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Friday, April 13, 2012

Teaching the Controversy


The phrase "teach the controversy" was originally coined by Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Chicago "as an admonition to teach that established knowledge is not simply given as a settled matter, but that it is created in a crucible of debate and controversy."

However, to Prof. Graff's never-ending chagrin, his phrase was appropriated by Phillip E. Johnson, a major figure in the Creationist/Intelligent Design Movement who used it in order to legitimize these ideologies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary being taught in science classes among students enrolled in public education.

Interestingly, this idea of "teaching the controversy" has become something of a Conservative talking point, whereby any point of view, no matter how extreme, bigoted, or thoroughly disproved, should be discussed with the same respect and nod of legitimacy as those which are not. Bluntly: it's putting crazy up on the podium right next sanity. For one blogger, it's putting racism up next to anti-racism and saying, "gee, why don't we talk about all these things respectably like they're both equally valid points of view." (Full disclosure & trigger warning: the blogger in the link has his own history of racism.)



Admittedly, racism is embedded in every American, regardless of background, but the idea that "the arguments being put forth by the *silenced* majority need to be borne out ... need to be addressed in a respectable manner by a person who can properly craft the arguments" is incredibly irresponsible.

When did racism become a point of view deserving respectable dialogue? Since when did prejudice deserve respect?

I take the lessons of my Jewish ancestors and my own experiences with anti-Semitism to heart -- giving bigots a platform for their vitriol creates the circumstances in which incidents like the Kristallnacht occur. It teaches people, like our children, like John Derbyshire's children, that it's okay to be a bigot. We show people that it's okay to discriminate against others because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or their accent, or their nationality, because that's totally something a lot of people really think is okay. (Reality check: they don't, even after being taught to believe they should.)


Notably, when people like John Derbyshire, Juan Williams, Mel Gibson, or others spout these nigh universally condemned opinions, even those who "should be" supportive are quick to distance themselves. And the predictable reaction are cries of censorship, claims of 1st amendment violations, and allusions to the hegemony of political correctness. However these hysterics miss the obvious: there is no censorship, no suppression of opinion. Even the Westboro Baptist church is allowed to mock dead American soldiers. But that does not stop others from holding them accountable for the things they say, for reviling them. You may call me a "kyke", but then complaining about the consequences of your action is hypocrisy and cowardice. More importantly, I do not have to suffer your bigotry. I can choose to exclude you from my life, defend myself, and even pursue legal measures to ensure that I do not unlawfully suffer because of your prejudice.

To the advocates of hate speech as free speech, I say: your freedom does not trump my liberty.

Real talk. Ignorance is not a point of view. Racism is not a valid perspective deserving of my respect. Anti-Semitism is not a legitimate pundit for talking heads to debate on the nightly news. Sorry, but social justice movements across the world have struggled mightily to ensure that racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of prejudice are stopped. The right to discriminate is not a human right. The right to be treated equally is.


If you've been taught the "controversy" of prejudice, then perhaps it's time you re-educate yourself. Check out this great piece by Colorlines, written by a White person, about how White people can erase the racism within themselves. Then check this great piece by a Person of Color about why we have no problem calling someone who lies a liar, or someone who steals a thief, but are so fearful to call someone a racist for acting out racism.

As for me, I judge people by their intentions and words, but most of all I judge them by their actions.

Shalom. Chesed. Tikkun Olam.

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