May 05, 2014

Good Crowds

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

College campuses can and should be places for open dialogue and communication. Those conversations can be powerful and affirming for some, and they have the potential for being hurtful or even dangerous for others. Rarely do you get the opportunity to have a campus-wide conversation about an important issue.

When UMass basketball player (and sociology major!) Derrick Gordon became the first Division I athlete to come out as gay on April 9th, he drew an outpouring of support from thousands of people on my campus and from around the world.

He also attracted the attention of the infamous hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). This small family pickets military funerals, celebrates the 9/11 attacks as God’s work, and even protested the funerals of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. They never learned the lesson about not judging others from Matthew 7:1, but their rights to do so were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Last Wednesday they arrived on my campus to tell students and faculty that we were all enabling sinful behaviors.

What happened? In a quick 45 minutes this group got the attention that it so desperately wants. Their visits always seem to garner local and national news. (And, of course, add my little blog post here to the list.) However, it constantly surprises me that there’s an undeniable unintended consequence of groups organizing vastly larger and more successful counter-protests wherever these folks go. Umass protest
Photo courtesy of the author

Five lonely WBC folks empowered up to 1,500 students to stand up in support of Derrick Gordon, and the ensuing march and protest blossomed into a rally for campus unity and equality.

These events that counter the WBC exemplify what Emile Durkheim would have called collective effervescence, a kind of energized emotional resonance that binds group sentiment in both religious (e.g., rituals) and non-religious (e.g., sporting events, protests) gatherings. In general, there were good feelings about Derrick Gordon’s announcement, but the WBC visit energized that sentiment through collective action.

Crowds and protests are rich places of interaction too. In the 1950s, UMass sociology professor, Lewis Killian (along with Ralph Turner), developed an idea called the emergent norm theory. Killian and Lewis see crowds as developing concepts, ideas and norms in real time that do not necessarily correspond with their intended goals. This indeed happened at UMass when students came to support Derrick Gordon, but the hastily planned event developed into a larger statement on equal rights and unity. (In a somewhat silly example, I’ve also seen this happen when University of Massachusetts students gathered after Osama bin Laden was captured and killed on May 2nd, 2011. Students chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” but the chorus eventually morphed into a more familiar “Yankees Suck! Yankees Suck! Yankees Suck!”)

And so, not only does the WBC bring counter-protests, they also spark new norms and unexpected alliances. For another example: one year ago they protested the funeral of a victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, only to be blocked from view by teamsters and a motorcycle gang. Obviously, a small family can keep a focused message, while it is harder with a massive group.

Now, I know that it is not true, but there is a small part of me that thinks the Westboro Baptist Church is not a hate group at all but is rather a far left avant garde theatre troupe, a la Stephen Colbert’s faux-conservative talk show host. I say this because they are remarkably successful at rallying large groups for whatever cause they are protesting.

Social movements go through a process, from emergence to coalescence and then routinization. Although this organized effort identified a social ill in the impending arrival of the WBC (i.e., emergence) and then organized quickly in a show of support (i.e., coalescence), there is no real question about whether these sentiments should be institutionalized. Unlike 1960s protests for Civil Rights, which reached a level of coalescence that then was codified into law; college campuses, by design, should be places for lots of discussion and dialogue and no policy should curb any group from voicing their opinions.

There are strong arguments for notmaking any institutional changes banning speech at the collegiate level, even if those voices are as appalling as the WBC’s: In 1994 the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that more campus dialogue is the answer to addressing intolerance, bigotry and hatred, not establishing speech codes that hinder these exchanges. That year the American Association of University Professors came to the same conclusion: On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.”Therefore, college campuses are rather special zones in which sentiments must be continually negotiated.

Go UMass!

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