This talk was uploaded to YouTube about a month ago. Check it out here.
You can read more about Megan Phelps-Roper and her journey in a profile by Adrian Chen of The New Yorker, “Conversion via Twitter.”
Megan Phelps-Roper stands on a circular red carpet on a stage in New York City. In front of her is an audience of listeners–a fairly diverse crowd. It is New York City, after all. To her left, a monitor displays a picture of two protestors holding a concession stand’s worth of signs. To her right, three red letters–each about three-foot tall–stand: T, E, and D. This is a TED talk and she is their newest speaker, if you haven’t figured that out already.
Her grandfather, a civil rights lawyer who defended mostly black clients in Jim Crow Kansas, received an award from the NAACP for his work. He was a well-known lawyer for his fiery antics in court. He moved to Topeka with his wife, Margie, where he was hired as a pastor for a small, independent church–Westboro Baptist.
Her grandfather was Fred Phelps.
He died in 2014, but still to this day do his words and hate permeate the collective consciousness of those he antagonized. In emboldened black letters on neon poster board, the words “God Hates Fags” — a signature sign for Westboro’s protests — epitomized their divisiveness, as children too young to comprehend sexuality or the religion for which they proselytize hold them with a naive sense of importance, accomplishment and moral purity.
“I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing,” Phelps-Roper says.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a hallmark of the darkest parts of religious bigotry—religiously-induced polarization. The Westboro Baptist Church has no friends, no allies — only enemies. Reverend Phelps was a Democrat but it is unlikely he found any allies in any political party. This was to be expected; everyone across the ideological and theological spectrum seems to hold a certain hostility towards Westboro Baptist.
In the minds of Westboro’s members, they are the ideologically and theologically pure few who hold an ear to God. The debate was over; there was no need for it. But, for Phelps-Roper, this was not completely true.
“The end of my anti-gay picketing career, and life as I knew it came 20 years later, triggered in part by strangers on Twitter who showed me the power of engaging the other.”
It was in 2009 that Phelps-Roper went to Twitter to spread her church’s message.
She was met with hostility.
“They were the digital version of the screaming hordes I’d been seeing at protests since I was a kid,” Phelps-Roper says.
But then something changed: conversations began.
“It was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world?” Phelps-Roper says she asked herself.
This was when she met David, a Jewish blogger (the title of his blog was called Jewlicious), with whom she’d sparred with on Twitter. He came to meet her at a protest, Jerusalem dessert in-hand. In her hands was a “God Hates Jews” sign — and kosher chocolate.
“The line between friend and foe was becoming blurred,” Phelps-Roper explains.
These conversations asked questions and pointed out inconsistencies that Phelps-Roper, herself, never thought to ask. These conversations also allowed Phelps-Roper to explain Westboro’s beliefs to more people. In understanding Westboro’s doctrines and beliefs, strangers and friends on Twitter were able to eschew the normal hostility and instill doubt in beliefs that were once rock-solid.
“It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe,” she says.
Phelps-Roper says she feared to leave the church in 2012. The church that she once knew and loved was no longer something she could be a part of. Part of this fear, she explains, was that the outside world would not accept her.
This was not true. Those who were once her demons were now her angels. She was met with open arms, arms whose hands — unlike so many times before — were noticeable void of picket signs. Those she once believed to be depraved and demonic turned out to be her savior.
Even with the welcoming embrace she felt from those outside of the church, she knew, deep down, she had to make up for it.
“I wrote an apology for the harm I’d caused, but I also knew that an apology could never undo any of it.”
For the first year of her departure, she and her sister, who left the church with her, went to live in a Jewish community in Los Angeles. She and her sister slept in the house of a Hasidic rabbi, his wife, and kids. This was the same rabbi that, four years earlier, she protested with a sign that read, “Your Rabbi Is A Whore”.
She was quite literally sleeping with the enemy.
Much like the interactions on Twitter, this introduced Phelps-Roper to new ideas and other perspectives. In a time of turmoil, a family of Jews — “the other” — showed more compassion and understanding than her own family. The cruelty and rash judgments that once plagued her psyche were now set free. All she had to do was listen.
This polarization, this rush to judgment, this hostility; it exists outside of the Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps-Roper believes.
“I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church … We’ve broken the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as ‘out-of-touch liberal elites’ or ‘racist, misogynist bullies’. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity.”
“What gives me hope is that we can do something about this. The good news is that it’s simple, and the bad news is that it’s hard: We have to talk with people we disagree with,” Phelps-Roper says.
Doing this, Phelps-Roper believes, will help each side to understand why it is that individuals hold the beliefs they do, and see things the way they do — each side will empathize. It wasn’t just the exposure itself that changed her; it was the methods by which these interactions took place and the ways in which “the other” revealed themselves to be human.
Phelps-Roper finished her talk with a list of four things that catalyzed her ideological and theological shift, which she also believes is the roadmap to creating meaningful conversations and opening thoughtful dialogue.
1. Don’t assume bad intent.
“Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do.”
People, whoever bad we might view them, believe they are doing the “right” thing. This psychological shift from antagonism to neutrality requires an exercise in empathy, yes, but it also requires a restraint of one’s animosity towards change.
2. Ask questions.
“When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our different points of view.”
Asking questions of others’ positions is reciprocal — both parties involved learn something new about another person, and something new about themselves. It throws ideology on its head.
3. Stay calm.
“At Westboro, I learned not to care how my manner of speaking affected others. I thought my rightness justified my rudeness.”
A conversation marred with snark and rigidity only leads to vacuous insults. While one may view themselves as possessing the truth on any given subject, one must also remember that they certainly are not the ultimate arbiter of truth, nor are they infallible. Emotions are not arguments.
4. Make the argument.
“One side effect of having strong beliefs is that we sometimes assume that the value of our position is, or should be, obvious and self-evident. That we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good, that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s not my job to educate them,” Phelps-Roper says.
Making clear, concise arguments — arguments which are hopefully void of logical fallacies — impact a listener’s biases, pre-judgements, and beliefs in a way that subjects deeply held convictions and incredulity to a metaphorical magnifying glass.
“My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence.”
We are products of our environments, shaped and molded by experience. To waste a chance to share our experiences is to throw away the idea that we, as human beings, matter. Our experiences matter, even if they do not fit perfectly into someone else’s view of how the world is.
Phelps-Roper is now married to one of her “demons” — a friend on Twitter who didn’t abandon their beliefs — only their scorn. In the twenty-plus years that Phelps-Roper picketed the funerals of soldiers and wished death on millions of homosexuals, it only took a matter of years to eradicate her vitriol.
Harsher than the tongues of reckless individuals with little empathy are those that seek to silence them, but mighty are those that listen to their harshness with great empathy and a heavy heart and seek to make all right.