Crowdsourcing Outrage: The Legacy of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps, the recently deceased pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, was a small man who believed small things. His extreme views never moved beyond his small circle of followers. His Westboro Baptist Church is indicative of nothing. It defines no movement or trend or development. And yet, at the time of his death, Fred Phelps was an A-list celebrity. This tells us a lot about ourselves, and most of it isn’t good.

Phelps was the perfect ideological bad guy. Liberals hated him because of his extreme hatred of homosexuals, conservatives hated him because of his extreme disdain for fallen soldiers, and decent people hated him for his inability to be a decent person. At the end of his life, even his own Church excommunicated him for at least trying to be a little bit more decent than they wanted to be. Everybody, it seems, hated Fred Phelps.

And this played into one of the most disturbing things about America’s social and political character: we enjoy being outraged. It’s kind of fun. It let’s us feel deeply offended and morally superior at the same time. Now that we are all on Facebook, we can’t wait to be the first one of our friends to forward the outrageous thing on — usually with the indication that the outrageous thing is indicative of the “real feelings” of approximately half the population of America.

And this is how Fred Phelps became a celebrity. If nobody had paid any attention to the first few Westboro Baptist protests at military funerals, there would never have been any more of them. But we couldn’t resist the delicious feelings of outrage that these protests offered. So Phelps got TV cameras, newspaper coverage, a national platform for his views, and a hearing before the Supreme Court. Who wouldn’t keep going after all that publicity?

And it’s not just the Westboro Baptist Church. Recreational outrage has become a major American industry, and it is making some people very rich. About once a month, Rush Limbaugh says something so offensive about women or minorities that all of my liberal friends feel the need to forward it on and laugh about it. Andrew Napolitano recently became a minor celebrity by saying outrageous things about slavery. And any time a candidate for a state legislature or city council says something remarkably stupid, they become, for a day at least, the most famous person on Facebook.

As entertaining as all of this is (and, I will admit that I do find it entertaining), it has contributed greatly to the deterioration of our political discourse. The outrage machine forces our conversations to the extremes. It turns political debates into arguments about caricatures of positions rather than positions themselves. And the intense media focus on outrageous actions invites anybody who wants to be heard to frame their position in terms that other people will find outrageous.

But this is all wrong. Most opponents of gay marriage are not like Fred Phelps. Most Christians do not agree with Pat Robertson. Most conservatives aren’t Rush Limbaugh, and most liberals are not Paul Krugman or Howard Zinn. Most of us, in fact, muddle along trying to make sense of the world in fairly moderate and non-outrageous ways. But we spend far too much of our time outraged by the non-representative fringes of positions we disagree with. A better strategy might be to spend time listening to people who disagree with us but aren’t crazy extremists trying to get on TV.