Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Not such a weird weekend.

I didn't enjoy watching Louis Theroux's return visit to the Westboro Baptist Church, though to be honest I didn't expect to. I knew already that they are bigoted, that they use language which they know to be offensive, and that they court publicity because they believe they are called to. I was still shocked and upset by some of the publicity that they produce (which I don't really fancy describing here, I'm sure Google will tell you if you ask nicely), but I sort of expected to be. I didn't expect to get upset at the presenter.

That outward expression of human emotion is a good thing is almost axiomatic to modern day society, and certainly seemed to be to Theroux. However, many of the people he spoke to considered these feelings to be opposed to their faith and to be a temptation, and were consequently trying to suppress them. Self-denial of some sort or another has been an element of the Christian faith since it began (even Jesus refused to succumb to his desire to eat in the Wilderness), and while argument can be made about how emotionally healthy this form of denial is, many of those to whom Theroux spoke believed axiomatically that not carrying out their mission was against the will of God, even if that meant attempting to rejoice in the departure of a child rather than mourning it.

Many of them admitted that they struggled with this. The parents of the girl who had left the group were clearly upset by it. A group of young women said that they had wept as they explained to a friend that they believed he was on course to hell, yet it wasn't enough for Theroux to hear them admit to these feelings; he repeatedly attempted to provoke an emotional reaction from his interviewees. One member of the church, himself a former documentary-maker, even told Theroux that he was coming from a humanist perspective and that he was refusing to hear the people he was talking to, but that didn't seem to help.

In his conclusion, Theroux said that the church seemed "to live life in denial of the most basic human emotions" and that "they felt entitled, even compelled, to trample on those of other people", and he was right. But at no point did he give any sense of even attempting to grapple with the fact that these people honestly believe that they are acting as third parties for an omnipotent and punitive God. He came to the conclusion that they are angry and self-deluding, rather than trying to understand the motivation behind their actions.

I don't condone or agree with the Westboro Baptist Church, but I do think that they need to be understood more completely than that. Politicians talk about "tackling extremism", but without the realisation that there are people whose most basic beliefs are completely at odds with our own - not through ignorance or stupidity, but as a conscious choice - we'll never get anywhere. There is so much demonisation and dehumanisation of people who think differently from us, because it's easier and quicker to write them off than to try to explain them. Louis Theroux's programme could have helped with that, and it didn't.