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.

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