Thought for Thursday

SO!

I was having a conversation with my students the other day, and they got me thinking.

As part of Black History Month, I’m giving them a bunch of quotes from black thinkers as their writing prompts, right?  The other day, I gave them Desmond Tutu’s “When you are neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

SO many of my students equated bystanders as equal to – or worse than – perpetrators.  They were willing to give a pass to people who truly don’t know – or don’t understand – an issue, but if you know something’s going down and you don’t do anything about it, you may as well have been an active participant.

I challenged them about this as hard as I could, asking them whether or not someone who fails to, say, jump in front of a gunman is just as responsible for the deaths of the people he would subsequently kill as the gunman who actually pulled the trigger, or asking about whether I’m responsible for a child’s abuse if I don’t challenge the mother who’s threatening them in the grocery store aisle.  While they were all a little uncomfortable at the idea of the INDIVIDUAL stepping into a situation (especially a dangerous one), they all pretty uniformly agreed that if you SEE, but don’t SAY, then you are just as culpable as the perpetrator.

I’m both heartened and a little disturbed by this.  I love that they understand the concept of bystanding and have been taught, at least on a conceptual level, that it’s our duty as human beings to stand up for one another.  No one admitted to actually DOING this, though, and it got me wondering;  is this, perhaps, why so many of the young people I encounter are just so clueless? If they don’t KNOW, then they believe they can’t be held responsible?

Thoughts?

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Thought for Thursday: Open-mindedness

So, after having my kids watch Bill Nye the Science Guy “debate” Ken Ham the Creationist Guy, I’ve begun a discussion with my critical thinking students about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.”  I was really very gratified this morning to see that, for the most part, the students were able to comprehend – and articulate! – the nuance between the activities.

They came up with the idea that “argument” is generally about an exchange of ideas; it’s an effort on the part of one party to offer the opposition evidence and proof that the speaker’s position has merit.  Argument is generally civil in tone, focused in scope and, while not devoid of emotion, is much more restrained and logical than it is emotional.  The end result, they reasoned, is to leave the listener with food for thought.  One doesn’t “win” an argument, they said;  it’s enough just to pry open the door of a previously closed mind, even if only a little.

“Fighting,” they decided, was less about an honest and earnest exchange and more about “force and power.”  Fighting is often a struggle for control or superiority; the object is to “win,” not to convince someone that your point of view has merit.  People in fights don’t listen to understand; they listen to respond (and, often, to refute).  Emotion is largely the controlling energy behind fighting, and rarely do people enter fights with the kind of open-mindedness necessary for any kind of meaningful consideration to happen.  Despite how lovely and polite the Nye/Ham debate was, they said, it was really a fight; neither man was likely very interested in seeing merit in the other man’s point.

It was about here that I introduced their next project – an issue analysis – and talked about topic/purpose/audience.  Their topic, I told them, can be anything that’s part of our national conversation at the moment (and then I gave them a quick list of potentials; the minimum wage, healthcare policy, immigration, etc, etc).   Since this is to be an inquiry exercise, I told them that they weren’t to choose something about which they had strong feelings.  The trick to picking a good topic is to find something that you’re interested in, but that you don’t really know a whole lot about.  “For example,” I said, “I wouldn’t pick abortion as my topic for this paper because I’ve already made up my mind about it.  I’m WAAY over here (I outstretched my arms and wiggled my left index finger) on this topic; I believe that ANY woman of ANY age should have access to a safe and legal abortion at ANY time in her pregnancy for ANY reason.  Period.  I am, admittedly, on the far-left fringe of this issue, because in all the research and observation I’ve done around this topic, I’ve encountered nothing that’s been sufficient to compel me to change my position that I have NO RIGHT to tell ANY woman what she can or cannot do with her body.”

We continued on to the topic of audience, and here I talked about the people on the fringes, using myself as an example. (Arms outstretched again, wiggling left index finger) “I’m over here on abortion, right?  Someone else is WAAY over here (wiggling right index finger) and believes that there should be no such THING as abortion; that it’s ALWAYS wrong under EVERY circumstance.  We (wiggling both index fingers) are NOT your audience for this paper.  You’re talking to everyone in between us; the people who are unsure of where they stand, or who believe that it’s okay sometimes but not others, or who don’t know enough about the topic to make a decision one way or another.”

At this point, a particularly astute student asked a really interesting question.  “Professor Chili,” he asked, “what would you say to the person over there (pointing to my right index finger)?  What do you think about what they think?”

And here, dear readers, is where we get to the point of this post.

My honest, heartfelt answer is that I absolutely support that person’s right to think the way s/he does.  I wholeheartedly support that person’s right to NEVER even THINK about having an abortion, and to feel that people who do have abortions are entirely, tragically wrong.  What I DON’T support is that person forcing someone else to comport themselves in accordance with someone else’s beliefs or feelings, and therein lies the difference between the way different people think.  I often get accused of being “closed-minded” about some things, though I profess not to be.  I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of how I operate.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve been presented with questions and challenges about my atheism – and the occasion of the Nye/Ham face-off has brought into sharp focus the divide between people who think and believe very differently.  I am fine with how others believe.  I have no problem if you (the general “you,” please; I got in trouble yesterday on a facebook post when the other folks on the thread weren’t hip enough to realize that I was speaking in general terms) want to reject scientific evidence or deny yourself medical care or give all your money to a church or devote your life to a particular faith.  YOUR life, YOUR choices.

Where I get itchy is when you try to make ME comply with your choices, or when your choices negatively impact others.  If you deny your child life-saving medical care, I am going to take issue with that.  If you try to use your morals to legislate my behavior (or that of my friends and family, or even, to be honest, complete strangers), I’m going to have a problem with that.  If you’re going to enforce your denial of certain scientifically-accepted premises on our schoolchildren, use your morality to hamper medical, genetic, or technological discovery and advancement, or use your faith as a justification to deny other people basic human rights and dignity, I’m going to make some noise.

The difference between “us” and “them” is that we’re okay with them believing what they want, but they are terrified by the fact that we don’t believe as they do.

Just after the debate, Buzzfeed posted a list of pictures of Creationists asking questions of people who embrace evolution.  Slate posted a response to each of those questions, and one of the points that was made was that, “There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

Let that sink in for a minute.  “There is more room for god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

That, right there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the difference.  I have beliefs.  I stand for things, but I am not so wrapped up in those beliefs, nor do I integrate them so fully into my very identity, that I am threatened by people who do not think as I do.  More to the point, I don’t force anyone to conform to my ideology; I would never force someone to have an abortion, for example.  Many of the staunchly anti-choice proponents wouldn’t say the opposite and, in fact, have pushed legislation that has the effect of keeping women from obtaining abortion services.

That’s the difference.  Too many people don’t understand how big a difference that is.

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Quick Hit: Obedient Little Birds

SO! I had all my students watch the SOTU (and at least one of the myriad Republican rebuttals offered afterward). A lot of my kids latched on to the minimum wage issue, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM (so far; I’m not through all their papers yet) spouted some variation of this nonsense.

“Raising the minimum wage raises inflation and cuts jobs.”

EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

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What good, obedient little birds they are, parroting back exactly what they’ve been told to believe without any evidence to support (or, more importantly, to refute) their claims.

My response?  “Prove it. Do some research; find out what economists say, then get back to me.” They won’t, I know, so I may assign a mini research assignment on the topic. I can’t stand it.

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Thought for Thursday

It’s going to be an interesting semester.

One of my classes is attended by a student who is secure in his knowledge that he is correct in all his opinions (much like this gentleman from last term).  He has the unique characteristic, however, of failing to see nuance in language; he thinks that “pretty” means exactly the same thing as “beautiful” and “stunning” and “breathtaking” and “gorgeous.”  I told him on Tuesday that one of his tasks for the term is to either learn to appreciate nuanced language or, failing that, to recognize that pretty much everyone else DOES see distinctions in tone and term, and to respond accordingly.

We had it out today over something the President said in his State of the Union address; that there are “no American troops in Iraq.”  My outspoken, opinionated student is also a combat veteran, and stated unequivocally that this was A LIE.  That led us to a discussion about what constitutes a “troop” – his definition was ANY military personnel, while the rest of the class understood the term to mean a member of the military who’s actively engaged in combat (though, to be fair, the President did not say “there are no COMBAT troops in Iraq”).  It IS true that there ARE military personnel in Iraq, but it is also true that there are no COMBAT troops in that county; if we’re going by my student’s definition of a “troop,” then we’re at war in every country in which we have a guarded embassy.

After the class was over, another student stopped me to express dismay at how this conversation went down – and to complement me for maintaining my cool throughout.  I told him that it’s easy to be cool when I’m confident of my facts and in control of the language we’re using to describe those facts.  He admitted that this was going to be both his favorite class and the one where he’s likely to struggle the most; he’s fine with having energetic conversations, but not so fine dealing with people who refuse to admit when they’re on shaky factual or rhetorical ground.

My opinion boy also parroted the far-right line that the President is “breaking the law” and “going against the Constitution” when he announced on Tuesday that he’d be issuing some executive orders.  When I asked him to produce evidence that this behavior is either illegal OR unconstitutional, he blathered for a bit about nothing that made any sense to me.  I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I DO know that executive orders have been issued by literally EVERY president we’ve EVER had, and that precedent is often a basis for legality, but I’m going to spend a little energy doing some research.  I can pretty much guarantee that opinion boy won’t do that.

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Thought for Thursday

So, yesterday was my birthday, right?   A friend of mine posted this image of MLK yesterday, and I commented that I’ve always been delighted by the happy accident of my sharing a birthday with Brother Martin.

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A little later, my friend came back and said this:  Actually, Chili; I do believe that you share a lot more than a birthday with that great man.

That kind of set me off this morning, and I found myself sitting behind my computer in tears.

I don’t feel like I’m doing NEARLY enough with all the energy I have to share.  I don’t feel like I’m doing anything meaningful; despite Mrs. Dingo’s loving reminder that, as teachers, we do meaningful work every single day, I don’t feel like my work lately has meant much to anyone, especially (and perhaps most importantly) to me.

I continue to put myself out there in search of work that will resonate with my need to work for justice and compassion.  I’m trying to make connections to people who work in the kind of positions I envision myself working -  I’ve been in touch with the NARAL Pro-Choice people and am going to have coffee in a few weeks with a family friend who is a former state senator – but, as happened pretty much all of last year, I’m being very kindly told by everyone I ask that there’s simply nothing available.

What I REALLY want – my ideal situation – would be to find work in a supportive, progressive, ethical high school (I’m SO jealous of Carson, who’s totally landed in the PERFECT spot for him.  His professional life is exactly right, and I’m not proud to say that, for as much as I adore the man, I kind of hate him a little for that).  The problem is that I’m not sure such a thing exists; at least, not in my neighborhood, and working as an adjunct really isn’t cutting it.

I met with my advisor yesterday and we decided that I’d do the independent study for my post-grad certificate on the processes of opening a school, and on the best practices and research into what makes education truly meaningful and effective.  I have no illusions that I’ll actually be able to OPEN that school, but at least I’ll be getting a better idea of what needs to happen.  I’m tired of my children coming home from their public high school and complaining that they learn more from our dinner table discussions than they do in their English, History, Current Events, Film Studies, and American Government classes combined.  If nothing more, maybe I can use the work and research I do this semester to become a consultant and effect a little bit of change in our current shitty system.

The long and short of this, though, is that I don’t feel like I do share much more than a birthday with Brother Martin.  I have the energy, I have the (com)passion, and I have the drive to make big changes but, at the moment, I don’t have the outlet for any of it.  I’m not living up to my potential right now, and it’s frustrating the ever loving hell out of me.

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So THAT’S What an Atheist Looks Like!

My dear friend and esteemed colleague Carson is running a winter term class he’s calling American Jesus.  In it, he and his students are investigating the meaning of the Christ figure in American social, spiritual, political, and psychological life.  He’s got an impressive reading list and has lined up a number of really influential scholars to speak to his class.

For reasons that pass my understanding, he included me in that list.

I know; I can’t believe it either.  Next to theologians and published authors, he invited me to come to his class this morning to speak to the students from the perspective of an atheist.  I was humbled and honored and really, really excited.

The room was full of men – I was the only female in the class – and I gather that the students spanned the high school age range.  Carson hasn’t polled his students about their personal religious affiliations yet (which I think was a brilliant move on his part), but it was pretty easy for me to pick out who the more devout Christians were.  Regardless, they were attentive and respectful and really, really curious.

I was asked about my childhood and upbringing (“if you weren’t Catholic or Jewish, you lived in my house“) and about whether or not I’d ever gone to church regularly (“I attended a Baptist congregation for a little while when I was about 7 or so; my beloved babysitter’s father was the minister“).  I was asked about why I reject the Bible and I tried my best to explain to the students that I don’t hold the Bible in any higher esteem than I hold any stories humans tell each other (though I didn’t say that I actually hold it in LOWER esteem because of how often and for how long it’s been used by those who follow it to beat, belittle, and alienate those who don’t).

I did my best to keep politics out of it, though it didn’t take long for the students to bring politics up; I think I’d been asked three or four questions before someone asked me about how strongly I felt about separating Church and State.  I thought it was PROFOUNDLY interesting, though, that one of the students tried to use the ACA as an example of why it’s okay to compel others to follow a particular religious tradition.  His argument was that if the government can force us to participate in a program (health insurance) against our will, why can’t religions force us to participate against our will, as well?  Why do we submit to one kind of coercion but not the other?  Even though the student’s premise is deeply flawed (who gets to decide which faith tradition gets implemented?), that led to a pretty lengthy conversation about the difference between civic life and religious life, the things that we do and do not agree to as members of a particular society, and the responsibilities we accept or deny for one another in those societies.  I made the very clear distinction between civil and religious marriage earlier in the class – my marriage has exactly nothing to do with God or the Church; it is a contract between my husband and me on one level and my husband, me, and the State on another – and I tried to make that distinction in this part of the discussion, as well, but I think this line of argumentation was my least effective.

We talked about my rejection of the notion of a Christ figure (and certainly my rejection of the necessity of accepting such a figure as a prerequisite for morality) and we talked about how I am not the least bit threatened by the idea that my elder daughter occasionally attends a youth group with one of her friends.  I almost wish I’d made a bigger deal about that point, actually; while I am perfectly comfortable with Punk’s going to these youth group affairs and affirm with absolute certainty her right to explore and make decisions for herself, I’m certain that the same would likely not be the case for religious parents of children who want to investigate the traditions and practices of those outside their faith structures.  I wish I’d asked the students why they thought that was; why I would not be threatened by my daughter’s decision to pursue a faith tradition but religious parents often see their children’s rejection (or even questioning) of their faith as a dire threat (one that sometimes results in a break-up of the family and children being turned out of the home: fully 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ who have been rejected by their families.  Christian love, indeed).

All in all, was a wholly satisfying experience for me to spend the time with him and his students.  I really hope I get to do it again.

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Nearly Wordless Wednesday

This cracked me up.

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