A Journey from Hatred to Hope
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church: a group infamous for its intolerance. But dialogue on Twitter showed her another life was possible—and in 2012, she escaped her home, family, and faith. Now, with a popular TED Talk, a major New Yorker profile, and an upcoming memoir and film adaptation, she is a unique example of how empathy can overcome hate, and how tolerance can bridge ideology.
“If we can’t learn to speak in a way that our audience can actually hear, what is the point of speaking?”— Megan Phelps-Roper, VICE
Megan Phelps-Roper was raised within the virulent religious group The Westboro Baptist Church: known for picketing against the LGBT community, funeral services for soldiers, and nearly every other religious faith. By 2009, she was running the church’s Twitter account (as granddaughter of Fred Phelps, church founder, and daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, former church spokesperson, Megan played a central role in spreading its signature brand of hateful rhetoric to a global audience). However, after interacting with calm, civil, and genuinely empathetic individuals online—including one user who would eventually become her husband—Phelps-Roper began to question the dogmatic assertions of her faith and its celebrations of human tragedy. In 2012, she and her sister made the incredibly brave (and rare) decision to abandon their cloistered way of life, leave their family and home, and renounce their teachings.
“Megan’s story is encouraging. It shows that we can harness the power of social media for good. That it can be a medium for gentle and patient conversation, that it can help us to find our share in humanity.”— Morgan Freeman, The Story of Us
Since then, Phelps-Roper has championed the power of empathetic dialogue to change minds and connect with those we may disagree with. In her TED Talk, she shares how understanding and compassion can transform lives, even across the widest of ideological gulfs. Her inspiring, moving, and deeply human story of change is also the subject of an upcoming memoir, called Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, to be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Already, it’s set to be transformed into a major feature film—directed by Marc Webb, scripted by Nick Hornby, and produced by Reese Witherspoon. Recently, she’s appeared on Sarah Silverman’s Hulu series, I Love You, America, and on the National Geographic series The Story of Us, with Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman.
As a keynote speaker and educator, she engages with schools, faith groups, law enforcement, and anti-extremism organizations on strengthening human bonds through better public discourse. She has been covered, most significantly, by The New Yorker, The Guardian, VICE, The Globe and Mail, NPR, and other international organizations.
In this inspiring talk, Megan Phelps-Roper advocates for a better, more empathetic way to overcome disagreements—for engaged communication that not only heals wounds and forges bonds, but helps us expand our narrow perspectives.
Red states vs. blue states. So-called liberal elites vs. racist, misogynist trolls. Entrenched political divides. Impenetrable public stances. Online shaming and intimidation. These polemical forces dominate the zeitgeist (as Phelps-Roper discovered through the harrowing process of moving from zealotry to her new vocation: an anti-bullying, anti-extremism educator). But they also silo our communities and widen the gulfs between us. As she says: “Listening is not agreeing. Empathy is not a betrayal of one’s cause. These are tools of effective persuasion.” And this is the essence of her timely message—a nourishing defense of civil discourse, open inquiry, and consideration for those who challenge our points of view. Ultimately, it’s about approaching others for what they are: as human beings, full of frailty, full of potential. And in so doing, we extend to them the rarest of gifts: understanding, generosity, and compassion.