For me, last week’s All-School Meeting (ASM) was not an experience I walked out of feeling hopeful and inspired to reach across the political, moral, and ethical divide; rather, it opened up deep wounds that our community was just beginning to heal.
Megan Phelps-Roper’s message of mutual empathy and acceptance, while good in intent, is unsustainable and reeks of privilege and entitlement. As a queer person and a Jew, I found it difficult and at times extremely painful to sit through her descriptions of the homophobic and anti-Semitic violence provoked by the Westboro Baptist Church. While her use of the f-slur–repeated to the point of normalization–was apparently necessary to paint the church in an unvarnished light, I felt that the church’s violence and hate were underplayed. Yes, the church only had 80 people; yes, the church truly believed in their interpretation of the Bible; but its size and intent don’t erase its enormous nationwide impact on generations before us. None of the students sitting in the ASM audience last Wednesday had grown up with the Westboro Baptist Church on TV and in national news. I’d only heard of the church only for their wildly homophobic parody of Frozen’s “Let It Go.” The Westboro Baptist Church was not a small non-issue of a group dismissed by the public as crazy and ignorant, but a very real and violent institution with an indelible impact on American society–it needs to be treated as such. It needs to be treated with more severity and more censure than the allegedly toxic call-out culture that Phelps-Roper mentioned. Calling out individuals for hostility and actively denying people their right to exist cannot be compared. We need to stop defending white guilt, straight guilt, Christian guilt, etc. and deconstruct the systems that fuel that “guilt.”
The speech’s point–that everyone should listen to and learn from each other, place intent over impact, and engage in mutually rewarding dialogue–is a common one that I’ve heard more and more over the past few years. It’s an argument that hate comes from both sides of the political spectrum, that both sides are equally prejudiced, and that people of marginalized identities must give their oppressors their respect and attention because if not, they are the problem. But nothing’s equal. Phelps-Roper’s vision belittles the complex power dynamics that are ever-present in conversations like these. In all the discussions Phelps-Roper had over Twitter, she had indisputable power over the person on the other end as a white Christian woman from a high-profile hate group. She failed to say that yes, while these dialogues were happening behind the comfort of a screen, she and her group were violent and that there was a one-sided physical threat against the people she was talking to. She failed to recognize that her privilege as a white, Christian woman allowed her to stand in front of us and apologize for the irredeemable damage she and her group caused and be forgiven for it. I would never be able to have a productive conversation with Megan on Twitter. It would be too scary, too traumatic. We should be commending the incredible strength of the people she spoke with instead of acting like it was a mutually beneficial, mutually eye-opening, and mutually comfortable exchange. [a]It’s irresponsible to dismiss the fact that there are different levels of responsibility depending on one’s identity. People of marginalized identities are not obligated to dismantle the systems of oppression they face–pretending like everyone’s on the same playing field only places the burden on oppressed populations to educate their oppressors. We will never have justice until we hold those oppressors accountable.
I saw great potential in Megan Phelps-Roper’s ASM speech. The speech would have been so much more powerful if she had recognized her privilege and acknowledged the interpersonal power differences at play, if she had spoken about the importance of allies in these difficult discussions, and if she had called on people with power to educate themselves and not rely on those without to teach and reassure them. But she didn’t do any of these things. I fear that her speech will undo the work that Andover has been doing regarding privilege and social power structures. I fear that her speech will empower people to let their privilege go unchecked. I fear that her speech will entitle people with the privilege to be more hateful and use as an excuse the fact that the victims are “just not listening” to their ideas. I fear that her speech will put an end to the “call-out culture” that is unhealthy in her eyes but helps so many feel safer to be on this campus. I fear that, although this year’s theme is justice, the effect was just the opposite.