The Dangers of Certainty

I have been reading Unfollow (riverrun 2019), the book in which Megan Phelps-Roper tells the story of her childhood and youth in the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious ‘God Hates Fags’ church.  She paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of that church’s activities and the way it has torn itself apart by its own totalitarian attitudes. At the same time she talks of the comfort and security of belonging to that close knit family, the sense of complete certainty and rightness, then goes on to describe her own growing doubts, her eventual decision to break away from it, the pain of complete estrangement from her family, and the hard struggle to find a new way of living and of working out her own beliefs when all her experience had been of unquestioning obedience.

While acknowledging that her experience was extreme, she sees a disturbing reflection of it in many aspects of society today: ‘the division of the world into Us and Them; the vilification of compromise; the knee-jerk expulsion of insiders who violate group orthodoxy; and the demonization of outsiders … a growing insistence that opposing views must be silenced … At the heart of this insistence lie several false assumptions, including a sentiment that Westboro members would readily recognise: We have nothing to learn from these people.

The writer sees that ‘no-platforming’ is counter-productive: ‘While the desire to shield people from these ideas is well-intentioned and completely understandable, I can’t help but see it as a fundamentally flawed strategy, one that ignores the practicalities of human nature.’ More than ever in the age of the Internet, we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of a bad idea. What we can do is to foster a culture in which we can articulate sound arguments against it. None of us (even the most liberal of us) is infallible: we grow as people and as a society by honestly grappling with challenges to our world-view, no matter how certain we may feel about it.

I’m sure there are many issues on which we need to take note of these thoughts. The greater the certainty that we are right, and the stronger the passion we feel, the more important it is to listen and to think.

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