In Defense of Complexity

Part 1: To Censor or to Persuade

I’ve been thinking a lot about sides lately. Israel vs Palestine. Muslim vs Christian. Republican vs Democrat. There are a lot of walls, literal and figurative… and no matter what side you’re on, it’s easy to vilify and flatten your opponents.

On my last trip to Germany, Kate and I were discussing some current political trends while we waited for our train. “Did you know they’ve renamed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal the Children’s Literature Legacy Award?” she asked me.

I didn’t—but I do now. Apparently people have been complaining about racism in the Little House books. It has been a long time since I read that series, but I’m not surprised. The books are largely historical—the people in them faithfully represent some harmful, racist attitudes of the time.

But I wonder if it’s really helpful to abandon the series entirely. Are we afraid that children are too fragile to discuss prejudice? Based on my current involvement with an international peace curriculum project, I’d say the answer is no.  

“An education which does not teach us to discriminate between good and bad, to assimilate the one and eschew the other, is a misnomer.”

Gandhi

Even offensive content deserves to be engaged and discussed. But lately, I’ve noticed a growing desire for censorship anchored in “safety” rhetoric.

Recently at my alma mater, a black, pro-life speaker made some controversial comments. Afterwards, the student government sent out a campus-wide apology, citing students of color who felt “unheard, underrepresented, and unsafe.” I wasn’t there, but the whole thing seems a little blown out of proportion to me. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say, “We disagree with the speaker” or “We feel his position is harmful”? (If you don’t agree with me, I’d love to understand where you’re coming from. Please comment or DM me.)

I recently read a transcript of a speech by Bret Stephens, an acclaimed (though somewhat controversial) journalist. He said:

“In recent years, identity politics have become the moated castles from which we safeguard our feelings from hurt and our opinions from challenge. It is our ‘safe space.’ But it is a safe space of a uniquely pernicious kind — a safe space from thought, rather than a safe space for thought, to borrow a line I recently heard from Salman Rushdie. Another consequence of identity politics is that it has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short. Any argument that can be cast as insensitive or offensive to a given group of people isn’t treated as being merely wrong. Instead it is seen as immoral, and therefore unworthy of discussion or rebuttal.”

This attitude is on display regularly in colleges and universities across the nation—just google “students protest lectures.” It’s scary. Of course, students have a right to peaceful protest, but I guess I find many of these protests intellectually lazy.

I was recently reading a book review written by Wendell Berry, and I was struck by this line: “My defense of [the author] begins with the fact that I want him to argue with.”

There are plenty of arguments that I find morally untenable, but I still believe in discussing them. I don’t know anyone who changed their mind about something because they were shamed. But I’ve often shifted my positions after thoughtful conversations with people I disagreed with but respected.

As I write this, I feel like I sound super right wing, which—to be honest— is a little bit disconcerting. I guess I’m just really sad about the lack of nuance in so much of the news I consume.

“We must be ever courteous and patient with those who do not see eye to eye with us. We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies.”

Gandhi

More in Part II: Static vs Story…

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