A submitted post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, author of God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right
The Sunday service at Westboro Baptist Church is over, and some members of the small, Topeka, Kansas-based church move on to music practice. They’re working on a hymn familiar to many Protestants this afternoon and later, some of the younger women will practice a parody of a pop song, its familiar words about love and romance replaced with a message about God’s hatred for America. Church members are quite talented, and the choir sounds good.
I hear it from the nursery that adjoins the church sanctuary, where some of the youngest participants in church life are playing. As the women rehearse, I work through the theology that allows them to sing a hymn celebrating Christ’s redemptive death and a pop song celebrating the damnation of gay people in the same afternoon. A young mother is in the room, too, bouncing a baby in her arms. A blonde-haired cherub is showing me some toys and telling me about the Disney princesses she likes best in her sweet toddler voice. It turns out we share some favorites, and I join her in her play. Through the open door, and we hear her mother’s voice distinctly in the choir. It breaks the little girl’s concentration, but I assure her that her mama will be back soon, and we settle back into our game, pulling out new toys to join the scene we’ve already constructed. Behind the little noises we are making in our own world, the choir sings about God’s mercy for sinners. Above the crib, a sign declaring God’s hatred for gay people hangs in the place where, in a different church, there might be a painting of Jesus welcoming the little children or searching for a lost lamb.
Rehearsal wraps up. The girl’s mother arrives and she excitedly tells her that we both love Ariel. They are holding hands, her mother listening attentively. It’s a tender scene, one that informs, rather that disrupts, the church’s funeral picketing. They picket, explains one church member, because they love their own children. That love for their own children helps them understand the agony of a parent who is burying a child killed by an AIDS-related illness, an enemy IED, or a school shooter. It is their best qualities–their love for their families and their concern for other church members–that inspire what outsiders see as their most hateful activities: picketing funerals. The church sees such picketing as an act of love–albeit one almost universally seen as hate. “Love thy neighbor,” declares one church-produced video, means you must “rebuke” them when they sin. They would rather have you know this and hate them for it than for them to fail to tell you and thus fail in their duty to love you.
The advantage of ethnographic work on hate groups is that you cannot deny the humanity of groups members as you might be tempted to do if you are working with documents or statistics. The Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University, with which I am affiliated, stresses that hate begins with enmification: constructing an enemy by denying their humanity–then, if you can, their right to exist, not just individually but in any form, and, finally, any trace of their existence. When working with hateful human subjects, you can’t emnify, even if you want to, because it is the humanity of the research participant that allows the research to happen. The work would be easier if the research subjects were less human. Their complexity can be exhausting and sometimes disorienting, requiring careful ethical consideration and scholarly self-reflection on the difficulties.
One challenge arises not from how different hate actors are from “the rest of us” but from how similar we are. They are like us not in our worst ways but in our best. They love their children, their friends, and their country–even if it’s not presently living up to their hopes. They see the world changing quickly in ways that are taking it farther from their ideals. They think changing it is possible through individual and collective action. They work hard and care deeply. Because they have good qualities–ones they may even use in the pursuit of wrong ends–we may be tempted by what Antonius C. G. M. Robben calls the “ethnographic seduction” to tell their stories in ways that affirm them and their causes. Ethnographers of “unloved groups” are not wrong, though, to report on the charity, kindness, hospitality, or generosity of people who also do awful things. Though we are right to be wary of confusing victims and perpetrators, thick descriptions of unloved groups will almost always show joyful, tender, and gentle moments.
Much of our discussion about hateful acts focuses on how those committing them are unlike us, the good, moral, righteous people. We invoke psychology to suggest that they are abnormal and the legal system to label them criminals. We report on them as “outsiders” and “lone wolves.” We invoke “not all men” or “not all white people” or “not all Christians,” making them exceptional when they are, in fact, as Clara S. Lewis notes, “disturbingly conformist.” In short, we emnify the emnifiers, denying that our silences support misogyny or white supremacy or religiously-inspired violence, rewriting our national history to erase the hate on which the nation is (literally, through Indian removal and African enslavement) built, pretending that our collective romance with guns and violence is irrelevant to “lone wolf” actors, refusing to see hateful actions as an “expression of extended histories of often state-sponsored violence against minority groups,” and ignoring the way that many of us benefit from the hateful acts that others commit. Violent white supremacists see themselves as saving white America, and, to be sure, all white people benefit from terrorism against people of color just as all men benefit from misogyny–even if they also suffer from it.
Our surprise that hate actors are also often generous, kind, and loving speaks to our own need to distinguish ourselves from them, to have an alibi for our “shallow understanding” and “appalling silence,” and even, at times a scapegoat. But surprise is a privilege. Enslaved African Americans knew that slave traders, plantation overseers, and slave patrollers were often “good people”–to some people. KKK members from 1865 and onward have seen themselves as good patriots and defenders of women and children, not as racists and xenophobes--just as members of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups do today. Those who have seen hatred up close–its targets, those who have left hate groups, scholars of hate studies–know that hate actors see themselves as heroes, not villains. Today, the narrative of white supremacy is less about genetics (how unpalatable!) and more about Crusaders saving civilization non-white, non-Christian forces–the same racist story that “won the West” and the 2016 presidential election.
Even as (or perhaps because?) those with firsthand memories of the Holocaust and pre-Civil Rights America pass away, the hatred inherent in Trumpism has inspired new conversations about the ability of seemingly ordinary people to commit extraordinary violence. In the days after Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting the legal entrance of many foreign-born travelers and residents into the US but before its thorough rejection by a federal appeals court, low-level government employees followed through on orders with cruelty beyond what the rejected executive order required. A five year old American citizen returning from travel abroad was kept from his mother for more than four hours, despite ample forewarning from his senator that the child would be disembarking; parents of an infant being treated for burns in a US hospital were left stranded in Iraq as their baby headed to the United States; a breastfeeding infant—an American citizen—was kept separated from her mother. We wonder at the TSA agents who separate small children from parents and the ICE agents carting deathly ill undocumented immigrants from the hospital to detention centers, just as we wonder about National Guards opening firing on student protestors, Bull Connor’s police officers, the guards at Japanese internment camps, the white picnickers cutting the knuckles and toes off the lynched black man as souvenirs of their families’ day out, the soldiers opening fire at Wounded Knee, the Pinkertons killing labor union members, the auctioneer facilitating to end of a slave family. We didn’t need the Milgram experiment; history has shown us–and we’ve captured it in photos–that it is frighteningly easy to follow orders that inflict pain on others when you believe authorities command (or even simply permit) you do to so , whether those orders excite already-held prejudices or not. Yet, here we are, making laws to protect drivers who hit protestors and inviting transphobic collaborators to report trans people using the “wrong” bathroom. These are not laws to enforce public safety but efforts to make permissible violence that would otherwise be clearly immoral—a kind of Crypteia for our age.
We don’t need to be shocked at either the idea that hateful people are often also good or at the idea that good people will sometimes (and sometimes often) be hateful, especially in political contexts that reward them for it. Hate is not exceptional but functional, perhaps the most destructive tool in oppressive systems worked hard to maintain inequality, and many of us–even otherwise good people, people who love our children, people who sing in church choirs–will pick it up when we want to maintain our preferred supremacy.
Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. She is currently researching Act for America, “the nation’s largest nonprofit, non-partisan, grassroots national security organization.” You can follow her blog at anygoodthing.com.
footnotes: Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Who’s Afraid of Oral History? Fifty Years of Debates and Anxiety about Ethics,” The Oral History Review 43, no. 2 (2016): 338-366.
 See, for example, Kathleen Blee, “White-Knuckle Research: Emotional Dynamics in Fieldwork with Racist Activists,” Qualitative Sociology 21 no. 4 (1998): 381-399; Journal of Contemporary Ethnography’s 2007 special issue on racist and far right groups, edited by Kathleen M. Blee (vol. 36, no. 2); Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015); Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, edited by Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C. G. M. Robben (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995); or Rebecca Barrett-Fox, “Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Ethnography and Emotion in the Study of Westboro Baptist Church,” Journal of Hate Studies 9, no. 11 (2010/2011), 11-32.
 Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “Ethnographic Seduction, Transference, and Resistance in Dialogues about Terror and Violence in Argentina,” Ethos 24, no. 1 (1996), 71-106.
 Nigel G. Fielding, “Mediating the Message: Affinity and Hostility in Research on Sensitive Topics,” in Researching Sensitive Topics, edited by Claire M. Renzetti and Raymond M. Lee (Newbury Park: Sage, 1993), 146-180.
 See, for example, “Similarities among Differences,” Martha K. Huggins and Marie-Louise Glebbeek’s introduction to their co-edited Women Fielding Danger: Negotiating Ethnographic Identities in Field Research (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 1-30.
 Clara S. Lewis Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 85.
 Ibid., 60.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Signet, 2000), 73 & 74.
 Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930.