Media excitation continues to grow over a petition created on the White House’s “We the People” page calling for the White House to “Legally recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.” Go and read the petition; it’s quite brief, and is apparently the most popular petition ever posted to that page.
In its terseness, the petition seems to leave out certain crucial details, such as what the petition actually hopes to accomplish. I have asked various friends who have signed the petition what they think it would mean for the White House to “legally recognize” the WBC as a hate group, and invariably the answers reduce to either a shrug, or a statement of the bizarre notion that, apropos of the holiday season, the White House keeps some kind of master naughty-or-nice list, and the petitioner wants to see WBC firmly filed away (“legally”) in the naughty category.
The term “hate group” is not a thing, not even “legally.” The petition itself notes that private groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center do just fine categorizing our moral distastes for us, but the government does not. The government keeps various security lists (FBI’s most wanted list, various terrorist watchlists, etc.), but it does not keep a “These Guys Are a Bunch of Assholes” list.
Attaching the word “legally” onto the front of the petition is the strangest part. It’s as if the petition’s author envisions a committee somewhere, presumably of men in nice suits, sitting around a table debating whether or not someone belongs on the naughty list. They pass around dossiers, exchange motions and objections, the pass a sheet of paper to the oldest, wisest man in the room. He swipes his pen across a huge signature line at the bottom, nods sagely, and then church-bells begin to ring somewhere as the Westboro Baptist Church, widely believed to be a hate group is now officially, certifiably, legally a hate group – as though there is some judicial body out there somewhere that converts subjective opinions into objective facts and they just haven’t gotten on this one yet because, dammit, there hadn’t been a petition yet!
And then the Westboro Baptist Church presumably realizes the error of its ways and converts from church to monastery, its members sealing themselves inside for penitence beneath the shaming glare of a society that finally, officially, legally recognizes them to be a hate group.
Unfortunately for slacktivists nationwide, the law will not solve the WBC problem if a petition gets enough signatures. It is simply a cathartic exercise for everyone too lazy to join a counter-protest or petition the legislature for legitimate redress to express a condemnatory opinion that everybody else already agrees with. Hating the Westboro Baptist Church is the ultimate non-controversial opinion. The WBC is frequently referred to as “controversial,” but in reality, it is not controversial at all: nobody disagrees that the Westboro Baptist Church is a roving circus troupe of mentally malformed assclowns. There’s no controversy about them whatsoever; what’s controversial is how we deal with them.
People line to get up in arms whenever they hear about the government making some kind of list, but now they want there to be that list. People want the law to reflect their moral preferences when it simply does not and cannot. The law is for ordering society, not conforming it to our moral preferences, and it would be a disordered society indeed that tells the government to tally up our shared disdain for certain groups. How long would groups like American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry, or even the Catholic Church be able to stay off that list? How many NRA members do you think would be ready and willing to label the entire Democratic Party as a “hate group,” and vice versa for Planned Parenthood and the Republicans?
The petition against the WBC is a legally meaningless exercise in expressing a non-controversial opinion that’s just fun to say. It relies both on the laziness of its signers and a cartoonish understanding of the law and the government, and makes people feel like they’re part of the solution when really there is no solution other than to either radically revise our free-speech principles or to just start ignoring the hell out of the Westboro Baptist Church.
I shall endorse the latter proposition promptly and legally.