In These Polarised Times It Is Important To Hear The Other Side

Megan Phelps, a former member of the incredibly divisive Westboro Baptist Church has given an inspiring TED talk on why and how she left the church – of which she was one of the most zealous and committed members.

Her decision to leave the WBC was not a Damascene conversion. It was part of a long process of engaging with people who opposed her on social media. Often they did so with anger or bemused disdain, but, occasionally, she would encounter individuals who would argue with her civilly. It was these discussions that began to slowly chip away at her harsh worldview, eventually causing it to collapse.

The story of Megan Phelps is a powerful illustration of just how important it is to listen and speak to those with whom you disagree. Especially in these polarised times where people too easily dismiss perspectives they don’t like.


Being Bullied as a Teenager Shaped My Moral Outlook

loneliness persecution

I have been thinking recently about what it is that informs my convictions. Many people I know do not feel as strongly as I do about a whole range of things and sometimes, I’m sure, get frustrated and wish I would just give it a rest (and often I can sympathise!). But experiences shape us and sometimes even negative experiences can shape us for the better.

I make no secret of the fact that when I first moved to England I was bullied at school. It wasn’t because I went to a rough school in an unpleasant area or anything of that sort; it was an expensive private school in Solihull (in point of fact, my experience improved tremendously when I moved to a free grammar school for my last two years of high school). No, it was just a bad school populated by a lot of nasty kids.

I have never thought to write about it previously as it always felt way too self-indulgent but these memories came to mind recently when I watched the 2011 documentary, Bully, on the problems facing schools in the United States and the ineffectual or non-existent efforts by teachers or authorities to do anything significant to address it – there were many parallels with my own past. Parents tried to intervene but felt helpless, bullied students withdrew into themselves and tried to hide the problems, bullies acted with impunity and knew what to say to teachers to manipulate the situation and teachers refused to take any decisive action (a caveat: I have many friends who are teachers and have had many fantastic ones myself who have made a great impact on my life, I have the utmost respect for the profession, though in both this case and my own experience at this particular school they fell spectacularly short of their responsibilities).

I realised that the best thing I can do for others still living through that situation would be to share my own experience, how I survived it and how I have tried to channel it and take something positive from it.

It provides an instructive example of how political correctness does not necessarily encourage good behaviour

In my own case the issue was an enduring one because nothing was done about it (as is so often the case). I suspect that part of the problem is that, while many good schools exist in the UK (including the one I attended some years later) the bad ones are allowed to fester because teachers become paralysed by the prevailing politically correct climate, particularly towards children and young people. At that time it seemed like every week some new story emerged in the tabloids about a teacher getting in trouble for having the temerity to discipline a child (I recall one being sued for writing ‘prat’ on a child’s forehead with a felt pen). It provides an instructive example of how political correctness does not necessarily encourage good behaviour; in fact one of the things I was bullied for was merely being South African. On one occasion after a particularly asinine documentary was shown on British television about ‘South Africa’ (in fact they had merely sought out a small pocket of the most crazed nationalist goons they could find – rather like making a documentary about the USA and filming it exclusively in the mountain stronghold of a KKK survivalist cult) I came in to school to find my locker daubed with swastikas and various other obscenities, later in the day this escalated to getting my head slammed into the concrete of the playground.

Things got out of control on a number of occasions to the extent that teachers got involved but it never progressed further than them sitting down with us to have a nice chat about why we weren’t getting along (a situation in which any experienced bully knows exactly what to say). In fact, so easy was it to manipulate that system that, as a joke, a bully actually managed to get me into trouble for retaliating with my own colourful words. I don’t recall a single punitive measure ever being taken no matter how bad it got. One of my few friends at the time (to whom I am grateful to this day) even lost his patience with this ineffectualness and confronted the deputy headmaster in the corridor to give him a piece of his mind for his failure to take any kind of decisive action. But, ultimately, nothing was done. I suppose it is a natural response to want retribution of some kind but that is one of the outcomes bullies, of all kinds, not just in the classroom, want; they seek to dehumanise, to make their victims as twisted as they are.

I won’t deny that it has left its mark on me; to say I emerged from the experience unscathed would be disingenuous. But the fact remains that, in many ways, being bullied prepares you for the real world a lot better than being a bully. It sharpens one’s moral compass, inspires passion and conviction and puts adversity into perspective. My contempt for bullies has had a strong impact on my moral and political views. It informs my distaste for groupthink, belligerent orthodoxy, moral relativism, arrogance, and self-righteousness and it encourages empathy and compassion.

So if by chance someone reading this is going through the same thing, I hope you can take heart from the knowledge that this can be survived and, in fact, can make you stronger and that you will, more than likely, find the world a kinder place than your tormentors will.


Out of the night that covers me,

   Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

   For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

   I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

   My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

   Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

   Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

   How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

   I am the captain of my soul.

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Featured Image Credit: Loneliness (1880) by Hans Thoma. Source: Wiki Art