Many will agree that one of the most reprehensible groups of the modern age is the Westboro Baptist Church.
It doesn’t take long to get a feel for their message. Their homepage is godhatesfags.com. As much as they consider themselves “soldiers for Christ,” the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League regard them as a hate-group, and monitor them as such.
This is primarily due to the fact that they picket and sing outside of the funerals of fallen soldiers and homosexuals, and they’re known to become giddy and tweet horrific and toxic messages in the wake of human tragedy and natural disasters.
Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of this extremist group, gave a TED talk this past February where she explained the process of breaking free from the destructive world she was born into, and the journey that led her to becoming a writer and an educator on the topics of hurtful extremism, bullying, and cultivating empathy. Ironically, this 180-degree turn was all due to the aforementioned Twitter account that she was responsible for maintaining.
Initially, her near psychotic tweets attracted the ire of thousands, most notably, The Office’s Rainn Wilson, and comedian Michael Ian Black. Before long, it also drew the attention of David Abitbol, Israeli Jew, and founder of the popular blog “Jewlicious.”
The TED talk she gave explains how sarcastic banter to and fro, over time, softened. Abitbol decided to become friendly and ask as affably as possible, how she could espouse such beliefs and claim she was a follower of the Bible. His approach was so effective, in fact, that not only did Phelps-Roper break from Westboro, she did it at the cost of never seeing or speaking to her family again.
Of course, I am giving an abridged account of this story, but the point is quite clear. Our country is in an almost unprecedented state of division. University professors, serious scholars, and journalists all pretty much agree that the United States has not been this divided since the Civil War. It seems silly to have to remind people, but the Civil War was when individual states began breaking away from each other and fighting with guns and cannons. Things were bleak.
Today on social media we have our political and social views, and practically everyone on Facebook that I know of, only surrounds themselves with the people who share their ideologies. This is understandable because we are not talking about nuanced differences.
One side believes global warming is a hoax, the other side believes that this thinking will lead to earth becoming uninhabitable for their children. One side sees jingoism and isolationism, the other side sees their fellow countrymen as overly sensitive and spineless.
There is a historic case of Civil Rights activist and personal friend of Martin Luther King, Xernona Clayton, and her relationship with Calvin Craig during the 60s. Much like Abitbol, she patiently and peacefully asked Craig, the Grand Dragon of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, where in the Bible it mentioned hating people that looked different than himself.
A few months later, Craig called a press conference and resigned from the KKK, denouncing its positions on segregation. Not only that, but he began working with Xernona Clayton at the Atlanta Model Cities program, a federally funded group dedicated to improving desegregated urban neighborhoods.
Personally speaking, I am on the side of the progressives.
I find the ideas espoused by some of Trump’s followers to be downright repugnant. I have a difficult time when I see their snarky, and often misspelled rants and memes, and have been guilty of “unfollowing,” just because I’d rather not have this stuff enter into my consciousness.
However, after listening to Megan Phelps-Roper’s TED talk, I’m beginning to wonder if there is wisdom in this sort of behavior. As uncomfortable as it is to engage in conversation with people diametrically opposed to us, is it necessary to our survival as a people? I am beginning to think so.
It is an unfortunate reality, but if we keep isolating ourselves in our oppositional groups, we will push ourselves further and further toward the fringes until, sadly, the radical margins will no longer be seen as such and become normalized. The right will become more and more right and the left will move further to the left, and it won’t be long before we have a bigger mess on our hands than we have now…if such a thing can even be imagined.
Let’s, as a nation, try to listen to one another; let’s quiet down the instant self-righteous judgement and try to be the change we want to see in the world.
Martin Luther King had a great quote where he spoke about this ideal to Xernona Clayton when she was younger and most likely influenced her ability to create the miracle of transformation in Calvin Craig. He said, “Take the people where they are.” In other words, accept them and their limitations and beliefs, and begin your work there.
Let’s be honest: what we are doing now is not working. Perhaps it is time to try something different than just shutting our ears and our hearts to everyone who does not agree with us.
Maybe it is time we start listening to one another.
Author: Billy Manas
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen