Most 20 or 30 somethings can't write a compelling memoir, as they haven't lived enough life. But Megan Phelps-Roper is the exception. She has lived at least 2 lifetimes in her few decades. I feel confident saying that because I have also made the journey out of fundamentalism. This book applies to anyone who wants to understand others or themselves better. In other words, essential reading for the thoughtful and the feeling person.
Summary of "Unfollow"
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church her grandfather started. Maybe you have heard of it? Westboro Baptist Church. Many people may feel uncomfortable even calling it a "church" as it breaks from the mainstream in so many ways. In today's culture and political atmosphere, many of the attitudes ring true for a more significant portion of the population than we would like to think.
If you haven't heard of Westboro, they are famous (infamous?) for protesting. Protesting gay people, at American service members' funerals and celebrating their deaths, and particularly inflammatory signs at said protests. What I did not know before reading the book is that most of the original leadership are also lawyers. In fact, they run a successful law practice in Kansas. It was also interesting to learn that the founder Fred Phelps was a strong proponent of civil rights in the 60s and represented many black people when no one else would help.
The book details Megan's childhood experience, beginning with her memories of protesting when she was 5-years-old. The narrative continues through her young adulthood and disillusionment with the church. Spoiler alert - she ultimately leaves the church and now works against fundamentalism and extremism in all its forms.
Why You Should Read This Book
One thing that Megan does particularly well in this book is capturing her viewpoint at various times in her life. It is challenging to hold onto a connection with why we felt we were right in the past when we change our minds. Especially true when the change is as substantial as hers. It is much easier to claim that we knew all along, or were only going along with others. She chooses the brave and challenging path of fully owning her feelings as they existed at the time.
Almost no one thinks they are "the bad guy." Each person feels justified in their own right. No matter how much you disagree with someone else, they have reasons for what they think. Dismissing someone as stupid, evil, or uncaring, does a disservice to that person and the dialogue. Does that make controversial discussions easy? No. Neither does it make every position equally valid or correct. But it can help educate the exchange.
Reading through Megan's process is helpful for anyone who wants to have meaningful parlance with others when they disagree. Her humility, kindness, and focus on love are cornerstones to my own approach as well.
My "Ah-Ha" Moment
In many ways, Megan's journey mirrors my own. Raised in an extremely conservative family, I was taught that women and girls were lesser than men and boys. To shun the "evil of the world." And most importantly, that "we" were right and "they" were wrong. I read the Bible so many times that the bindings were falling apart before I was 10-years-old.
One of the reasons we struggle to convince others is because we come from our framework rather than understanding theirs. Megan did such a fantastic job of laying out the importance of taking the time to understand the perspective of others deeply, working from inside their framework rather than outside it. Or to quote one of Stephen Covey's habits - to seek first to understand and then to be understood.
While this is a commonplace ideology in the business world, taking it to heart is rare. As I have said many times in discussions with my husband and close friends - my goal starts with getting people actually to do what they say they believe. Almost universally, extremism comes from inconsistencies within belief systems. Unpacking those inconsistencies one thing at a time rather than trying to undo the foundation is critical.
This book has been on my to-read list for a while following an interview that I heard with Megan. Her journey out of Westboro Baptist Church began with conversations on Twitter. People often tell me that I am wasting my time when I try to engage others on social media in meaningful discussions. Many people have told me it is a waste of time because "you will never convince anyone through social media." Megan Phelps-Roper is the quintessential counterexample proving that is not true. In fact, for those that are extreme in their views, social media may be the only place you CAN reach them. They do not engage in the world through any other means.
As a social media specialist, I believe deeply in the power of bringing people together through social media. It is an extension and amplifier of our attempts to connect in person. You can talk to so many more people than you ever could because of the doors social media opens. This does not negate the importance of personal touch. But it is a reminder that behind the computer screen are real people.
That is why it is so important to think with intentionality and purpose about how we engage online. Personally, I have specific rules about how I engage with others - online and off.
1) I never insult a person or demean others through my words, rather challenging ideas and concepts.
2) I don't allow myself to be pulled to another topic or go down unrelated bunny trails no matter how emotionally charged.
3) I work hard to differentiate between fact and opinion.
4) I consciously work to communicate with love and treat others how I would want to be treated, even during the hard conversations.