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 I was a United Methodist, I was a member of General Conference , the denomination’s top decision making body. During the week we were voting on decisions about homosexuality, we were also visited and taunted by Westboro Baptist, among others.)

Consider, for example, how internet discussions usually happen. The comments at almost any news site and many blogs and discussion boards may start out decently but usually end with levels of hate speech that have to be purged by moderators. This is despite efforts by many on those boards to establish rules of fair discussion and the like. (This occurrence is, by the way, one of the reasons we all wanted to start this blog.) A friend of mine suggests that the internet has become a place for the “ids of angry teenage males” to be blasted about regardless of who gets hurt. Maybe. Maybe we all have a bit of “teenage male” in us. We, collectively, are far more like the Phelps’ than we want to imagine.

I’d rather think that there’s some strange confluence going on nowadays between the sacrosanct idea of free speech and the view that the individual has a right to be himself or herself pretty much unless something is getting stolen or someone’s getting killed. The US has hung many things on the nail of free speech and it’s always, always deemed to be a “good.” But shouldn’t we be watching our words a bit more closely? The old “sticks and stones” rhyme notwithstanding, words really do hurt – even when they are spoken by an anonymous person who is potentially 5,000 miles away.

The blessedness of “free speech” is only as good as the care we give to our words. As a moral theologian, I have some affinity to Aristotle. Aristotelians are fond of saying that the good action is something one does in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, directed to the right person. I can be proud to have a right to free speech in times and places where people worry about incarceration or worse, because they have expressed opinions. I’m really not that proud of that “right” when it becomes an excuse to blather anything at all to anyone at any time. The latter kind of “right” is not really a good, because one does not become a “good person” through their speech. Here is a shining example of how law is not at all the limit of moral theology.

Though some might blame Enlightenment ideals, I am not sure we need to go back as far as all that. Instead, I’m pondering the ways in which we’ve questioned truth vis a vis polite speech. Polite speech has come to seem untruthful and even as a bad thing because one can’t say what one really means. The movie “The Invention of Lying” displayed that conundrum rather well.

I think that’s far too simplistic a view of truth and of politeness, though. Having a frank discussion has particular purposes, often good. But being polite also has particular purposes, often good – a chief one of which is to recognize the other person as someone with dignity, worth, the imago Dei, and all those other specifically Catholic anthropological views.

So I’m struck, as well, by the fact that a British TV show has recently made waves, both in the UK and here. Downton Abbey is a period drama set in Edwardian England just before World War I. The storyline delves into interactions between upstairs and downstairs and it wouldn’t necessarily seem like a television show that would be all that interesting except to Anglophiles and what one might presume is an “older but distinguished” crowd watching Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Surprisingly, the show appealed to both a large number of people (over 10 million in Britain, 6 million here) and a broad demographic. I’ve been wondering what it is about the show that is so enticing? (And, it really is worth a watch…) Is it, perhaps, the look at Edwardian society – a strange world in many ways, but also a world in which a polite word is a must?