Megan Phelps-Roper: If You're Raised To Hate, Can You Reverse It?

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 2:45 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Dialogue And Exchange.

About Megan Phelps-Roper's TED Talk

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, which preaches a message of hate and fear. But after engaging with her critics--on Twitter, no less--she decided to leave the church.

About Megan Phelps-Roper

Megan Phelps-Roper was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for its daily public protests against members of the LGBT community, Jews, the military and countless others. Dialogue with "enemies" online proved instrumental in her decision to leave the church and its way of life in November 2012.

Phelps-Roper has since become an advocate for people and ideas she was taught to despise.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about dialogue and exchange. Because we're living at a time of pretty intense polarization, a lot of people are angry and confused. And we don't understand how or why people we know can think the way they do.

And all this means that we aren't really talking to each other. But is there a real argument to be made that we don't really have a choice. And if we don't have a choice, how do we do it? So let's start with a story about a dialogue that involved one of the most polarizing fringe groups in the U.S. So can you introduce yourself - like, your name and what you do?

MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER: My name is Megan Phelps-Roper. And what do I do? (Laughter) This is always the hardest question because right now, like, whenever I have, like, a sticker or something with my name on it and they put a title on it, it just says former member of Westboro Baptist Church.

RAZ: So you might have heard of Westboro Baptist Church. It's based in Kansas, and its members picket the funerals of American soldiers. They celebrate natural disasters and tragedies as acts of God. And they believe God hates homosexuality.

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PHELPS-ROPER: That is the message that we have to these people - Obey God or you're going to hell. The end.

RAZ: This is actually a clip of Megan Phelps-Roper at a protest in 2011.

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PHELPS-ROPER: You are hilarious. It is a commandment. It is a commandment.

We protested every single day. It was what we did. We picketed a lot of sporting events.

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PHELPS-ROPER: Read the Bible. Read the words.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have read the Bible.

PHELPS-ROPER: We picketed, you know, concerts.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Showed his wrath to thee.

PHELPS-ROPER: You know, pop stars who, you know, promote adultery and things like that.

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UNIDENTIFED PROTESTERS: (Singing) You got more perversion to display, but there's no part of you that...

RAZ: When you would have, like, these hostile shouting matches on the picket line, did you ever listen to the people on the other side?

PHELPS-ROPER: No. Most of the time, you know, I would walk away from those conversations feeling like I had won. I never set out to have my mind changed.

RAZ: Do you recognize the person that you once were?

PHELPS-ROPER: I do. It's very strange. I watch it. And it's such a strange feeling because I know exactly where I was coming from and why I was saying what I was saying and why I believed it so strongly. And I also know exactly why I now think it's wrong and destructive.

RAZ: Until her mid-20s, these were the only exchanges Megan had with the outside world - shouting back and forth, treating the other side with scorn and contempt. And if Megan hadn't engaged in a different kind of conversation, she might not ever have left her church. Megan tells her story from the TED stage.

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PHELPS-ROPER: I was a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked 5-year-old when I joined my family on the picket line for the first time. I'd stand on a street corner in the heavy Kansas humidity surrounded by a few dozen relatives with my tiny fists clutching a sign that I couldn't read yet. Gays are worthy of death. This was the beginning. Our protests soon became a daily occurrence and an international phenomenon.

And as a member of Westboro Baptist Church, I became a fixture on picket lines across the country. This was the focus of our whole lives. This was the only way for me to do good in a world that sits in Satan's lap. And like the rest of my 10 siblings, I believed what I was taught with all my heart. And I pursued Westboro's agenda with a special sort of zeal.

RAZ: For people who don't know anything about Westboro Baptist Church, what - how big is it?

PHELPS-ROPER: Westboro is a church of about 70 to 80 people.

RAZ: Wow, so small.

PHELPS-ROPER: Yes. Most of them are my immediate and extended family. It was started by my grandfather, Fred Phelps. And my family was incredibly close. So I was surrounded by people who loved me and whom I loved. And I was convinced that we were right.

RAZ: When was the first time you were confronted with somebody from, like, outside your bubble, you know, who challenged your views, who wanted to actually talk to you - talk to you about, you know, the way you felt and wanted to try to convince you that you were wrong?

PHELPS-ROPER: I encountered a lot of people over the years who wanted to challenge my ideas and the church's ideas. But the problem was that, you know, when you're standing on a picket line, even if you have somebody who really wants to have a dialogue, it's really hard to get past, you know, shouty (ph) talking points.

I had been raised to be wary of these people - right? - and to even, especially, be wary of their kindness because then they're - you know, you sort of see them as crafty deceivers like people who are just trying to, you know, sweet talk you into doing the wrong thing. And so it wasn't until I got on Twitter that things really started to change for me.

RAZ: Wait, Twitter?

PHELPS-ROPER: Yeah.

RAZ: Because Twitter is not exactly the - like a place that people think of when they think of civility and dialogue.

PHELPS-ROPER: Right (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PHELPS-ROPER: Initially, the people I encountered on Twitter were just as hostile as I expected. They were the digital version of the screaming hordes I've been seeing at protests since I was a kid. But in the midst of that digital brawl, a strange pattern developed. Someone would arrive at my profile with the usual rage and scorn. I would respond with a custom mix of Bible verses, pop culture references and smiley faces. They would be understandably confused and caught off guard. But then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil, full of genuine curiosity on both sides.

Sometimes the conversation even bled into real life. People I'd sparred with on Twitter would come out to the picket line to see me when I protested in their city. There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred. We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another. It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me.

My friends on Twitter took the time to understand Westboro's doctrines and in doing so, they were able to find inconsistencies I'd missed my entire life. Why did we advocate the death penalty for gays when Jesus said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone? How could we claim to love our neighbor while at the same time praying for God to destroy them? These realizations were life-altering.

Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn't justify our actions, especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. And eventually, it made it impossible for me to stay. In spite of overwhelming grief and terror, I left Westboro in 2012. In those days just after I left, the instinct to hide was almost paralyzing. I wanted to hide from the judgment of my family who would never speak to me again. And I wanted to hide from the world I'd rejected for so long - people who had no reason at all to give me a second chance after a lifetime of antagonism.

That period was full of turmoil. But one part I return to often is a surprising realization I had during that time - that it was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw. I realized that now I needed to learn. I needed to listen.

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RAZ: It seems like you could not have changed your life and left the church and forced yourself to rethink everything you believed without those conversations - without that exchange of ideas.

PHELPS-ROPER: Absolutely. I - and maybe decades down the road, maybe somehow I would have found a way to argue myself into this thing - maybe - but I doubt it.

RAZ: It's interesting because, I mean, lots people say, hey, you know, I don't want to have a conversation with this person who has these reprehensible views because I don't want to acknowledge that those views are legitimate in any way. And you can understand why somebody would feel that way against, you know, somebody who was super hateful who wanted to hurt you simply because of who you are or what you were born as. But on the other hand, you're saying, actually, you still have to engage those people because you have to understand how their mind is working in order to explain why that is wrong.

PHELPS-ROPER: Right. I mean - and I'm not saying, you know, every oppressed person has to go to the person who is oppressing them and explain, you know, why they're wrong. But some people have to do that. Like, if we want these ideas - we want them to - we want them to die, you know? We want them to - or to be, at least - at the very least, on the very, very margins of society. I think that we have to be able to effectively argue against them.

You're not letting go of your truth but understanding someone else's. You need that if you're going to build, you know, a bridge and get across and get through.

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PHELPS-ROPER: This has been at the front of my mind lately because 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, but the path we've chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go. We have to talk and listen to people we disagree with. And I will always be inspired to do so by those people I encountered on Twitter - apparent enemies who became my beloved friends.

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.

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RAZ: I'm wondering how you have those difficult conversations with people who are, you know, kind of impenetrable. I mean, you left the church. Your family doesn't talk to you anymore. So is there any way you could ever have a dialogue with them about the things you believe now?

PHELPS-ROPER: I do. I mean, that's part of what I use Twitter for now. It's a way for me to - you know, I still, you know, follow my families. They have, you know, a few dozen Twitter accounts. And I read what they have to say, and I do reach out. And I do try to challenge them. And every interaction we have is an opportunity to, you know, change their minds so that they're not being an active force for destruction in the world.

I feel so strongly, passionate and hopeful and optimistic of what humans can accomplish. Like, I mean, just from my own experience, looking back, I was incredibly close minded. I was blinded by certainty. My family sees what I'm doing now and thinks that I'm, you know, basically satanic. But they're definitely listening. People can change, and I just feel incredibly hopeful.

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RAZ: Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church in 2012. You can see her entire talk at ted.com. Our show today - ideas about dialogue and exchange. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.