Productive Internet Conversations Across the Cultural Divide: Lessons from Sara Silverman’s Interview with a Former Hate Group Member

Recently Sheila and I watched the season premiere of Sarah Silverman’s Hulu show, I Love You America. Although there were several shocking moments, for us the most amazing segment was Sarah’s interview with Megan Phelps-Roper.

Flashback to Friday Evening, November 11, 2011

On a cool fall evening, Sheila and I parked across the street from the Bethel College campus in Newton, Kansas. We were walking toward Krehbiel Auditorium, located at the Luyken Fine Arts Center. Both of our daughters, Amy and Sara, were attending college at Bethel and we were going to meet them at the auditorium to watch the production, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

The play centers around the local reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay freshman at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson drove Matthew into the country, tied him to a wooden fence, and savagely pistol-whipped him. The next day he was found, still alive, by a cyclist. Matthew died at a Fort Collins hospital on October 12, 1998, from severe head injuries he had received from the two men.

Sheila and I had learned there was going to be a protest of the play by the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas. The church was led by Fred Phelps until his death in 2014. The church announced its protest in a November 7, 2011, news release, which began, “WBC to picket The Laramie Project, a fag propaganda play about Matt Shepard (in hell for 13 years now), in religious protest & warning: Friday, November 11, from 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. Krehbiel Auditorium, Bethel College.”

Included in the news release, the church promoted a number of websites, including www.GodHatesTheMedia.com, www.GodHatesIslam.com, www.BeastObama.com, www.JewsKilledJesus.com, www.GodHatesTheWorld.com, www.GodHatesFags.com, and www.PriestsRapeBoys.com. This alone should give you a pretty good idea of the variety of messages the Westboro Baptist Church chooses to convey. Although many of these websites appear to have vanished from the web, we found that www.GodHatesFags.com is still up and spewing, along with a sister blog site.

On the way to the play, we walked near the protesters, a group of four or five, holding up signs similar to the ones pictured below. The police prevented us from getting close enough to interact with them. We later learned that the Gay-Straight Alliance had planned to give out hot chocolate to the protestors but were prevented from doing so by the North Newton Police, who were keeping others separated from the protestors.

After the play, we attended a group discussion concerning the play and the protest, sponsored by the campus coffee shop.

Although we don’t know if Megan was one of the protestors at North Newton that evening, we do know she participated in a number of similar protests.

Sarah’s Interview with Megan Phelps-Roper

Sarah asked why Megan thought the Westboro Baptist Church was often considered a hate group. Megan replied, “We did a lot of things that seemed hateful to a lot of people. We believed that it was loving. We thought that loving our neighbor was going to warn them of the consequences of their sins. But we did things like we celebrated 911, Hurricane Katrina, and every sort of human tragedy. We protested at funerals. We did it because we thought that was the definition of love.”

After Megan was put in charge of social media for the church, she started interacting with others on Twitter. She explained that at first she put out a lot of hostile and provocative messages and got similar messages back. Then she started having extended conversations on Twitter with a small group of people. She noted that being on the picket line did not allow these types of prolonged interaction with others. Megan continued, “People got to know me and I got to know them and we got to see that neither of us—neither side was the monstrous image that we had had in our head.” These people responded to her in more understanding ways, trying to make sense of her point of view. Then they started to gently challenge her by saying they understood how she was trying to follow some things you read in the Bible, but wondering if she had considered how their picket lines and signs made others feel.

Megan commented during the interview that in the church they were taught from a young age not to care about or even consider the feelings and thoughts of others. The group actually carried a protest sign that read, “God hates your feelings”. This was sign was directed at the families attending the funerals of their children who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Substantiating Megan’s comments we found the following on the current Westboro Baptist Church’s (WBC) website in a sidebar labeled Numbers:

  • 6970 – soldiers that God has killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    0 – nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.

Through these extended online conversations, Megan began to open to different perspectives. One particularly persistent conversant later became her husband.

Megan pointed out one important thing she believed others should know: “I think that extremists, generally are not psychopaths. They’re not—they’re psychologically normal people who have been persuaded by bad ideas. And we can’t just expect to isolate these people and hope that those ideas will just fade into oblivion.”

Discussion

Although many would agree the Westboro Baptist Church has taken their rhetoric and other actions to the extreme, the cultural divide that appears to be affecting a majority of Americans has been brewing for a number of years. This divide which has partially expressed itself as being either for or against the current and past two or three presidents seems to be gathering steam. However, we also see evidence of an increasing cultural divide in other nations.

When I look at discussions of opposing viewpoints on Facebook, I rarely see respectful discourse and any attempt to better understand the other person’s perspective. Instead, I often see terse and provocative one-sentence comments or questions which seem designed to disturb and inflame others.

I also have gotten into the somewhat crazy habit of reading internet comments to news articles and YouTube videos. Almost every reply to someone who disagrees consists of disrespectful jabs and inventive name-calling. I suspect the anonymity the reviewers feel, unlike the more public Facebook posts, leads to nastier behavior. Although I have not done a truly scientific statistical analysis, the name-calling and disrespectful attitudes seem to be about equal with readers on both sides of the issue.

I wonder if the people who post these comments are really trying to change anybody else ’s opinion/belief, or just enjoy blowing off steam. One person, who was posting short provocative statements, was sincerely asked by another poster why they were doing this. The person replied that they enjoyed throwing hand grenades in a crowded room, just to see what happens. Although I don’t personally agree this is a great motive for posting, I do think the person was honestly answering the question. They also showed some degree of self-awareness that is seldom shown with online comments and posts. Or maybe it was just a joke.

In any case, Megan makes a good point that either ignoring or responding in kind to provocative and down-right mean behavior solves nothing. I believe this behavior just ups the intensity and animosity among people on both sides of the cultural divide.

We need to figure out how to initiate or respond differently. I believe that many do write off the authors of differing viewpoints as psychopaths, uninformed, having low IQs, or just evil/sinful people. As Megan pointed out, even viewing the extreme of the extreme this way is not helpful and may be inaccurate.

As we have written in our forthcoming book, How To Bring Out The Best In Others: Finding Joy In Your Relationships With Others, Yourself, And The World, given the seemingly increasing cultural divide, some are predicting a civil war; We are calling for a new level of civil discourse. We believe that following the practices in our book can promote civil discourse and mutual understanding.  However, we realize this can be extremely hard to do with extremists. Yet, Megan’s story shows that it can be done.

The model implied in Sarah’s interview with Megan (and somewhat tilted by my own viewpoint) suggests responding respectfully and non-defensively with an intent to better understand the other person’s perspective. After some human connection is made, explaining one’s own viewpoint and perhaps gently challenging the other person has a better chance of healing the divide, compared to most of what we are now seeing.

I know that for many people tolerance of intolerance is intolerable. I know a number of wonderful people who can accept all sorts of differences of opinions and beliefs. They can fully accept others who have beliefs that they consider childish, ridiculous, or really far-out-there. “To each his/her own.” But it becomes nearly impossible when it comes to people who exercise those beliefs in ways that appear to exclude and hurt others. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So what can you do? One thing is to realize that the people with polar opposite beliefs and actions are as truly distressed about some of the same things as you are. I believe that Megan actually felt her prior actions with the church were the most loving thing to do. Although I’m not sure how her Twitter conversations helped her see a vastly different perspective, it is clear that intense intolerance of what others saw as her intolerance, was not the answer. The model given above is hopefully a starting point with a lot left to discover.

We will be exploring possible answers for as long as it takes. We invite your perceptions on this journey toward healing what divides us.  Let us hear from you about your ideas towards increasing greater openness to others with differing ideas.