In my memory, I always see him the same way. Dave, from my neighborhood, riding the bus home with the rest of us. He always sat as near to the bus driver as he could. He always gripped the back of the seat in front of him with both hands, like he was holding on for dear life.
Probably because he was.
Bus rides weren’t easy for Dave. He was picked on mercilessly. I don’t know exactly why. True, his fashion sense was out of step with most everyone else, with his bowl-style haircut and untrendy clothing. And he didn’t talk to people. Ever. Even if you tried to be nice to him, he wouldn’t turn his head to look at you. He just kept staring straight ahead, like he was counting the seconds until he could bolt from the bus and go home.
Because I bet you that’s exactly what he was doing.
We were mean to him. He was laughed at. Wads of paper were thrown at him. He was ridiculed. When I say we I don’t mean I did any of those things myself. But I can’t ever recall doing much of anything to stop it, either, so how much better is that? And so it went on for years. Think of Dave the next time someone tells you that the way to make a bully stop is to ignore him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave lately. The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, was in town today. If you don’t know them by name, you probably know them on sight. These are the guys who carry around signs insisting that god hates gay people. They grab headlines by protesting the funerals of soldiers and celebrities and outrage people across the nation by picketing just about everything else – schools, churches, people in general.
People have asked me why Westboro came to Lansing today. I hate that question. I hate it because it supposes that these people have a good reason for engaging in this sort of display ever. And I hate it because it misses a fundamental truth: evil needs no reason. It just is. We can guess at the reasons all we like, but we’re never going to hit on one that makes sense or satisfies our yearning for why.
So instead of why, I want to focus on what. What do we do in the face of such blind ignorance and hatred? What do we do when evil makes a showing in our home town? Do we stand up against it, in one form or another? Or do we grab the seat in front of us and stare straight ahead and hope that by ignoring it, it’ll get bored and go away?
I bet Dave would have something to say about that.
I can’t for the life of me think of a single time in history that evil just got bored, gave up and wandered off to take a nap. I can’t for anything think of a single time in my life when a bully just threw in the towel and called it quits because I was silent. Not one. Not ever.
“Just ignore it” has got to be one of the most repeated and most injurious lies we tell children. Because ignoring it doesn’t work. It never has. It never will.
So I got to feeling a bit testy today when I started reading comments on news sites that took me to task for trying to do something about the hate that showed up in my hometown. Not just me, but me and the 280 other people who showed up at the local high school where Westboro tried to condemn children to hell as they walked to school on a Monday morning. (I’m sure enough of them thought going to school on a Monday morning was already hell, but I digress.)
Rather than being angry at Phelps and Westboro, a lot of the anger I saw was directed at myself and the others who showed up to not-ignore the preachers of hate. Some people who posted responses to the newspaper’s story sounded angrier at us than they were at Westboro. We were accused of waving signs (we didn’t), chanting slogans (there were none) and giving Westboro the one thing they wanted most: attention. And we didn’t do that, either. As soon as they showed up, we formed a line on the sidewalk across the street from them and turned our backs to their screeching: we made a “wall of love” that blotted them from view as kids walked into school.
People who think the one thing Westboro wants more than anything is attention are wrong. That’s thinking of Westboro’s meager followers as 5-year-olds, and they’re not. A 5-year-old might be naughty, attention-seeking, petulant, cheeky, cranky or even annoying, but one thing a 5-yrear-old generally isn’t, is evil. Evil is a specialized skill that takes a few more years to master.
It’s wrong to think of those adults as 5-year-olds. Their methods are different. Their goal is different. They’re not being loud to get you to look at them and pay attention. They’re being loud because they want you to yell at them. Curse them. Hit them. Hurt them.
There are two reasons. First, mundanely, this is how Phelps makes his money. He and his followers go around the country trying to provoke fights. Then they sue and settle out of court for tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe they think it beats working for a living.
But more importantly, the man thrives on anger. He eats it up like I eat up chocolate cake on my birthday. He lives for the stuff. He needs it. He is addicted to it.
That’s the one thing I learned a decade ago when I stood toe-to-toe with Fred Phelps and talked to him for a good 10 or 15 minutes. I heard him use every word he could muster to try to make me hate him: whore, slut, fornicator, queer. Jew – said with a sneer. And when I didn’t return that with anger, he got frustrated. When I spoke to him calmly, he turned away to talk to someone else. Because it was never my attention he wanted. He wanted my hatred.
So, no. Showing up to tell Westboro they are wrong is not giving them what they want, not when you do it calmly. It is a disappointment in their eyes. They lose. Better yet, in my mind, is when people turn the Westboro protests into a demonstration of hilarity, showing up with funny signs that turn their hateful gathering into something resembling a comedic social hour.
But there’s another reason to show up and tell Westboro they are wrong. You’re not doing it for them. You do it for you. It’s understood I’ll never get through to someone so entrenched in ignorance and drunk on hatred as Fred Phelps. I know that. But I didn’t do it for him. I did it for me. I did it because I should never have to feel powerless in the face of hate. I did it because to not do it would weigh on me, just as it weighs on me now that I never spoke up when Dave was being bullied on the bus.
And I’ll tell you what else. It sure is something when you’re among a crowd of people who got up at 6 a.m. and braved freezing temperatures just to make a public showing that acceptance and love are greater than hate and fear. That is an experience that is hard to beat. It’s something truly awe-inspiring.
I was happily amazed that 280 people showed up at that early on a Monday morning to do this with me. It’s not fun getting up that earlier than normal and standing out in the cold. But we all did it with conviction. I’m proud of that.
But I wonder, why don’t more join us? Why are there so many still who insist that showing up and calmly, simply saying “no” is the wrong thing to do?
I suppose for the same reason that so many people tell children to ignore the bully. Maybe they truly hope that ignoring it will make it stop. Or maybe they think that sucking it up and sticking it out is the task that has to be learned. I don’t know. All I know is that I watched Dave ignore it for years, and I don’t see how it was any benefit to him. There should have been many of us speaking out for him in quiet determination. Maybe that would have helped him. I know that looking the other way sure didn’t.
Maybe the people telling me that showing up was wrong have better reasons that I can’t discern. I’m not so arrogant as to think that my way is the only moral conclusion one can come to. In the end, all of us can only search our own hearts and decide what is right. If some come to the decision that sitting it out and not speaking up is right, I accept that.
But I can’t understand it.