Author: Jana Bennett

Hate Speech, the Internet, and Edwardian Society

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Westboro Baptist Church members’ right to free speech, even at funerals, is by now old news. But I was interested in this piece at the BBC. Louis Theroux filmed a documentary of the group a few years ago but, strange in documentary-land, returned during the Supreme Court questioning to get an updated version. What he found were people who had left the church and he remarks: The family regard it as their duty to “rejoice in all of God’s judgements” – murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company). When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad. Though most of us would say that we are not “like that” and though I have never, ever met anyone from any political persuasion who liked what the Phelps do, their court case, their sadness should make us reflect on ourselves and our own use of language. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have been somewhat of a target of the Phelps’ vitriol. Back when...

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Torture, Accusations and Humanity

Next weekend, Duke University will host its conference on torture, which has a very specific goal in mind: identifying that “torture is always wrong, torture does not make ‘us’ safer, and we need concrete tactics to refuse the climate of fear and and compliance.”   The conference is broadly ecumenical and also interfaith, including Muslim voices too.  And, it has a variety of well-known people presenting who have long been involved in advocating against torture. I wish I could go and be a Catholic voice in this mix.  The magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church is that torture is always wrong, as well (see Compendium 404) because of the tradition’s strong belief in the integrity of the human person and the possibility of that person to turn toward good ways of living – even when that person is accused of murder or sexual abuse or other horrendous crimes.  Torture, as a way of breaking people mentally, physically and spiritually, cannot be a humane way of relating to other humans.  I find this actually comforting, for my own part: given the number of people who have been falsely found guilty (as confirmed by DNA tests) I’d rather know that if I were ever accused of something, at least from the point of view of the church, I still possess a fundamental human dignity. Culturally, however, it’s far more difficult.  Accusations have a way...

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