A Tale of Two Interviews: Megan Phelps-Roper and Paul Bloom

Black Road

Recently I’ve been going through back episodes of Sam Harris’ podcast (a project he kicked off last year) and a couple in particular stood out as especially noteworthy.

Leaving the Church

Harris interviewed Megan Phelps-Roper earlier this summer, granddaughter of the late Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. The forty member church, known for their overt hate speech and regular picketing of funerals with colorful signage, lists so far toward the extreme that every formal Baptist organization in the country denies any affiliation. While Megan’s experience was certainly a few clicks north on the fundamentalist scale compared to the churchly environment I was raised in, the same non-negotiable commitments to dogmatism and the systemic suppression of outside views are omnipresent.

Bringing sincere concerns to the community’s leadership was simply beyond the pale. Instead of frank conversation, Meghan recalls being discouraged from dwelling on such things, lest her mind get “wrapped around an axle”, as her mom had apparently put it. Examples of hypocrisy and various contradictions in their belief system, no matter how clear-cut, were promptly subdued by appeals to authority and stamped out like an embering fire under foot. Growing up in a doctrinaire culture like Westboro’s, one quickly learns that the folks so insistent on maintaining the status quo aren’t the type to scratch below the surface, but are concerned, rather, with reinforcing a fixed ideology. Truth is subordinate, and hasn’t a chance.

At the same time, we often write off far-fringe groups like Westboro as nothing more than frothy-mouthed cultists whose beliefs are just as insane as the people who hold them. From the perspective of the membership, however, their actions, justification for which seems to follow logically from a handful of baseline convictions, are borne of pure intent. It’s those foundational convictions that are never questioned and allow for the extreme and the absurd to be dressed up as sane. The church’s widely publicized practice of picketing funerals, railing against gay people, and the incessant drumbeat of eternal hellfire are cast in a tint of purity of the divine will. The reason groups like Westboro should disconcert us is because they powerfully demonstrate how even the purest intentions can be derailed by deep ignorance and blur the lines between zeal and hate.

Not until you are outside the fold looking in do you see how absurd those erstwhile convictions truly were. For Megan, such glimmers of sense and reason came through online interaction coupled with open and honest reflection. It serves as a lesson for all of us—that our better angels can be subverted, sublimated by the faith-based instruction of authority figures who never thought to question their faith-based instruction.

Listen in as Megan chronicles her journey and her lachrymose struggle to leave the only community she ever knew. For those of us who share similar experiences with fundamentalist cultures, this may feel like pressing play on an internal monologue serving up echoes of the past.

Update 11.18.2015: Courtesy of the New Yorker, another carefully crafted feature on her story: Conversion via Twitter

The Virtues of Cold Blood

The second episode that caught my attention was a far-ranging discussion with Paul Bloom. Bloom’s recent work attempts to divorce empathy from compassion, elevating the latter while decrying the former as obstructive to rational thought, at times psychologically debilitating, and even externally harmful when overclocked in response to the most piercing emotional stimuli. In short, he argues, empathy can be thought of as inefficient “software” that too often jeopardizes rational decision making, such as in the case of administering judgments on the accused.

His ideas on the topic have proved unpopular among colleagues who feel he has trespassed on a taboo of sorts, and who’ve responded in kind to op-eds in The New York Times, Boston Review and The Atlantic (links below). If you can make it past the inevitable semantic hygiene that must be undertaken when shaking down these concepts, you’ll find an intensely thought-provoking discussion.

Against Empathy: “But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.”

Imagining the Lives of Others

Empathy Is Actually a Choice (dissenting piece by NY Times editors)

How Empathy Makes People More Violent



Feature image: “Black Road” by Marcus W.