Category Archives: Communication

Lessons from leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church (the church known for their bigotry and hateful protests) and left as a young adult. Here she talks about how she left and the light that sheds on how to best communicate with our opponents.

From her TED talk:

I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided.

We want good things—justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity—but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. 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.

Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions
or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.

This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.

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 and listen to people we disagree with.

It’s hard because we often can’t fathom how the other side came to their positions. It’s hard because righteous indignation, that sense of certainty that ours is the right side, is so seductive. It’s hard because it means extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. The impulse to respond in kind is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be.

We can resist. And I will always be inspired to do so by those people I encountered on Twitter,
apparent enemies who became my beloved friends. And in the case of one particularly understanding and generous guy, my husband. There was nothing special about the way I responded to him. What was special was their approach.

I thought about it a lot over the past few years and I found four things they did differently
that made real conversation possible. These four steps were small but powerful, and I do everything I can to employ them in difficult conversations today.

The first is don’t assume bad intent. My friends on Twitter realized that even when my words were aggressive and offensive, I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing. Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind, and we get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation has a very hard time ever moving beyond it. But when we assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.

The second is ask questions. When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our differing points of view. That’s important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from and because it gives them an opportunity to point out flaws in our positions. But asking questions serves another purpose; it signals to someone that they’re being heard. When my friends on Twitter stopped accusing and started asking questions,
I almost automatically mirrored them.  Their questions gave me room to speak, but they also gave me permission to ask them questions and to truly hear their responses. It fundamentally changed the dynamic of our conversation.

The third is stay calm. This takes practice and patience, but it’s powerful. At Westboro, I learned not to care how my manner of speaking affected others. I thought my rightness justified my rudeness—harsh tones, raised voices, insults, interruptions—but that strategy is ultimately counterproductive. Dialing up the volume and the snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end. When my husband was still just an anonymous Twitter acquaintance, our discussions frequently became hard and pointed, but we always refused to escalate. Instead, he would change the subject. He would tell a joke or recommend a book or gently excuse himself from the conversation. We knew the discussion wasn’t over, just paused for a time to bring us back to an even keel. People often lament that digital communication makes us less civil, but this is one advantage that online conversations have over in-person ones. We have a buffer of time and space between us and the people whose ideas we find so frustrating. We can use that buffer. Instead of lashing out, we can pause, breathe, change the subject or walk away, and then come back to it when we’re ready.

And finally… make the argument. This might seem obvious, but 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 their problem—that it’s not my job to educate them. But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way. As kind as my friends on Twitter were, if they hadn’t actually made their arguments, it would’ve been so much harder for me to see the world in a different way. We are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds. If we want change, we have to make the case for it. 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.

I know that some might not have the time or the energy or the patience for extensive engagement, but as difficult as it can be, reaching out to someone we disagree with is an option that is available to all of us.
And I sincerely believe that we can do hard things, not just for them but for us and our future.

The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person who refuses to indulge these destructive, seductive impulses. We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.

Why I don’t watch video link replies

In brief:  Videos are not often a good way to present evidence. If you’re trying to convince me of something, I prefer to see a clear, concise argument in text form. Thanks for understanding.


When I’m in a discussion on the Internet and someone makes an unusual or unlikely-sounding claim, I will keep an open mind and ask for evidence. Sometimes the reply comes in the form of a video. My general rule now is that I do not watch these videos, with a few exceptions*. Here’s why.

  1. Video is an effective tool for conveying emotion; it’s less effective for conveying information. If you have a clear, concise argument, text is generally preferable. Emotions can be fantastic, but they’re not great evidence.
  2. Watching videos is much more time-consuming than reading a concise article. In an article I can skim, pace myself according to how easy or difficult the language and arguments are, and often I can quickly identify whether the writer is making sense or not. In a video, it might be several minutes in before I find out whether the argument is based on carefully weighed scientific research, or on an assertion that space lizards are conspiring with George Soros to give us all vaccines that make us believe in global warming.
  3. Text lends itself better to structure, which aids the presenting and weighing of evidence.
  4. Responding to text is much more straightforward – I can copy and quote as appropriate. It’s easier to get on the same page about what precisely was said, claimed, proven.
  5. Text lends itself much better to providing referencing, and it’s much easier to find the references as they will be linked from the text where a particular claim is made, or found by scrolling down.
  6. My experience with replies in video form has not been positive. Let’s assume that your video reply is different – more rigorous, logical, persuasive and honest. If we don’t know each other yet, I don’t yet have a way to tell you apart from other people on the Internet who sent me links to terrible videos. So start with a clear and concise argument in text form, and we can discuss the video later, perhaps.

*The exceptions:

  • When the video comes later in the conversation, when we have already come to some agreement and can see each other’s perspectives.
  • When the video come from someone I know, with whom I have often had discussions in the past.
  • When we are both members of a community that places a high value on reasoned, civil discussion.

So if you send me a video link and I respond with this post, know that I mean this with respect and good faith, and that it’s part of my attempt to properly understand your argument and weigh the evidence.

Communication only succeeds when people hear you

Of communication and cultural blank slates…

Paul Romer is a prominent economist with a vision for “reform zones” in developing countries, with charter cities that operate independently of the rules and institutions that have failed to create wealth in the country as a whole. The idea was to invite foreign countries to help set up new rules and institutions and build the cities, experimenting with new ways of doing things, to find what would work to create wealth and end poverty.

But for years the idea had no traction. Part of the problem was an accusation of colonialism – which seems to make no sense if the country is inviting them in and asking for help. However, Romer is not a people person, and he couldn’t sell the idea, until he had help packaging it into a clear, emotionally appealing 18 minute presentation – i.e. a TED talk.

This led to him connecting with two Honduran government officials with a similar vision who had also had trouble selling their idea, Octavio Sánchez and Javier Hernandez. With the help of the TED talk, the Honduran government was convinced. In a matter of months from Romer standing in front of an audience at TED, a constitutional amendment had been passed to allow charter cities (ciudades modelos) and work had begun preparing for this grand experiment. (See the follow-up TED talk.)

But all was not well. Romer was perceived to be bossy – Hondurans expected him to work with them, but he was apparently dictating terms. International media consistently reported it as Romer’s vision, rather than recognizing the work and vision of Hondurans. Local opposition increased, Romer was isolated, and a dubious-sounding deal was made with powerful interests. The project failed entirely when courts ruled it unconstitutional, but not before an outspoken opponent of the project, human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo, was assassinated.

Romer plans to keep trying, and says he’ll do things the same way next time. He has little patience for emotion and sensitivity about who gets credit and such matters, and believes that such things should be put aside in the interests of an important project.

TED helped Romer package his message, but it apparently didn’t solve his fundamental communication problems, nor lead him to take a participatory approach to the project. Running a large project in a country with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions takes more than communication, of course, but with the team divided and national opinion shifting away from them, they had little hope of facing down major challenges.

A bonus lesson: A charter city can never be a completely blank slate – corruption, paternalistic attitudes, non-participatory approaches and other institutional and cultural problems are part of the institutions working to set up the new city, and they won’t disappear by passing a constitutional amendment.

Further listening: Self-Improvement KickThis American Life, January 4, 2013.

Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls on fellow atheists to show respect, compassion and understanding towards believers.

The context is the relationship between education and belief in a personal god. This belief declines from around 90% among the general public to 7% among elite scientists – small, but  still a significant minority of top scientists who believe in some kind of personal god who can intervene in the world.

At 2:39 Tyson says this:

So here’s my problem, here’s my concern: When you’re educated and you understand how physics works, and you’re mathematically literate, and you understand data, and you understand experiment, and you go up to someone who doesn’t have that training, and they’re religious, and you ask them “Why are you you religious, you’re believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you?”, that’s unfair.
It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason: until that number [the 7% of elite scientists who believe in a personal god] is zero, you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. These are scientists among us in the National Academy of Sciences who are religious and pray to a personal god and I know some of them. And you’re fighting the public for their religious beliefs?
Figure that one out first, because maybe there’s an asymptote. Maybe you can’t change everybody. Maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe there’s something in the brain wiring that positively prevents some people from ever being an atheist.
If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it, and you’ll never know it because you’re not one of them. So I ask you, first for compassion with the public, but you should target your exercise, and your experiments on understanding that number. Because that’s not zero. Yes it’s low, but it’s not one percent, it’s not one-half of a percent, or a tenth of a percent – it is seven percent – one out of fourteen.Neil deGrasse Tyson

How far to take this? I think Tyson himself demonstrates a great balance in his public life, speaking clearly and openly, with humor and respect.