Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Forgive and forget, part deux

A while back I posted an Afternoon Inquisition about Michael Vick and his 2007 felony conviction for running a dog fighting ring. The question I asked was about the emotional side of punishment, and if serving his sentence within the justice system ameliorated general ill-will people have for him. I was feeling the cognitive dissonance of “yes he did what penance and rehabilitation was asked of him, but no … I’m not keen on him even having a goldfish as a pet.”

Today I’m struck by the same feeling after yesterday’s news of Megan and Grace Phelps leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Am I glad there was an unbuilding of the hateful rhetoric of their lives? Yes. Am I happy these young women might now have a broader life? Sure. Do I feel sad for them losing their lifelong faith and much of their family? Mostly, I do.

Does all of that forgive the hate and bile they happily spewed forth for years? Erm … I … welll …

And if so, what amount of penance must they do to repent for years of anguish and ugliness? I don’t know.

For me, I know I am just a conflicted now as I was about Michael Vick. I know they were indoctrinated, and to some degree innocents forced into this life. And that is a difference.  But still, they can’t go and undo all the hateful circus antics they willingly did during their deconversion, and I can’t help but think that matters too. I can’t help but think about all the people living with hurt caused directly by them.

Is public redemption possible for these Phelps women?  Should they be held accountable for their hateful acts? If so, for how long, and in what ways?  Is just walking away penance enough?


Edited to add: I am not suggesting these are equivalent or even related things, nor am I asking you all to compare them, exactly. Rather, I mention them both because they both cause the “what I think vs. what I feel” dilemma in me. As you see, my question was actually about the Phelps’ exclusively. My apologies for creating a false sense of connectedness.

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.


A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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  1. There’s a big difference between Michael Vick and the Phelps women: the Phelps women have voluntarily given up te WBC while Vick was arrested, tried, and jailed for his crime. He didn’t desist voluntarily. Big difference. Also consider the situation: they were raised to think and obey their grandfather’s ways but Vick made a decision to take up dog fighting.

    1. I agree that is a very big difference in that he was convicted, but that in itself should mean that he’s paid his debt to society — and yet for many, many people this doesn’t feel right.
      As for the situation, I don’t know how much of a decision Vick made at eight years old when he was first introduced to dogfighting as a “sport”. I agree he knew it was illegal when he participated, that’s for sure. But if he was raised in an environment with dogfighting as a normal part of his surroundings, that’s the same argument you’re making for the Phelps’. But that’s my quandry, essentially: just as Vick knew he was doing something illegal, the Phelps’ knew they were doing something hateful. No question that hateful is totally legal, but if the legality is not all that matters for Vick, are there also more considerations for the Phelps’? (Also, I do not mean to create a connection between the two, exactly. I just have had the same thoughts with both.)

      1. I think vbalbert’s point is that without getting arrested, Vick probably wouldn’t have stopped fighting dogs.

        The Phelps women chose to stop without getting arrested or any other similar situation that involved someone FORCING them to stop.

        Because of that, I’d argue that there’s a little more hope that any acts of contrition and attempts to right wrongs on their part are coming from a place of sincerity, compared to Vick’s actions which look like ploys.

    2. From the Vick side, I challenge your premise. Was Vick raised in a community that did not look down on dogfighting? And Vick injured animals, but WBC while no directly physically harming people, their hateful speech and high profile gives others ammunition to commit violence on innocent human beings. In my opinion, I cannot logically give the same amount of weight for cruelty to animals as I can cruelty to people, despite being a cat lover.

      States have been for years trying to enact hate speech legislation, but it’s being resisted because those who fund elections have ties to churches who are afraid to lose their ability to spout off evil things about a class of people for no reason other than to keep tithes rolling in. Just because there is no law against it doesn’t mean that in the eyes of public opinion it should be any less damnable.

      Given that, Megan and Grace have repented (*chuckle*) but so has Michael. He pled guilty. I remember when he came to Philadelphia stories about giving lectures against animal cruelty. He also has lobbied, yes in politics, to create penalties for those who watch illegal animal fighting matches, or bring children to those matches.

      The answer to a.real.girl’s post is that forgiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Megan, Grace, and Michael all need to understand that some people will never forgive them. Forgiveness is an emotion, and everyone will feel differently. We all need to come to forgiveness on our own terms. However, it’s clear that at least at this moment that all three of them are at least trying. We need to maintain a skeptical eye on anyone in this position and come to our own individual conclusions based a little on logic but mostly on our own personal feelings.

  2. The Phelps sisters walked away from their family, from their support system, from everything they were raised to believe was right. They have to deal with the ones they loved, the ones that loved them, casting hateful language at them. Right now, they have no one to help them except themselves. The price they paid to leave was high, and they paid it willingly and intentionally, not knowing where they would go next.

    That is penance enough, in my opinion.

    Vick, on the other hand… Part of the difficulty is that maybe he’s changed, but no one believes it and no one is willing to let him show it. He lost nothing, except a couple of years of employment and the civil rights one loses with felony convictions. He pled guilty to get reduced sentences. What has he done to show he’s different?

    1. Yeah, I kind of agree with you about the Phelps’, but then I think of the people that suffered their hatred *while* Megan was deconverting. She knew better, but still held hateful signs (although slightly less hateful signs) and she still just walked away. She did nothing to try and deconvert her family and prevent the hatred they’ll continue to spew. (The latter would be an impossible situation, I know. But that’s the point.)

      I do not mean to say these situations are equivalent, but rather that both make me struggle with what I think is right vs. what I feel.

      Also, although most folks will surely dismiss this as “well, of course he *has* to look like he’s doing something”:

      1. It seems it’s a series of steps to leave. She starts out fervently believing the family religion, then starts to have doubts, which grow slowly over time, until at some point she realizes that she no longer believes — and may not be able to say how long she hasn’t been believing. Then there’s the who matter of figuring out what to do about it, now she knows she’s an apostate, albeit a hidden one, from her church and her family (not that there was any difference in her case). How do you walk away from everything you’ve known? And what do you do until you have courage to do so? She took steps, within the framework she was in, to mitigate the harm she caused others, but could not eliminate it until she left. And finally, when even that wasn’t enough, she left.

        In what I’ve read so far from her and from Mr. Chu, one thing is mentioned, but is conspicuously lacking in detail: She left with her younger sister Grace. We know how Megan came to walk away. Why did Grace leave? What convinced her things were bad enough to leave? Perhaps Megan did test the waters of “deconverting” (a term I dispute because I don’t feel most were converted in the first. place), and only Grace was receptive.

        Could she have done more? Maybe. But I’m not in her situation, nor do I know her situation. I’m unwilling to judge her because of that.

  3. I’m on the same general track as blaisepascal. I also think for me that the difference is in intent. You say that the Phelps women knew what they were doing was hateful, but if you read what Megan wrote, she says she truly believed that it was a way to save people. Vick, on the other hand, was doing what he did for fun. I also think that vbalbert has a very good point: Megan and Grace did a lot of self-examination, determined that what they had been taught to do was not consistent with what they had been taught to believe, and voluntarily walked away. What I’ve read of what Vick has said, though, is that he knows what he was doing was illegal and accepts that he should have been punished for that reason: I haven’t read any interviews with him where he acknowledges that the act was wrong in and of itself (it’s like admitting that you can’t complain about being jailed for using illegal drugs while still thinking there is nothing basically wrong with the actual drug use).

  4. It’s a sort of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” where when someone does something wrong they can either apologize and ask forgiveness or continue to do wrong while others can either forgive or not forgive. Unlike the typical Prisoner’s Dilemma, choices are made in the open and so the “play” for maximum effect is obvious: If they honestly apologize and change their behavior to stop the harm in the future, the best response is to forgive. It not only ends the negativity completely, it also encourages others who do wrong to change.

    Admittedly this simple rule gets complicated when you suspect someone of gaming the system itself with a strategy like “I’ll be selfish and harmful until I profit enough from it, then I’ll ask forgiveness and live the good life from then on!” but there’s just no way that’s what’s going on here — there was no profit, and they were victims of a terrible upbringing.

    Forgive and welcome them. It’s not just the right thing to do — it’s the winning play.

  5. At the risk of going all Logical Positivist, “forgiveness” is a vague and quasi-religious word. Does it mean we feel differently about them? Does it mean we give them a chance at “redemption” (another vague and quasi-religious word)? Does it mean we support them no matter what, or withdraw support at the first hint of “backsliding”?

    Regardless of others’ answers, here’s how I respond: 1) Everyone deserves a minimum amount of respect as human beings, no matter their faults … even if their faults include denying that respect to others. 2) Someone who is trying to better themselves, whether in achieving a dream or ending a nightmare, deserves whatever help we can safely give. If the Phelps sisters truly reject the doctrines of the WBC and want to make amends, they deserve our support. 3) Unfortunately we cannot know the mind of another person, so we must judge them solely on subsequent behavior. (Words are cheap, as this post demonstrates.) Most of us have at some point in our lives have helped people who proceeded to cut us off, turn on us, or drain us dry then seek another victim. It’s too early to tell what the Phelps sisters will do with their new awareness, so we must wait and see. Luckily for them, there’s point #1.

    In truth there’s only an infinitesimal chance that any action of mine will affect them in any way. Nevertheless, if I were in a position to help them in some way, I probably would … depending on the degree of help. On general principles I’m not going to purposely obstruct them. I’m certainly not going to stand outside their homes and hold up rainbow-colored signs saying “GOD HATES APOSTATES”, because only crazy people do that. Whether this counts as “forgiveness” or “continuing to practice ethical behavior” is a question of semantics.

  6. I think the only penance that I can accept is for them to be aware, and to accept for themselves, that there will be people who will distrust and disbelieve them, because of the weight of what they did. They will have to accept that they are not owed any kind of forgiveness or acceptance, but can only live justly and kindly from here on and hope. When it stops being about the hurt and shame of the transgressor, actual forgiveness is a lot more possible.

    Though I did nothing on par with any of them, I had to learn that myself.

  7. I don’t really think they deserve any of the blame. They didn’t get a vote in the matter. It’s not like people in that family get to choose their careers or where they go to school or who they date.

    1. But they did get a vote in the matter, because they eventually voted themselves out. So, at what point did they have a vote, and how long between that time and when they left? And does any of that really matter, or have they a large enough road ahead of them that we will see them for their actions and that will be a salve for the hate they advocated in their early life?

      1. Mrs Phelps made the choice to leave. She took her nine children and they got in a car while he was sleeping. She drove away with her children. That should have been enough.

        I think they should have done whatever they needed to avoid arousing suspicion. If that meant holding up a sign that would have otherwise been held up by someone else I don’t really see the problem. I don’t think they should have tried to “deconvert” other members of their family either. They should make sure they’re safe before trying to help other people. I don’t think words are a good way to deconvert people that were converted through violence. The best deconversion argument they can make is successfully leaving.

        I hope they escape. I hope they do well on their own and I hope their grandfather doesn’t decide to retaliate.

        1. Oh, I think I may have left out a few lines. I was just saying that whatever wrong they might have done is kind of overshadowed by the atrocity that was our failure as a society to provide the resources that woman needed to escape her husband. I don’t have a conflict between what I think and how I feel about that issue, because I don’t really feel animosity toward anybody in that family except Fred. They were terrified kids that didn’t want to be hurt. That they are now adults that have all decided to go to the same school, get the same degree, work at the same place and live on the same compound isn’t because they all decided of their own free will to give their lives over to the desire of their father. I can’t blame them for that. Nobody chooses that.

  8. Forgiveness for Megan and Grace? Absolutely. We’ll see where they go and what they say from here, but if they continue movement towards acceptance and integration with society, I applaud them and welcome them. However, if their grandfather (Fred) decided to give up the protesting and hate-mongering it would take enormous work for me to forgive him. I don’t know that there is anything he could say or do to make up for the damage he has done.

    The differences between them are stark, to me. First of all, Megan and Grace are young. Grace is VERY young – barely an adult at 19 years old. They knew no other life than their family and the church. They were indoctrination from infancy into the a vile hate-filled perspective of their grandfather. Fred, on the other hand, built this empire of bigotry with his own hands. The rot is deep within him. This is why I can believe in real change for the granddaughters, but would be hard-pressed to forgive Fred.

    1. Benny, thank you. That is a much more sound comparison, and helps me reconcile my own thoughts. I agree that I’d be hard pressed to ever trust Fred Phelps’ motives the way I’d like to trust the Phelps’ women’s motives.

  9. I don’t know if I can “forgive” Vick. That’s because we had our own case of dog fighting here in the same time frame that involved 69 dogs (that could not be saved), 19 people, drugs, money, and 5 different state jurisdictions. The case was horrific.
    As far as the Phelps girls, time will tell. My preference is they lead a quiet life out of the limelight now. I’m always a bit skeptical of folks that “change” but continue to want their 15 minutes of fame.

  10. Vick chose, after living in a society which frowns upon and criminalizes dog fighting to participate anyways. The Phelps girls decided, at some point, to leave the cult they were raised in. So right off the bat, the choices made are not equivalent. They were not given an initial choice. When they realized there was an actual choice to be made, they picked the right one.

  11. these girls decided that ‘hey, the only community weve ever known? its fucked up. i shouldnt have done those things i did, and i believe its wrong strongly enough that im willing to be excluded from that community for speaking out against that’ whereas vick did something horrible, said ‘im so very sorry that you caught me, ill never do it again, i promise! since i promised not to do it again, maybe minimize my punishment?’ and suffered relatively little for it. i cant even comprehend how the two compare. the changing of a mind, and pretending punishment made you regret a thing. i may as well compare asceticism to C++

  12. I suppose that if those two show they have truly changed their ways, then I could forgive them.
    Can’t say I feel sorry for them for their loss of their lifelong faith. Rather, I’d ask for them to rejoice over that.

  13. When people change and want to be rid of old ties like Megan and Grace want to we should help them in creating a new life. We should not hold them accountable for old doctrines, but help them embrace new and positive doctrines (whether that be religion or atheism). Helping someone change is about accepting the past and forgetting it. If we can embrace them we can show others who are on the fence, but constrained, by hateful doctrines that we are willing to work with them if they are willing to sever old ties. It’s the difference between merely jailing someone and offering rehabilitation during jail sentences. We should be helping them in successfully moving away from the church, not forcing them to pay for their transgressions.

  14. Well question is: if an MRA who grew up in a chauvinistic society & family has a realization that he’s wrong and honestly takes up the cause of feminism, would he get forgiveness from movement leaders?

    The answer you give to that I think governs what personal consideration you should give to her.

  15. a.real.girl, you raise a difficult point, but some commentators have touched on a more thorny comparison. Megan and Phelps Sn. When I read she had escaped I was impressed. She has thrown off a lifetime of indoctrination, bravely left her entire family and support network. Her prior behaviour was a reflection of how she was raised. I wish her well. But what of Fred? An ugly, bigoted old man. Isn’t he is just as much a product of his upbringing? A closet homosexual ( surely) raised in a swamp of fundamentalism. He must live in a miserable world. Does he deserve any sympathy?

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