I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left | Megan Phelps-Roper | Summary and Q&A

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March 6, 2017
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I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left | Megan Phelps-Roper

TL;DR

This content shares the story of a former member of Westboro Baptist Church and highlights the importance of engaging in civil and empathetic conversations with those we disagree with.

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Questions & Answers

Q: How did the speaker's presence on Twitter contribute to her realization that people on the other side were not the demons she had been led to believe?

By engaging with people on Twitter, the speaker had conversations that were civil and full of genuine curiosity on both sides. These interactions planted seeds of doubt and led her to question her beliefs. The care shown to her by strangers on the internet contradicted what she had been taught, and she realized that people on the other side were not the demons she had been led to believe.

Q: What was the turning point that made it impossible for the speaker to continue with her antigay picketing career?

The turning point came when strangers on Twitter engaged the speaker in conversation. They asked questions, raised inconsistencies in her beliefs, and showed her empathy and compassion. These interactions planted seeds of doubt in her and made her question the actions of her church. Ultimately, she realized that she couldn't justify the cruelty of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy.

Q: How did the speaker's experience on Twitter change her perspective on the world?

The speaker's experience on Twitter exposed her to people who engaged with her in a civil manner, despite their differences. These interactions showed her that people on the other side were not demons and that her previously held beliefs were flawed. It challenged her to see others as human beings, which ultimately led to a larger erosion of trust in her church and made it impossible for her to stay.

Q: What is the speaker's message to the audience regarding our public discourse?

The speaker highlights the destructive impulses that she sees in our public discourse. She points out that despite celebrating tolerance and diversity, we are growing more divided. She emphasizes the need to talk and listen to people we disagree with in order to bridge the divide. The speaker warns against breaking the world into "us and them" and encourages empathy, understanding, and the acknowledgment of flaws in our own positions.

Summary

The speaker recounts her experience growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its extreme antigay protests, and how engaging with strangers on Twitter who approached her with empathy and understanding helped change her perspective. She emphasizes the importance of talking and listening to those we disagree with, assuming good intent, asking questions, staying calm, and making persuasive arguments to foster meaningful conversations and bridge divides. By choosing compassion and rejecting destructive impulses, we can begin to break the cycle of rage and blame and work towards a more united society.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did the speaker's upbringing in the Westboro Baptist Church shape her worldview?

The speaker describes growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, where life was framed as a spiritual battle between good and evil. The church held protests with provocative signs, such as "Gays are worthy of death," and considered themselves the arbiters of divine truth. They saw the world as evil and everyone outside the church as unclean and deserving of damnation. The church's teachings and actions reinforced their sense of otherness.

Q: How did the speaker's experience on Twitter challenge her beliefs?

Initially, the speaker expected hostility and aggression from people on Twitter, mirroring the confrontations she had during protests. However, something unexpected happened. Instead of engaging in a verbal brawl, certain individuals approached her with genuine curiosity and kindness. They asked questions, listened to her responses, and engaged in civil conversations. This humanized the "other" for the speaker, planting seeds of doubt and challenging the church's doctrines that she had unquestioningly believed her whole life.

Q: How did the speaker's encounters on Twitter lead to her leaving the Westboro Baptist Church?

The conversations she had on Twitter, filled with empathy and understanding, exposed inconsistencies in the church's teachings that she had previously missed. She began to question why the church advocated for the death penalty for gays when Jesus preached forgiveness and love. The care shown to her by strangers on the internet contradicted the demons she had been taught to perceive in them. These realizations eroded her trust in the church, ultimately making it impossible for her to stay, and she left in 2012.

Q: How did society respond to the speaker's departure from the Westboro Baptist Church?

After leaving, the speaker experienced overwhelming support and forgiveness from people, despite her history of antagonism. Despite her fear of judgment and rejection, many people embraced her with open arms. She wrote an apology for the harm she had caused, but recognized that apologies alone couldn't undo the damage. However, people extended their forgiveness and gave her a chance to build a new life. This astonishes and inspires her.

Q: How did the speaker's perception of others change during her transition?

The speaker reflects on her time spent with a Jewish community in Los Angeles after leaving the church and shares a surprising realization she had. In the past, she would judge others harshly based on her beliefs, but letting go of those judgments was a relief and privilege. She realized that she needed to learn and listen, and the experience shifted her approach. The speaker emphasizes the importance of letting go of harsh judgments and truly hearing the perspectives of others.

Q: What observations does the speaker make about the current state of public discourse?

The speaker observes that despite our celebration of tolerance and diversity, society remains deeply divided. She criticizes the current tendency to break the world into "us" and "them," leading to sniping, polarization, and violence. Discussions often devolve into debates about who deserves more empathy, with both sides refusing to acknowledge flaws in their positions. The speaker compares this destructive path to the one she walked away from in the Westboro Baptist Church and highlights the urgent need for change.

Q: How does the speaker propose we bridge divides and improve public discourse?

The speaker suggests four small but powerful steps to foster real conversation with those we disagree with. The first is to assume good or neutral intent instead of immediately assuming bad intent. Assuming ill motives cuts off understanding and perpetuates anger. The second is to ask questions, which helps identify the disconnect between differing views and also signals to the other person that they are being heard. The third step is to stay calm, resisting the urge to escalate tension or lash out. Online conversations provide a buffer of time and space, which can be used to pause, breathe, and change the subject rather than fueling hostility. The final step is to make persuasive arguments, recognizing that our own strong beliefs are not self-evident to others. To effect change, we must present a case for our position while being receptive to critique.

Q: How did the speaker's transformation shift her understanding of empathy and compassion?

The speaker acknowledges the difficulty in extending empathy and compassion to those who show hostility and contempt. However, she recalls how the kindness and understanding shown to her by her Twitter friends made her see them as human beings. It revolutionized her interactions and was more transformative than two decades of outrage, disdain, and violence. The speaker believes that, despite the challenges, reaching out to someone we disagree with is an option available to everyone, and can lead to personal growth and a more united future.

Q: What advantage does online communication provide for civil conversations?

The speaker acknowledges that digital communication often gets criticized for making people less civil, but she points out one advantage: the buffer of time and space it provides. Online conversations allow for a pause between us and those we find frustrating, offering an opportunity to respond rather than react immediately. This buffer can help us stay calm and change the subject or walk away temporarily, paving the way for more constructive exchange when we're ready.

Q: What hope does the speaker hold for the future?

The speaker believes that by choosing empathy, understanding, and meaningful dialogue with those we disagree with, we have the power to prevent escalating disgust and intractable conflict. She emphasizes that it starts with one person who refuses to indulge destructive impulses. The speaker acknowledges the challenges but expresses her belief that we can do hard things, both for the sake of others and for a better future for ourselves, our country, and the next generation.

Takeaways

The speaker's personal journey from hatred to empathy offers powerful lessons for improving public discourse. Engaging in meaningful conversations with those we disagree with is key to bridging divides. We should assume good intent, ask questions to understand differing points of view, stay calm to avoid escalation, and make persuasive arguments to effect change. By resisting the impulse to demonize and instead choosing compassion and understanding, we can break the cycle of rage and blame. It is up to each individual to start fostering a more united and empathetic society.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The speaker grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their extreme antigay protests, but eventually left due to conversations with strangers on Twitter who showed her empathy and understanding.

  • She learned four steps to have effective conversations with those who disagree with us: assume good intent, ask questions, stay calm, and make the argument.

  • The speaker urges everyone to resist the path of division and polarization and instead strive for empathy, understanding, and dialogue in order to create a more united and compassionate society.

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