It is 1991. The Kansas humidity weighs on a group of protesters standing on a street corner holding signs. One of the protesters is a small, blond-haired, blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked little girl of five years old. Her mother made her leave her dolls in the car. She is holding a sign that she could not yet read. The sign said, in large block letters: Gays are Worthy of Death.
This little girl is Megan Phelps-Roper, and she grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, one of America’s most infamous anti-LGBT and antisemitic religious organizations. It was founded by her grandfather, Fred Roper, and most of the members of this small religious organization are her family. She spent her childhood picketing at soldiers’ funerals and celebrated tragedies like the Sept. 11 attacks and the AIDS epidemic. In November of 2012, following a radical change in views, Megan left the church, and with it, her entire family and life as she knew it.
In 2015, Megan Phelps-Roper wrote an autobiography about her time in the church titled “Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” and in 2017, she shared her story of why she left in a TED talk entitled, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left.”
Megan begins her talk with the image of her younger self, a child protesting gay rights with a sign that she could not even read. With this visceral image, Megan depicts the complete indoctrination into this hateful lifestyle that she experienced from a very young age. She then jumps forward 20 years later to when she left the church, citing her interactions with strangers on Twitter that helped her understand the hypocrisy of her own views and the “power of engaging the other.”
Megan believed throughout her childhood that she and her church were engaged in a struggle against evil, and the protests that she attended were battles against immorality and the forces of Satan. She describes her experience on Twitter, which she joined in 2009. She says that initially people treated her with hostility, but occasionally there were people who she would have genuine conversations with about theology and morality in the modern world. “It was civil,” she said. “Full of genuine curiosity on both sides.” There was a real attempt to understand the views of the other person.
Megan cites specifically a Jewish man named David whom she would often have arguments with online, and who went to visit her at a protest in New Orleans. They exchanged presents of chocolate and other deserts and had a civil conversation as Megan held a “God Hates Jews” sign in her hands. The line between friend and foe had begun to blur, and Megan says that conversations like this began to plant seeds of doubt in her about her religious beliefs.
These conversations awakened her to inconsistencies in Westboro doctrine that she had never noticed before. “Why do we advocate the death penalty for gays,” she asked, “when Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?’”
“How can we claim to love our neighbour while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?” she asked herself.
These changes in her perspective eventually eroded her trust in her church, and she felt she had to leave. She says that the days immediately after she left were the most difficult. She felt the instinct to hide from the world, but that world surprised her. The people that she had verbally abused online and in person largely supported her and recognized her efforts to leave as sincere.
She says that she knew that she had to apologize for the harm she had caused, but she also knows that it isn’t enough to just apologize. “All I could do,” she says, “was to try and build a new life and find a way somehow to repair some of the damage.”
She was taken in by her Jewish friend David, who allowed her to live in a Jewish community in LA, the same community of people that she had hated for so long. She was treated like family by them, she debated theology with them, and nothing was ever held against her.
It was this time in her life that she says allowed her to let go of her anger and to really listen to people who were different than her. And that letting go, that listening, is the reason she is giving this talk.
In our public discourse, she says, there is still that instinct toward division that ruled her former life. In our time of increasing acceptance of diversity, we are more divided than ever. We don’t listen to each other, she says. We have no nuance, no compassion, no humanity. We treat those we don’t agree with as the other, reducing them to stereotypes and always assuming malintent. We also ignore the flaws in our own thinking, and the merits in our opponents’. “Compromise,” she says, “is anathema.”
But we can change, we can make steps to understand each other, she says. We can do something to combat this ineffective discourse. “The good news,” she says, “is that it’s simple. The bad news is that it’s hard.”
“We have to talk and listen to people we disagree with,” she says. It’s hard because we have to respond to hostility with kindness and compassion, because we don’t want to continue the cycle of hostility any further. She is reminded of the people whom she debated with on twitter, once her bitter enemies, now her beloved friends, and in the case of one man, her husband.
Megan then recalls four things that these friends on Twitter did that made conversation between them possible.
One: Don’t assume bad intent. Assuming ill motives doesn’t allow us to truly understand why people act and believe as they do. It immediately cuts us off from them.
Two: Ask questions. Asking questions allows us to understand the disconnects between other people’s points of view and our own. We cannot properly engage with them if we don’t understand where they are coming from. Asking questions also shows the other person that they are being heard and allows both parties to truly hear the other person’s responses.
Three: Stay calm. This can take practice, she says. In Westboro, she was taught not to care about how her manner of speaking affected others, that her, “rightness justified [her] rudeness.” Thinking like that often brings a conversation to an unsatisfactory end. Pausing, breathing, changing the subject, and then coming back to it on a more even keel allows for honest, meaningful discussion that doesn’t devolve into hurtful and offensive words.
Finally, four: Make the argument. Oftentimes we assume that the value of our own opinions is obvious. We think that we shouldn’t have to defend our opinions because they’re clearly right. We think that it’s the other person’s problem if they don’t understand. “If it were that simple,” Megan says, “we would all see things the same way.” We can’t expect others to change their own mind on a whim, as we are all products of our upbringing. “If we want change, we have to make the case for it.”
In our day and age, it can sometimes feel as though we are so divided from each other, there is no way to bridge the gap. But we are all human, we all believe that we are doing what is right. We have to engage each other with the intent to understand. Megan once said that her favourite quote was from The Great Gatsby. “Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.” So let us have hope. The path to a more peaceful and understanding world, she says, begins with us.
Image: via ted.com