The Deceptive Social Media Awakening of Megan Phelps-Roper
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, the charming folks behind those “God hates fag” signs. As a young person, she was a true believer, a tart-tongued uber-extremist who used Twitter and social media to lash out at the church’s enemies and critics, which is to say pretty much everybody outside the church.
The millennial was nasty and sharply judgmental even by Westboro Baptist Church standards but then something remarkable happened. At some point Phelps-Roper’s violently closed mind began to open thanks to a series of spirited and intense online debates with people from opposite ends of the cultural and religious spectrum.
Phelps-Roper’s ideological nemeses used logic and reason and facts to break through the young woman’s formidable defenses and illustrate that maybe God wasn’t, in fact, a belligerent asshole who hates everyone except for the Westboro Baptist Church, as she’d been taught growing up.
Phelps-Roper listened. She learned. She evolved from a bitter hate-monger lashing out at the world from the safety of a Twitter feed to a social media activist who did a Ted Talk on why she left the Church.
I think about Phelps-Roper sometimes as the exception that proves the rule. It has been my experience that nobody wins in heated online debates. Not only does nobody win, but in pretty much all of the social media skirmishes that I’ve been involved with, nobody learns anything and nobody viewpoint changes, for better or worse.
To cite an example, a Facebook friend recently asked her friends who had voted for Trump to say why and whether they’d voted for him again. The comment that really angried up my blood came from a woman who said she didn't vote for him and didn’t like him going in, but that she was so blown away by how well he was doing in office that she’d definitely vote for him in 2020.
When enraged commenters pointed out Trump’s racism, she wrote that Trump worked with black people, and bragged about how excited he was when black unemployment rates went down, and never publicly talked about being racist, so consequently could not, by definition, be racist.
So of course my dumb animal brain told me that it was not just my job but my sacred duty as a Progressive who is right to use my command of facts and evidence and logic to convince this poor, misguided soul she was wrong. This would be a Trump supporter swayed by solid arguments! I would win her away from the dark side with my onslaught of damning facts proving Trump’s almost cartoonish level of evil.
Alternately, my dumb brain told me I would be able to “own” this poor, misguided Trump super-fan to such an extent that she would be so humiliated she’d see the error of her ways.
I quickly realized how wrong both of these sentiments were when I saw that other, equally apoplectic commenters were mounting the angry arguments I would have and she was shooting every single one of them down.
These fellow Progressives failed to make her see the folly of supporting Trump but the enraged, angry and personal nature of these criticisms undoubtedly fed into her growing conception of Leftists as intolerant and angry, zealots so enraged by Trump and his supporters that they’ve devolved into the kind of reactionary assholes they rail against.
After that initial flash of anger abated, I realized that the only way to win this argument, and so many like them, would be to not enter into it in the first place. Even that’s overstating it. It would be more accurate to say that the only way to not lose is to remain above the proverbial fray.
Because even in my most optimistic moment, I don’t think it would be possible to reach someone who genuinely, one hundred percent, thinks Donald Trump is not even a little bit racist and that unless someone openly and explicitly states that they’re a bigot then they cannot be racist.
In light of can’t win situations like that, Megan Phelps-Roper’s social media awakening begins to look less like a best-case scenario and more like a goddamned fairy tale.
Y'all know the drill: I make my living primarily off Patreon and it IS my birthday so won't you even consider pledging even a single dollar to my page over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace