I read a fascinating story in The New Yorker magazine. It was the story of a young 23-year old legal assistant named Megan Phelps-Roper from Topeka Kansas in the heart of the United States Bible Belt. She became well known as a result of her tweets on Twitter and picketing on behalf of her church Westboro Baptist Church. She would tweet things like this, “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought his wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse.” As Adrian Chen reported in the New Yorker,
She believed that “all manner of other tragedies–war, natural disaster, mass shootings–were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs slogans like ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hate.
What really interested me about this story in The New Yorkerwas the fact that this young woman was attractive, fully devoted to a cause that attracted a lot of hatred against her and her family, and, most importantly, very intelligent. That seems hard to believe since her beliefs were so wildly unreasonable, but she was. She was often the spokesperson for the church and had been interviewed by media around the world.
How could such a person with all her advantages have such pitiful beliefs? I think the answer is obvious. She had those beliefs because that is what her parents taught her. From birth she had been indoctrinated by her parents. From them she “learned” that gays were an abomination and it was her duty to attack them whenever she could, in whatever manner was available to her.
Eventually she did manage to wean herself from her parents’ rigid positions. In time she rebelled, but it is never easy to dissent, especially from our fundamental beliefs that we have held since we were extremely young and which were inculcated in us by our well meaning parents who wanted to help us and guide us and protect us from all harm. Yet, in the language of social media, eventually after profound doubts and deep unease Megan was able to “Unfollow” her parents and their church.
We all believe what our parents teach us. Our parents are our guides and mentors in our life’s journey. Humans, unlike most animals, have a long period of time in which they are nurtured by their parents. This process takes years. Longer in fact than with any other species. During this time we soak up what our parents teach us. Evolutionarily this is what we had to do to survive. Millennia ago, when life was nasty brutish and short, and dangers lurked everywhere, young children that did not listen to their parents’ warnings tended to perish. The risk takers were often taken by predators. Children that stayed close to their parents and abided by their dire warnings tended to survive and later passed on their genes to their offspring. Obedience to parents is wired deep in the human DNA. We are programmed to believe.
When we get older, some of us learn that our parents were not always right. When I was young I thought my mother was the finest cook in the world. I was so lucky to have such a wonderful mom. That is true by the way. Later in life–much later and very subtly–I began to realize she was not a perfect cook. She tended to burn her meats and badly over cook her vegetables. That was the way she had been taught to cook by her mother. That was the standard of good cooking. She was not perfect in other ways either. Pretty close, but not quite perfect.
Parents are important. We love them. They guide us through the informative times of our lives when as young children we are totally helpless and entirely at their mercy. We appreciate what they do for us and for what they have taught us, but we should never remain obedient children. We have to grow up.
I remember a conversation with a young lawyer a few years ago. We were arguing about some ethical issue. He and I disagreed about whether something was ethically right or wrong. Such arguments are not easy to resolve. His ultimate answer–and it really was an ultimate answer–was that, ‘well that is what I was taught by my parents to believe.’ How could he not believe what he had been taught to believe?
He was an intelligent young man. Yet he admitted he believed something solely because that was what he had been taught to believe by his parents. It seemed absurd to me, but I had managed, with great difficulty many years earlier, to dissent from some of the things that I had been taught by my parents.
Yet that is what we have an obligation to do. When we mature, I would suggest, we must challenge what we have been taught. Not everything our parents taught us was absolutely true (or wrong). Our parents thought it was true. Why else would they teach it to us? But our parents, just like anyone else, can make mistakes, even fundamental mistakes and we should make sure we have not been led astray by well-meaning parents.
But such a challenge is extremely difficult. The fact is that it is very difficult to reject fundamental things that our parents teach us. We believe those things. It takes a great deal of courage and determination to challenge that.
Megan was extremely intelligent and she certainly did not lack courage. To stand up in public on a public sidewalk in front of a funeral for soldiers carrying placards that mock everything about those soldiers, takes a lot of guts. To hold up placards at a funeral of gay people denouncing gays in the most crude and brutal manner certainly takes courage. It is misguided courage, but no less courage for that.
Eventually, she came to realize her parents had taught her badly. They had not just taught her they had indoctrinated her. Later it took courage to Unfollow her parents.
Our parents are our first and usually most important teachers. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “a pupil repays a teacher badly if he remains forever a pupil.” A good teacher wants to be challenged. A good parent wants to be challenged.