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There, but by the grace of God…

rustycar This is my third piece in my award-winning[1] "Hey, don't be such a judgey dick to poor people" series. The first was a general essay on not being judgey of those in need, and the second explored the idea of "making bad decisions" specifically. Neither should have been too controversial (though it angered some on other threads who seemed to take it personally), but this one might generate some disagreement. My theses can be summed up in two words: "Megan Phelps-Roper"[2]

Everyone's heard of the crazy cult/church/family "Westboro Baptist Church". They're the group that travels around and protests funerals of gays and soldiers and gay soldiers. They have a literalist interpretation of (certain parts of) the Bible and since it says to hate on gay people (and it does), they do. Their standard M.O. is to generate enough controversy that they get free publicity and get city councils to pass free-speech infringing laws against them which they then can easily win, generating more free publicity. It's easy to not like them, and even deep religious conservatives started actively hating them (instead of ignoring them) when they started interrupting funerals for dead Gulf War veterans.

"Ok, but what do they have to do with judging poor people?" No, it has nothing to do with them being Christian, or being judgmental themselves. It has to do with the (former) cult-leader's granddaughter: Megan Phelps-Roper.

She was raised from birth in the church. They taught her everything. They said to hate gays, so she did, just like all the other children raised in the family. They gave her a complete worldview. She was a kid so of course she bought into it. She had few other examples, and again, she was a kid. It wasn't until her early twenties that exposure to social media and opposing viewpoints that she began to question her upbringing and behavior. Then for years she held down those doubts and kept them secret, until she finally renounced the crappy beliefs and left the church/cult.

Cool, huh? It took a while, but she saw what she was doing was not great and made changes. It only took all of her childhood, teens, and early twenties to figure it out. Why not sooner?

So here's the deal: if you were born into that family, and raised the same way, you too would have been out there proudly holding your very own hand-made "God Hates Fags" or "God Loves Dead Soldiers" sign. You would, really. Sure, if you magically transplant current-reality you into that place, you'd dismiss it pretty quickly, but other-reality you would be happily chanting hate slogans.

It was all you ever knew. Your brain developed in that environment, and, to you, that's just how the world works. You'd really have no choice in the matter. Maybe, at some point, after to exposure to examples of other ways, you'd think your way out of it in your late teens, but maybe not. Many of her relatives stayed with the church as they grew up.

"Ok! Jeez! But what does this have to do with (not) judging poor people?!"

Instead of putting yourself in Megan's shoes, put yourself in the trailer park. You never knew your dad. As far back as you can remember, your mom has always been sitting on the dirty sofa, drinking cheap beer and crying. She's never worked that you know of. Many of your older cousins are meth addicts, and have been since 16. Some have jobs at the local factory or coal mine, some don't, but any money they get goes to beer or meth, or maybe an XBox. Most everybody over 18 is pregnant or has kids already.

You grew up in that. If current-reality you gets transplanted there, sure, you might make a few changes: I'll learn a trade! I'll read some books! I won't drop out of school! I'll use a condom! I won't do meth! I'll save up my money!

But that's merely current-reality you. And current-reality older-you as well: current-reality 15-year-old you wasn't nearly as smart or experienced, and other-reality you had nothing but bad examples to learn from.

As other-reality you, it'd be all you've ever known. Your parents (if you knew them) and your community never gave you the important life skills that current-reality you got. They never gave you your current religion or morals, or good examples. There's little chance you'd fare any better than those around you.

Just like Megan, in your late teens or early twenties, you might start to see that your way of life is not optimal (or maybe it'll take longer, like her relatives), but until then, your experience says not to waste time exploring other options: you barely know about them, and what's the point anyway? And you're a kid. It's unlikely that, at age 14 in that environment, you'd have plucked the idea out of thin air that you'd like to start learning programming or taking higher math classes because one day maybe it's possible you could be an engineer: no one you know is an engineer. The most successful person you know sells meth and carries a gun. And if your peers get the idea that you're trying to be "better than us", they'll make fun of you, or (much much) worse.

Again, this-reality you, with your parents and your knowledge and your experience might be able to pluck up the courage to try anyway. That-reality you, empirically, will have a much harder time.

Lots of people think that if they were in any given situation, they'd fare so much better. Like after any mass shooting, hundreds of armchair James Bonds chime in to say how they would've remained perfectly zen-like, and in 1/5 of a second, run toward the attacker, neatly disarming him with a flying judo kick and then presumably sipping a vodka martini they pulled out of their pocket. As opposed to, say, not knowing what's going on and freezing, or running blindly in any direction on instinct while screaming incoherently, then throwing up.

Most people, without extensive training and experience, will not perform well when the bullets start flying, including every goddamn one of those who think they will be judo kicking. And most people won't get out of the trailer park or ghetto, or even know that they can or should, at least not for a long time. Some will, but empirically, most won't, at least not for a while, because, just like Megan's relatives, it's all they've ever known.

And once more: this is not a plea for welfare or charity, or a complete dismissal of "personal responsibility", it's more like "Hey, maybe slow down on the judging people when you didn't have to face any of what they did?"

Update: Due to children-based interference, I forgot one important piece which I shall add here!

The important piece I forgot is this: how do you help? You see 19-year-old Megan on the street carrying one of her vile signs. How do you help her? Yelling insults? Looking down on her? Nope, people have been doing that to her for as long as she can remember. Each judgment, spoken or unspoken, only made her defensive of her family's way of life and more reluctant to change.

The thing that started changing her mind was people engaging her as a human, not people insulting her or dismissing her or judging her as a lost cause.

If only that applied to poor people, even the poor people who have made (sometimes criminal) bad decisions….

(Perhaps the solution would be to lock such hate-group members away in a big building for a few years, with only other hate-group members as companions, and treat them extremely harshly? Surely that would help them learn how to behave in society!)