BROWN: Keep calm and fight bigotry

The best response to last Wednesday’s homophobic protests would have been silence

Last week a group of Westboro-Baptist-like religious protesters stood in the Amphitheater and proclaimed to everyone who would listen that the University was full of students who are going to burn in Hell. I was there when they said sorority houses are the home of free sex and drugs (and when the guy next to me retorted, “the drugs are really expensive actually”), when they said LGBTQ people were sinners and damned, when they said the football and basketball teams were going to Hell, and when they said every other hateful, homophobic and intolerant thing they possibly could. I was there when University students openly mocked them back, often hilariously, and I sang along when everyone started to sing the “Good Ol’ Song” to drown them out. I stayed and listened and watched for around 20 minutes, as did many other students. And I really wish we hadn’t.

The Managing Board recently published an editorial praising student response to the protests, and in many ways I agree. Students did not allow themselves to be baited into making bad decisions and provided a powerful statement of love and inclusiveness by singing together. And as Michael Promisel noted in another piece, the ability to fight irrationality with reason is a key attribute of a Jeffersonian community. Nothing we students did reflected badly on us or the University.

But because of our collective decision to engage these people and allow them to frame the discussion with their ridiculous views, they received publicity. This and other news outlets reported on their protest, thousands of people saw the video of them on Youtube, and people are still talking about them around Grounds. And that is exactly what they wanted to happen.

Groups that operate in a way so obviously intended to provoke angry, visceral reactions from their audience are not actually trying to convert anyone. They are trying to legitimize their beliefs by being recognized, vilified and attacked. And while everyone present should be commended for not succumbing to their vitriol and actually attacking them, we certainly gave them the feelings of victimhood and legitimacy they wanted. For a group which is so isolated and extreme, the greatest victory is supposed martyrdom and the notion that we somehow care about what they do, and we gave them that victory.

It would have been a far better counter-protest if we had simply ignored them. If everyone had just kept walking and pretended they didn’t exist. Freedom of speech means they are allowed to spew whatever filth they want, but it also means we have the right to ignore it and refuse to engage with them on their terms. This is a much more difficult, less satisfying form of protest, but it is also much more effective when dealing with people whose only goal is to be noticed. While our collective response was great in the message it sent about our community, it was also a response that will encourage this sort of thing to happen again in the future. The best way to eliminate a destructive message is to simply not give it a platform. If someone had just stood there with a sign saying “Keep walking, ignore these idiots and have a nice day,” then maybe no one would even remember who those people were at this point. And that would be a real victory.

I talked to third-year student Kate Travis about this idea, and while she agreed that silence is often the best response to hate, she questioned: “I wasn’t there, but what happens when we let these words stand unchallenged in the community without stating what we believe?” This is a fair response, and it is wrong to allow hateful ideas to go unchallenged. But I do not think challenging hate by simply yelling better things back is the most effective response. Making a collective commitment to act in a more inclusive and loving way, not just when it’s easy and obvious, is an effective response. If we work as a community to do things like get rid of the rape culture on Grounds, to stop using homophobic language in any context and to confront issues facing minority students like spotlighting or social segregation, then we have actually, successfully challenged hate. Silence in the face of hate is weak; a conscious refusal to enter a counter-productive dialogue is not.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

Published April 17, 2014 in Opinion

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