Dialogue Lessons from Westboro


I was watching a TED Talk of Megan Phelps-Roper. Image result for westboro baptistShe was raised up in Westboro Baptist Church, a small church in the United States known for its “hate speech.” Now I know sometimes people use the term “hate speech” pretty loosely, but I think most anyone would say that Westboro’s words and actions would fit the term “hate speech.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church, part of the Phelps clan that founded and dominate the membership of that church. She actively supported the activities of the church but in her Twitter conversations with people who were part of groups that she was trained to hate, she gradually saw things differently. Today she supports open dialogue between different religious and politcal groups. I found two interesting things in her short presentation.

First, she noted the possible value of Social Media to break down barriers. She noted how social media helped her to see others differently. I found that surprising. Years ago I spent time on the religion forum of Compuserve (yes 30 years ago). We did talk to each other– people of other faiths. But we had people who maintained “decorum on the forum.” That was because there were people who loved to “flame.” They loved to attack other people. Seems strange that people who are interested in religion would want to attack each other— but history doesn’t lie. I actually got reprimanded once on the forum for using the weird and childish term “royally pissed.”  But over the years, and especially with most social media having little enforcement of standards of any sort, the situation has gotten worse. Trolls abound, and the comment section of many sites are just filled with mindless rage, vulgarity, filth, and generally ‘trollery.’ Why would they do this. I don’t know for sure, but as my youngest daughter said just tonight, “It is hard for people to see others as people behind a wall of text.” I find it strange that social media, a realm dominated by confirmation bias and pushback, could be a place to find acceptance from others. But as Megan noted, some responded differently than she expected. Some that she expressed hate against, responded in like manner reinforcing what she already thought about them (no surprise there). But some responded differently. That different response gradually led her to question what she believed.

Second, she listed four simple guidelines for cyber-dialogue. I like collecting lists for interreligious dialoge. This 4-point list has merit, and has the advantage of being pretty simple. I will list them with my own spin as commentary.

  • Don’t Assume Bad Intent. In fact, even in the case of Westboro, they believe they are right and that in spreading their message they are helping to make the world more moral— a better place. People rarely share their deeply held beliefs because they want to ruin people and make the world worse (although sometimes it is quite easy to wonder).
  • Ask Questions. People often want to talk but not listen. But asking helps you learn. It also makes the other person more likely to try to understand you. Counterintuitively, we best get people to trust us by our asking favors from them. When we go to others with honest questions and a willingness to learn, we build trust.
  • Stay Calm.  It is tempting to get angry and lash out. Fear and anger are responses to threats. We commonly aren’t that good at training our emotional response. We allow a hippocampus takeover based on words put on a computer screen in much the way of a direct physical threat to our family. In case of physical threat, such a response may be useful. In cyber-dialogue it is almost always counterproductive. Megan actually noted a strength of social media because it is easier to pause or disconnect than it is in a direct face-to-face encounter. People often revel in a lack of calmness on the Web, but the medium actually makes calmness easier.
  • Make the Argument. If you truly believe something is true and you have good intent that the world would be a better place if they agree, than explain it so others can understand. Often, we think our views are so awesome that we don’t take the time to think about it as others would. We have bumpersticker phrases that support our views even though others may not see it that way. Often those who do try to make the argument aren’t thoughtful in their explanation, but focus more on ad hominem arguments or logical “face moves.” Creating effective arguments may not only change others’ minds, they may lead to changing our own.

Megan Phelps-Roper is not a practicing Christian, and she would not now describe herself as a Christian. She saw Christianity (in the broadest sense of the term) at its worst. I can hardly condemn her for turning away. Condemnation has little value anyway, as has been shown over and over at Westboro Baptist Church.

You can see the short video by CLICKING HERE.

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