free speech really is.

Westboro members are fearlessly offensive. They show up at funerals to rejoice in the deaths of US soldiers because they see this as a vengeful God's response to society's unwillingness to put homosexuals to death.

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People are entitled to react angrily to this barking malarky.

But we seem to remember reading somewhere that a soft word turns away wrath.

Lorde's fans have produced a nice example of that. Theirs was, by far, the more powerful message.

- The Southland Times

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