Monday, February 1, 2016

The Interesting Story of Megan Phelps-Roper's Conversion by Twitter: When Online Interaction Cracks the Shell of Cultic Anti-Gay Religious Belief

Who knew? If you're a religious fanatic raised in a tight, repressive, closed-off, bitterly angry religious environment, in a religious community which believes that it and it alone has all the answers to all the serious questions that may be asked by any serious person, the internet might turn your life upside down. 

Or so the story of Megan Phelps-Roper of the anti-gay, hardline Calvinist Westboro Baptist church of Topeka, Kansas, appears to illustrate. For the New YorkerAdrian Chen provides a fascinating glimpse into both the life of Westboro Baptist (in particular, how its male leaders treat women) and of Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of the dynastic family that controls the church and comprises most of its membership.

Chen tells us what happened when Phelps-Roper got herself a Twitter account and began doing Westboro's ministry online, tweeting lovely messages like "Thank God for AIDS!" and "Ted's in hell!" when Ted Kennedy died. What happened is this: people began to connect to her online, and those were people totally outside the claustrophobic little cultish circle in which she had grown up and on whose behalf she was speaking online.

She then got to know these people, who included the kind of people she had been taught to hate. She discovered that they weren't the stick-figure demonic enemies she had been led to imagine them as, but were real human beings with real human lives and perspectives on the world entirely different from her own, but still worth considering.

And this process of discovery, of human interaction, which began with online human interaction, has now led her out of Westboro Baptist. Which is, to my way of thinking, powerful evidence of the ability of some kinds of positive human interaction to transform our lives, our thinking, especially when we've come of age in blinkered environments that want to restrict and control what we see and believe — and powerful evidence of the ability of online technologies, rightly used, to promote those kinds of human encounters . . . . 

(My thanks to Adam for providing a link to Adrian Chen's article in a comment here.)

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