Changing your mind

Recently I sat down next to one of the better known Economic Freedom Fighters. We were side by side at the bar, so we fell into conversation.

Look, we didn’t become best friends, but we discoursed enjoyably on the comparative merits of berets as opposed to other headgear in the warm weather. I told him that if I’d known I was going to run into him I would have tried bring him some land as a gift and he assured me that he would accept a drink instead.

“For now!” he said, and we both laughed. Oh, how we laughed.

Besides that, we didn’t talk much politics and he wasn’t as interested as I was in the current topic on my mind, which was when precisely did David Bowie get his teeth fixed? Was it around the time he had a decent haircut and started wearing nice suits? And did the Bad Teeth subsection of his fans feel indignant and betrayed, the way a hefty subsection of Adele’s fans would feel betrayed should she suddenly have lapband surgery? Did they forgive him in the end, or did they just transfer their affections to Shane MacGowan and post Facebook updates last week saying, “He was dead to me a long time ago”?

But the friendly Fighter wasn’t so keen on David Bowie speculations, nor did he care to hint which bank they’d be nationalizing second after Absa, thus potentially giving me time to make a strategic withdrawal, so we sort of drifted apart but it was ten or so minutes well spent. I am pleased we met that way, and not for instance on social media.

I’m in the process of disengaging from social media. Everyone I know and respect has either never been on social media or has the same misgivings I have. We feel a little tatty and unhealthy about it and we all talk about leaving, and in the way of all social pullbacks when it’s time to move on from something that was fun then less so (eg cocaine in the 70s, and cocaine in the 80s, and cocaine in the 90s, and cocaine in the noughts and now, probably), some will manage it and others will be left behind. (David Bowie, for instance, moved on, and Angie Bowie stayed behind; when David Bowie died last week, beloved and solvent, Angie Bowie was a housemate on UK Big Brother.)

Twitter in particular is a place where friendly conversation between ideological rivals is quite unlikely. Overwhelmingly Twitter’s a place where you are reduced to the loudest part of yourself. Rule of thumb: anyone who is nicer on twitter than in real life is probably a psychopath.

There was a story by Adrian Chen in the New Yorker last year that challenged this conviction. Megan Phelps-Roper was a young member of the Westboro Baptist Church, the niche Christian group that carries out its ministry by celebrating deaths and disasters. They cheered 9-11 and terror attacks; they rejoice at celebrity deaths and carry signs like: “God Hates You” and “Thank God for AIDS!”

In America a Westborovian on Twitter is greeted with same warmth with which a white lady claiming to be colourblind because she treats her maid so well would be greeted on Black Twitter here. When Phelps-Roper signed up she spent many enjoyable hours exchanging curses and imprecations with the world, but she also encountered some individuals who didn’t scream or sneer but tried to engage. One was David Abotbol, who runs a website called Jewlicious, who genially discussed points of theology with her. Unsurprisingly, Westborovians aren’t keen on Jews, but Abotbol’s philosophy is to engage hateful people as though they are people before they’re hateful.

Over time, Phelps-Roper became confused by the lack of anger and hatred bouncing back. She found him amusing. She found herself considering his arguments. Alarmed, she broke off contact.

Soon afterwards she met another chap through Twitter, called CG, who lured her into playing Words With Friends while arguing Westboro doctrines. She had heard the arguments before, but never so thoughtfully offered by a gentle human being who treated her as one. Her life in the church changed. She stopped attending pickets. She revisited the scriptures. She threw away her “God Hates Fags” sign. She renounced hatred. She left Westboro. David Abitbol invited her to give a speech at a Jewish festival in Long Beach and she lived for several months with a rabbi and his family. She now lives in South Dakota with her boyfriend, CG.

What are we to make of this story? I don’t know. Perhaps that there’s always hope, if we continue to talk to each other, whatever the medium. But it’s worth noting that Megan Phelps-Roper now has 24 000 followers on Twitter. She only follows 400.

The Times , 21 January 2016