18. Note to Self

One year ago, I started seeing some of the most hateful things I’ve ever seen published on the Internet. It just became part of my daily routine.

Wake up. Check Facebook and Twitter. See posts with threats, violence, anger and hatred directed at Marquette University. Which basically meant it was all hurled at me as the social media manager.

We were being targeted by Westboro Baptist Church and others who held similar extreme views. This is one of the most mild examples of what I was seeing at the time —

My job was to mop up in the wake up their attacks. I would hide or delete the worst offenders. Others I just read and ignored. Sometimes the barrage was just too much to delete, report or block.

It was a dark time. You develop a thick skin and become numb to the incoming shrapnel. You try not to take anything personally. And you move on.

I thought of that recently when listening to Note to Self. The topic was how to react when someone says something racist or otherwise offensive on Facebook. Do you unfriend them? Confront them? Silently ignore them?

If you’re like any human, you’ve probably tried all three approaches at different times. Maybe you unfriended ignorant friends from high school. Maybe you confronted your crazy uncle with indignant, righteous anger. Maybe you just kept scrolling when someone said something stupid but you were too tired to react or engage.

It turns out, there is a helpful formula to follow spelled out by Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi and the National Council for Community Justice. It’s called LARA, an acronym for Listen, Affirm, Respond and Add.

The whole point of LARA is to find common ground. It’s not to blast the person’s ignorance and show how much better you are. Ultimately, it’s about forging understanding and making connections.

OK, so maybe you think this sounds way too hippy-dippy. If you spend more than five minutes on Facebook or Twitter, you know disagreements can quickly escalate and rarely do they end with a chorus of Kumbaya. There’s no way this would actually work in the face of such extreme views like, say, Westboro Baptist Church.

That’s what I thought, anyway. Until I read The New Yorker piece on Megan Phelps-Roper yesterday. It’s a long read, but completely worth it. It tells how the granddaughter of Fred Phelps started questioning the ingrained worldview she was taught while being raised in the Westboro Baptist Church.

It all started with debates on Twitter. What changed her thinking was seeing the humanity in the people she was taught to believe were evil.

In particular, it was a Jewish blogger named David Abitbol who caught her off guard with persistent but polite disagreement with her beliefs and tactics. After years of dealing with hate groups, Abitbol realized that relating to hateful people was the best strategy to disarm them. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

He saw that Phelps-Roper had a lot of followers and was an influential person in the church, so he wanted to counter her message. And he wanted to humanize Jews to Westboro. “I wanted to be like really nice so that they would have a hard time hating me,” he said. One day, he tweeted about the television show “Gossip Girl,” and Phelps-Roper responded jocularly about one of its characters. “You know, for an evil something something, you sure do crack me up,” Abitbol responded.

The changing of Phelps-Roper’s heart and mind happened gradually. It evolved over DMs on Twitter and even messages through the game Words With Friends.

Ultimately, Phelps-Roper made the gut-wrenching decision to leave behind her family, her church, her philosophy and everything she knew up to that point in her life.

Phelps-Roper and her sister had already escaped and moved on when her former church arrived on our campus to protest last fall. The Westboro Baptist Church announced their arrival in advance and reached out to media outlets for maximum exposure. They are professional protesters who know how to amplify their messages to provoke anger and outrage.

I remember students using love to combat hate with signs that proclaimed what they believed. The gulf between messages seemed so vast.

Of course, I was happy to see the church members pack up their hateful signs and leave town.

But just maybe another member was listening, doubting what they thought they knew, and ready to open their mind.


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