We’d started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another. It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me. My friends on Twitter took the time to understand Westboro’s doctrines, and in doing so, they were able to find inconsistencies I’d missed my entire life. Why did we advocate the death penalty for gays when Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” How could we claim to love our neighbor while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?
The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe. These realizations were life-altering.
Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay. In spite of overwhelming grief and terror, I left Westboro in 2012.
In those days just after I left, the instinct to hide was almost paralyzing. I wanted to hide from the judgement of my family, who I knew would never speak to me again — people whose thoughts and opinions had meant everything to me. And I wanted to hide from the world I’d rejected for so long — people who had no reason at all to give me a second chance after a lifetime of antagonism. And yet, unbelievably, they did.
The world had access to my past because it was all over the internet — thousands of tweets and hundreds of interviews, everything from local TV news to “The Howard Stern Show” — but so many embraced me with open arms anyway. I wrote an apology for the harm I’d caused, but I also knew that an apology could never undo any of it. All I could do was try to build a new life and find a way somehow to repair some of the damage. People had every reason to doubt my sincerity, but most of them didn’t. And — given my history, it was more than I could’ve hoped for — forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt. It still amazes me.
I spent my first year away from home adrift with my younger sister, who had chosen to leave with me. We walked into an abyss, but we were shocked to find the light and a way forward in the same communities we’d targeted for so long. David, my “Jewlicious” friend from Twitter, invited us to spend time among a Jewish community in Los Angeles. We slept on couches in the home of a Hasidic rabbi and his wife and their four kids — the same rabbi that I’d protested three years earlier with a sign that said, “Your rabbi is a whore”. We spent long hours talking about theology and Judaism and life while we washed dishes in their kosher kitchen and chopped vegetables for dinner.
They treated us like family. They held nothing against us, and again I was astonished. That period was full of turmoil, but one part I’ve returned to often is a surprising realization I had during that time — that it was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw. I realized that now I needed to learn I needed to listen.
This has been at the front of my mind lately, because I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies.
No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.
This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go. What gives me hope is that we can do something about this. The good news is that it’s simple, and the bad news is that it’s hard.
We have to talk and listen to people we disagree with. It’s hard because we often can’t fathom how the other side came to their positions. It’s hard because righteous indignation, that sense of certainty that ours is the right side, is so seductive. It’s hard because it means extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. The impulse to respond in kind is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be.