Over the last decade or so, much has been written about the possibilities offered by the internet for creating sites of community based on exchange, collaboration, and reciprocity. Since Howard Rheingold published his polemic, The Virtual Community, in 1993, much has been written on this subject. The notion of just what constitutes ‘virtual reality’ has been extensively debated; however, ‘community’ is almost universally assumed to be good. There are failed communities and successful communities, but the critique of ‘community’ itself as a concept stops there. How, then, do we account for websites that create a sense of community precisely through the promotion of hatred and violence, and on which hatred of others is what the community ‘has in common’?
Community as Good: The Origins of Virtual Community
The term ‘community’ suggests communication; indeed, the work derives from the Latin communicare, which, as Peter Gould explains, ‘originally meant to share, to join and to unite” (3), and from which is also derived the verb ‘to communicate.’ Hence, accounts of online culture draw on this definition of community, suggesting that computer technology brings people together by allowing them to communicate. Such proximity is, therefore, privileged over geophysical location. In recent debates about cyber-culture, definitions of online community tend to define community through the concept of ‘shared interests’. What is more, some accounts of cyber-culture share a certain view of online community as inherently liberating.
The Bad Community: God Hates Fags
God Hates Fags is perhaps one of the best-known far-right sites on the Web. It is a non-interactive website, set up and maintained by Benjamin Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in association with his grandfather Fred Phelps, who originally founded the church in 1964. Phelps first achieved notoriety in 1991 when he organised a picket of the San Francisco Pride Parade, to ‘warn this evil city that they’re going the way of Sodom’. In 1997, the church’s members were ordered by the American Supreme Court to limit their picketing activities after they targeted a local Episcopalian church that they claimed had promoted gay rights. Since the ruling, church members have continued their campaign of homophobic picketing. However, it is as an online promoter of homophobia and other forms of hatred that Phelps has achieved notoriety on an international scale. On paper, Westboro Baptist Church’s Website seems like the perfect example of the Net’s utility as a means of giving voice to small, marginalised community groups, and of bringing together people who share ‘a commonality of interests and goals’. However, this, like other Christian fundamentalist sites, challenges the view of such networks as essentially liberating (though they are certainly utopian in tone), since their shared interests happen to include insisting that creationist dogma be taught in schools, picketing the funerals of those who die of Aids or as a result of homophobic attacks, and promoting violence against lesbians and gay men.
God Hates Fags sees itself as both a site of community and as a pressure group fighting a desperately immoral liberal society. It also draws on the idea of a society becoming good through the erasure of certain marginalised subjects, with the erasure to take the form of individuals suppressing their sexual identity in real life, not just online. While God Hates Fags and other sites like it primarily express the fantasy of a post-apocalyptic New Jerusalem. They do so by referring to fantasies of the nation (as a space that must be purified in order for this apocalyptic transformation to take place), of the online community (here imagined as a community of haters), and of the local community producing the site (who, far from being a small, marginal force, are re-presented as a community of ‘knowers’ attempting to promote ‘the truth’ about life in the United States: that is, as a force for good).
Fantastic communities are often unaware of their own violence, and the community that hates is no exception, although its claims to peacefulness often stretch credulity to a greater than usual extent. Here is Westboro’s description of its ‘peaceful’ protests:
WBC engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colourful signs containing Bible words and sentiments, including: GOD HATES FAGS, FAGS HATE GOD, AIDS CURES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR AIDS, FAGS BURN IN HELL, GOD IS NOT MOCKED, FAGS ARE NATURE FREAKS [sic] … FAGS DOOM NATIONS, etc. (God Hates Fags)
The site’s authors are able to claim such sentiments as ‘non-violent’ precisely because of the way that violence is imagined purely in terms of the physical act; that is, as embodied. Discursive violence, the violence of the text, is not recognised as such. Reading the passages above, I find it hard to maintain any sense of critical distance at the notion of picketing a funeral, and then going online to publicise the activity and exhort others to do the same. The site is frustrating precisely because it assumes the reader’s sympathy. For Phelps, a community of ‘fag haters’ already exists within the wider, corrupt national community of the United States; the site merely serves to unite this community and to provide it with resources. Nevertheless, the statement is itself part of the process by which the site attempts to construct a community through a process of rehabilitation, which aims to re-position hatred of homosexuals both as a political position and as an identity position. The site assumes that the experience of hatred, like that of other extreme emotions, has been wrongly constructed as essentially private, even impossible to articulate. Phelps assures us that it is not, that our hatred (and the reader is always assumed to be on side; the site is never defensive in tone, and never attempts to address its critics) is shared by others. The community exists in the bodies of individuals; by making hatred public and visible, the community can finally become visible in the public domain.
This site, and others like it, provide a chilling new perspective on the notion of ‘shared interests’ as a basis for community, as well as giving an insight into the ways in which inequalities might not only translate from geophysical into online communities but actually be heightened, not least by the liberal rhetoric of free speech in which the intended victims of such assaults are urged simply to ignore them, even as they are imposed an ever-increasing number of victims (Porter 234-5). In order to justify their attacks on outsiders, hate sites reproduce discourses of virtual community alongside fundamentalist dogma. So, for example, Westboro Baptist Church claims that it is necessary to draw together a community based on a shared homophobic response in order to protect the larger community of the nation from destruction. In order to construct the virtual community then, it is necessary to mobilise fantasies of the nation as it might be in an ideal world. The community does not simply represent the wider community of the United States; that is, it is not a ‘virtual America.’ Rather, it draws upon a fantasy of the nation as perfectible, and this fantasy assumes a desire to purify the nation by destroying or expelling strangers.
Despite the dystopian violence of Phelps’s vision, however, I do not think it is enough to argue that such manifestations are simply an example of a medium with great potential for spiritual growth falling into the wrong hands. Margaret Wertheim seems to predict the use of the Internet to promote hatred when she writes that ‘[t]here is every potential, if we are not careful, for cyberspace to be less like Heaven, and more like Hell’ (298). This reading of virtual culture tends to normalise the idea of a utopian internet community, from which deviations occur only as the result of insufficient vigilance. What is more, the invocation of a group of right-thinking cyber-citizens—the ‘we’ who must be ‘careful’—reproduces the very liberal rhetoric which, as I have argued, tends to perpetuate, or at least obscure, power structures within online communities. Indeed, the notion of ‘the online community’ invoked here seems, ironically, to reproduce the notion of a single unlimited community which, if it is not conterminous with all mankind exactly, is certainly conterminous with all (responsible) users of the internet.
As I have shown, it is by drawing on the notions of universality and redemption that underpin utopian theories of cyber-culture that Phelps is able to present his site as a site of community. I would suggest, then, that the notion of a community that has the potential to be good but is constantly under threat from deviant outsiders, is inadequate. Rather, it is necessary to pay attention to the ways in which utopian rhetoric might in itself play a role in reproducing inequalities that exist in society more generally, both online and off.