What is it like to grow up within a group of people who exult in demonizing … everyone else? Megan Phelps-Roper shares details of life inside America’s most controversial church and describes how conversations on Twitter were key to her decision to leave it. In this extraordinary talk, she shares her personal experience of extreme polarization, along with some sharp ways we can learn to successfully engage across ideological lines.(official TED site) Particularly important given  the current global social (or unsocial)  climate is the relatively simple four step approach to communication and dialogue that she presents.

Who is she   Megan Phelps-Roper was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka, Kansas church known internationally for its daily public protests against members of the LGBT community, Jews, the military and countless others. As a child, teenager and early 20-something, she participated in the picketing almost daily and pioneered the use of social media in the church. (op. cite.)

Why you should view      Dialogue with “enemies” online proved instrumental in her deradicalization, and she left the church and her entire way of life in November 2012. Since then she has become an advocate for people and ideas she was taught to despise — especially the value of empathy in dialogue with people across ideological lines. She speaks widely, engaging audiences in schools, universities, faith groups, and law enforcement anti-extremism workshops.  Her forthcoming memoir will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.( Op. cite.)

Discussion Questions

  1. When I joined my family on the picket line at 5 years old I carried a sign that I couldn’t read yet. What did the sign say?
  2.  What power did the strangers on Twitter show her?
  3. Make a difference between the unclean and the clean,” the verse says. I saw this as the only way for me to do good in a world that sits in Satan’s lap. What did her life consist of as she followed this path?
  4. In 2009, that zeal brought me to Twitter and she would give a “canned” response but then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world?
  5. Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay.” Explain to another person how you have changed your thinking in some issue.
  6. 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 — 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” Is this true?
  7. We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds. If we want change, we must make the case for it. She gives us 4 steps that will help us do that. What are these 4 steps?

Speaker’s reading list

Megan Phelps-Roper recommends

“Kindness as Self-Defence — The Power of Non-Complementary Behaviour”

Aeon via NPR’s Invisibilia

This short video is a wonderful example of the idea that lies at the core of my talk: non-complementary behavior. As humans, we tend to treat others the way they treat us – kindness tends to beget kindness, and anger breeds more of the same. Breaking a negative feedback cycle is incredibly difficult because answering hostility with kindness runs contrary to our natural impulses. This video illustrates both the difficulty and the power of non-complementary behavior.

“How A Danish Town Helped Young Muslims Turn Away From ISIS”

Hanna Rosin
NPR, 2016

This story shows non-complementary behavior in another context: a successful deradicalization program developed by two Danish crime prevention officers. While most of Europe came down hard on people who traveled to fight in Syria, this Danish town responded more gently: “They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.” Although some deride this as the “hug a terrorist” model of deradicalization, the officers see their response as entirely practical. It’s more important to have an effective strategy to keep their town safe than it is to punish people for choosing a bad path.

“The Brain’s Empathy Gap”

Jeneen Interlandi
New York Times, 2015

This article is fascinating because it considers one theory about why it’s so difficult to engage across entrenched divides: “When considering an enemy, the mind generates an ’empathy gap.’ It mutes the empathy signal, and that muting prevents us from putting ourselves in the perceived enemy’s shoes.” This theory comes from Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT who studies intractable conflicts around the world. “I get that these are complicated problems,” he said. “But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy.” It seems clear that overcoming these natural cognitive failures – and the growing national divide – we’ll have to be deliberate about cultivating empathy for our ideological opponents.

“Conversion via Twitter”

Adrian Chen
The New Yorker, 2015

For anyone looking to better understand Westboro Baptist Church and my journey out of its ideology, this profile by New Yorker staff writer Adrian Chen is a great place to start. He spent the better part of a year digging into the question of exactly how my mind changed over time, and how people on Twitter helped make it happen.

“The white flight of Derek Black”

Eli Saslow
The Washington Post, 2016

This profile of Derek Black is another illustration of the power of kind engagement over hostile dismissal and accusations. Derek was raised in the white nationalist movement, and though our ideologies were extremely different, many hallmarks of our upbringings were the same. We developed a deeply Us vs. Them mentality; the sense that the masses were deluded and that our truth was the only hope; and a desire to help the world by spreading our ideology as far and as wide as possible.

I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left with Megan Phelps-Roper


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