How Fred Phelps’ death highlights Twitter’s problem with grave dancing 

The man who symbolized the worst of this world managed to bring out the worst in us

Fred Phelps, late as of Thursday, was the founder of the reviled Westboro Baptist Church, the organization that picketed the funerals of soldiers, railed against allowing LGBT members to serve in the military, said Elizabeth Taylor was going to be “cussed in hell”, and so on and so forth.

When news of his death broke, certain parties were glad to learn that a man who brought so much malice into this world had finally left it. But that joy manifested itself on social media in a way that was, frankly, Westboro-esque:

Now, people have been dancing on graves for as long as they’ve been digging them. There’s always that crazy octogenarian aunt at the funeral who has the gall to go around whispering to a few trusted confidants “I always thought she was a bitch,” while said bitch lies in a casket ten feet away.

But there’s a big difference between the crazy aunt and the Internet. There’s no record of what that crazy aunt said, except in the memories of those who heard it. The potential to spread that vitriol is limited to a family or social circle, and the common decency of others will usually keep it from leaving the room.

On the other hand, the Internet — and Twitter, in particular — exposes personal feelings to an infinite audience, and creates a permanent, digital record of it. Twitter has a habit of turning into something of a wake when a prominent figure dies. Sometimes, the conversation is elegant, elegiac, and genuine, as was the case when legendary film critic Roger Ebert passed away.

But more and more, it’s turning into a place where individuals congregate to relish in the passing of an individual with whom they were ideologically at odds. We saw it with the passing of controversial leaders like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez or former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

But in Phelps’ case, not only was Twitter’s grave dance stomach-churning to watch, it was also incredibly counterproductive and unnecessary.

You hardly need a Ph.D. in English literature to appreciate the symbolism that Fred Phelps’ death carries; he embodied everything that Westboro stood for and his demise reflects that the ideology they espoused is on the way out.

Which is why posts like the one below were not just in bad taste, they were totally redundant:

While it’s tempting to flaunt the progress that equality groups have made despite the protests of Westboro and its ilk, Phelps isn’t around to hear it anymore. And if he was, he would be laughing at us. Because even in death, he managed to troll us all one last time.

Westboro Baptist Church never should have gotten the attention it did. But like any master troll, what Phelps and his minions really wanted was the attention, and they knew how to get it. Yes, the church’s behavior was despicable, but very early on, the organization went from being an effective engine of hate to a mere caricature of evil. They didn’t threaten to picket Liz Taylor’s funeral because she supported the LGBT community, not really. They did it so they’d get on TV. Every column inch, every Tweet, every second of airtime that the left devoted to denouncing them gave Westboro a victory. As Mother Jones’ tweet pointed out, all their efforts couldn’t stop the march towards progress. Yet we continued to give them legitimacy by giving them free publicity.

When Phelps died yesterday, social media gave Westboro attention long past its expiration date, breathing new life into a dying movement with its hate. It was already on its way to becoming a historical punchline, but vilifying Phelps so ardently will only serve to bolster his legacy on the extreme right.

And last, but not least, this makes the left look like a bunch of hypocrites. We claim that Westboro’s hate couldn’t stand up to the power of equal love, yet we reacted to his death with hate of our own. Critics on the right will often claim that liberals are open to everyone’s point of view, just so long as it aligns with liberal beliefs. Now they have a cache of tweets to point to as evidence.

Folks with a Twitter account who are out there dancing on Fred Phelp’s grave should pause for a second and think about making a morbid spectacle of the death of somebody to whom they were ideologically opposed. Cuz you know who else would have done that?

Fred Phelps.

Social Media Editor for National @WashingtonPost. Formerly of @GuardianUS. I like to write about politics, digital journalism, and the arts.

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