As everyone attempted to beat the crowd, hoping to avoid the infamous post-ASM lunch line, I heard several heated debates among my peers. Lengthy philosophical discussions are standard after a powerful ASM, but these conversations were more passionate than I usually hear on the familiar trek. This occured after Megan Phelps-Roper’s speech about her past involvement in the Westboro Baptist Church, a cult known for its extreme hate speech against members of the LGBTQIA+ community and other minorities. Phelps-Roper’s upbringing caused her to have a warped reality of the world around her. This does not make her actions justifiable, but rather gives her audiences the opportunity to open their hearts and sympathize with and learn from her unique and challenging situation.
I do not believe Phelps-Roper deserves all of the backlash she received. As a member of an indisputably hateful organization, Phelps-Roper did things she should not have. We need to be more empathetic towards those who are courageous enough to share a part of their past that they’re not proud of. This is especially true in Phelps-Roper’s case; she admitted her wrongdoings to a group of students attending a school with a mostly liberal student body, known for its inclusivity of the very same mindsets she once resisted.
The way in which her parents raised Phelps-Roper was the epitome of brainwashing: growing up in an incredibly closed-minded and hateful environment where her whole family was passionately dedicated to the cause they believed in. Young and impressionable children never stop to think that they have been taught wrongly taught, or that something that has been presented to them as gospel truth all their lives could be harmful. I hear your furious cogs turning: “she continued her affiliation with the church beyond her adolescent years, what’s her excuse?” But the effects of severe mental manipulation do not just disappear. Jill Gordon, the author of the article “25 Scary Facts About Brainwashing,” wrote: “Brainwashers and cult groups force victims to become converts who wholly accept and support the ideals of the group. The group is considered the only true way to become pure and good, and members must always strive for perfection.” Though she was responsible for her own physical actions, her family and the church were entirely at fault for molding her into the corrupted person she used to be. The important part is that she saw the error in her ways and took the steps necessary to disassociate herself from that lifestyle, which included alienating herself from her family.
With that being said, there is a part of Phelps-Roper’s presentation that did not sit well with me. While telling her story, she repeated the anti-LGBTQIA+ f-slur. When, during the Q&A section of the program, a student respectfully informed the Andover student body that it was not appropriate to use that term and that the speaker should not have used it either, Phelps-Roper took a defensive and unapologetic stance. She stood by her decision to use it because, according to her, saying the word delivered its full impact and discourages the audience from implementing it in their own casual dialogues. She went on to explain that she had talked to several of her gay friends and they had told her to go right ahead and use it.
When she presented this reasoning, I felt the enormous room collectively tense and cringe. I had not thought someone could be so naive as to assume that two or three people could reasonably speak for a whole group of individuals. She had no right to use the slur just because her friends approved it and her hope to evoke strong emotions from the audience was misguided. Most of the audience would know exactly what word she was referring to with the simple prompt of the f-slur, and even if some did not, it was featured in the video shown before she began speaking. While it is true that Phelps-Roper never said it with the intent of targeting anyone in particular, it is still a hurtful and triggering term that should not be thrown around casually, particularly when addressing over a thousand potentially vulnerable students and faculty members.
Overall, I think Phelps-Roper’s message was a beneficial one, but she certainly could have executed the Q&A section better and used empathy to guide her language and decisions — the same empathy I am sure she wanted from us as an audience as she made herself vulnerable.