Friday, March 04, 2011

Free speech, flabby thinking and multiculturalism

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the odious Westboro Baptist Church members may disturb military funerals in the name of free speech and folks in Orange County are screaming indignities, obscenities and blasphemies at Muslim American citizens as they enter a fundraiser for a women’s center. (Thanks to Salon for this video.) I have always considered myself a near-radical free speecher (believing that open discourse, even if testy, is better than hidden resentment –- and anyway “Sticks and stones …”) , but maybe I’m just not. Or maybe there are once unthinkable lines that have now been crossed.

Either way, I am rendered speechless. I have no idea what to say about this issue, these actions.

But I am not speechless about a claim made by Ed Royce, one of the (Republican) local politicians who spoke at the Orange County rally before the protest. In fact, I share his worry though not his view of the cause and implications of it.

Royce said that kids in American schools are being taught that “every idea is right, that no one should criticize any other position no matter how odious” and this, I fear, has a ring of truth to it. It is a stance I encounter among the highly intelligent, accomplished and caring undergraduate students at my prestigious university; it is a stance that l too often hear articulated by the teachers with whom I work; it is a stance I see in evidence among students in the local public schools I visit.

Royce blames it on “multiculturalism.” I think he and we have conflated flabby thinking and multiculturalism (or at least Royce and others have), making the oh-too-common error of confusing correlation with causality. Yes, we have multiculturalism (a good thing in that it simply is a human reality and also good in that it provides the difference that is the prompt for new thinking). And yes, there is flabby thinking. Flabby thinking is a failure to interrogate (freely but with respect) any other position until (so that) the community (of knowers and actors) can move toward an assessment of which claims are defensible (and therefore warranted) and which are not. There may be more than one position that we can live with, but this does not mean that “anything goes.”

Mr. Royce’s brand of flabby thinking can be detected in his automatic dichotomizing (my way or the highway, right or wrong, Christian or Muslim).

Educators should be about rooting out flabby thinking of all kinds. And, it seems, rooting out flabby thinking might also be the route to clarifying the value of multiculturalism. And maybe too, the demise of flabby thinking might replace the fear that underlay screaming at funerals and fundraisers with the kind of thoughtful confidence that makes dialogue possible and fruitful.

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