Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I'm feeling cranky today, which means it's time to get started on this one.

NBC News reported on Thursday that a school administrator in Texas told schoolteachers who worried -- "terrified" was their word -- about the state's new "guidelines" regarding controversial issues in the classroom:

"Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979," [Gina] Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing "widely debated and currently controversial" issues. "And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust," Peddy continued, "that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives."

"How do you oppose the Holocaust?" one teacher said in response.

"Believe me," Peddy said. "That’s come up."

Oh, I believe her.  This is America, after all, and that is Texas.  There's a lot of Holocaust denialism in this country, so I'm not at all surprised to hear that some parents have objected to their kids being taught about the Holocaust.  I'm concerned that these teachers don't know it, just as so many good liberals are determinedly ignorant about a lot of things they don't want to think about.

The rest of the article is mildly entertaining, in a horrible kind of way.  The meeting where Gina Peddy said this was recorded secretly, so the reader gets to watch numerous Texas officials and politicians scrambling to do damage control, and doing it badly, because that's the American way.

Just as bad, and possibly worse, is the way liberals react to bigotry: by panicking.  For example, this "Journalist & historian. Pub musician. Dad. Husband. I also do dishes" posted on Twitter:

It’s important as a historian to help people understand why and how people in the past understood themselves and made decisions. It is important to understand antisemites and racists and genocidaires and slavers. But not to teach as opposing and equal views, as controversy.

Yeah, no.  I've seen numerous attempts to solve the problem by definition, as here.  The word "controversy" doesn't remotely mean that the views at issue are "equal," let alone equally valid, as I think David M. Perry wants us to believe.  Nor does "opposing" imply it, as Perry seems to assume.  It just means that there's a disagreement going on.  (For example, the pronunciation of "controversy," but I'm not going to go into that.)  I wonder why Perry gets that so wrong -- no, actually, I don't.

The real trouble with "opposing," I'd say, is that it implies that there are only two sides involved.  Usually there are more, and often all of them are arguably wrong.  For example, in American controversies over slavery, not all white abolitionists wanted emancipated slaves to be free and equal American citizens: there was widespread sentiment, including in high places, for relocating them to Africa. Many white liberals have found this fact unsettling and have tried to suppress it, because it made history less simple and more confusing.  To insist on telling the historical truth is not even close to saying that resettlement is an "opposing and equal" position, and one should be suspicious of anyone who tries to end a dispute by pretending otherwise.

I'm not saying that teachers should keep books denying the Holocaust in classroom libraries.  I'm saying that teachers had better be prepared to refute Holocaust denialism among their students.  The same goes for erasure of American white supremacy; of Creationism and Intelligent Design; of opposition to masking and vaccination to contain COVID-19; of antigay bigotry; of anti-Islamic bigotry; of any and all historical or scientific distortions, because sooner or later they will come up.  That has always been my answer, in speaking to classes, when students ask why elementary school kids should be taught about LGBT issues: because the kids themselves will hear about them in the media, from parents and other adults, and from other kids, so teachers should be prepared to address them. Take the current hullabaloo over Critical Race Theory: it's not really teachers who are ensuring that students will have questions about the topic, it's right-wing racist media and parents.

As the teachers told Gina Peddy, they are frightened for their jobs, and they have good reason to be.  I don't believe Peddy when she told them that she and school administrations would fight with them: some will, I suspect most will not.  That means that teachers will need allies among parents and students.  Unfortunately many liberal parents sit out school board meetings, even before Joe and Kammy took office and those parents announced their determination to take a four- (or better, eight-) year nap free of concern about politics.  It seems, for example, that when Central York district in Pennsylvania "essentially banned" anti-racist books, parents did nothing until the students mounted a protest.

What really baffles me is that there's an obvious response to right-wing initiatives demanding "differing perspectives" on controversial issues.  I'm all for differing perspectives, and liberals pretend (as right-wingers also pretend) to want them too.  If your school's curriculum teaches that slaves were mostly contented and well-cared for by their kindly masters, demand that differing perspectives be given a fair hearing.  Demand that your state-approved textbook be supplemented by the differing perspective of the 1619 Project.  If your school's curriculum teaches Intelligent Design, demand that the differing perspective of Darwinian theory be taught as well.  If your school teaches that the USA is a Christian nation, if your school teaches Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, if your school teaches abstinence from all sexual expression until marriage, there are differing perspectives, and these laws and "Academic Bills of Rights" actually require that they be made available to students.

Of course this all means more work for parents and teachers and administrators and students.  I've acknowledged before that there isn't time to teach all the conflicts.  (Note: when liberals and progressives sneer at the idea of "teaching the conflicts," remember that they are authoritarians at heart and really don't care about freedom, including your freedom to disagree with them.)  Exploring complex issues will take time away from the standardized testing that right-wing authoritarians have imposed on our educational system, precisely and often knowingly to take time away from classroom time for actual teaching.  That means we have to get rid of those standardized tests, no small task.  

But there's a lot of bad faith in liberal objections to teaching the conflicts.  Some of it comes from simple authoritarianism, as just noted.  Some of it comes from ordinary human laziness and ignorance. Do those liberals who oppose right-wing objections to their beliefs do so because they've examined the evidence and arguments themselves?  Almost never as far as I have observed.  Often they're actively misinformed, as with avowed Darwinists who are really Spencerians or even Lamarckians, rejecting actual Darwinian theory unawares in favor of scientific racism.  And in general, like their opposite numbers, they have no idea how to debate: they can declare their beliefs and principles against their opponents, but neither side knows how you proceed after that.  (This is why I'm critical of Noam Chomsky's strictures on debate: Yes, many or most people do it badly.  The remedy is not to refuse to do it at all, but to learn to do it better.  One could say the same thing about thinking.  Chomsky's somewhat hypocritical, since he himself often debates, and not always very well.)

One of my favorite pastimes is observing people online who misread satirical posts, often from self-labeled parody or satire accounts, by taking them at face value. This is often known as being Waltered, in honor of the great account Walter(OwensGranp.  Admittedly, actual responsible media are generally beyond parody, which may make it difficult to tell if New York Times Pitchbot's "Whether it's liberals wearing masks outdoors or conservatives teaching opposing perspectives on the Holocaust, both sides have an extremism problem" is real or Memorex, but damn it's fun to watch people who can't parse sarcasm.

To be fair, sarcasm puts a lot of strain on cognition.  It takes young readers years to learn to recognize it, especially in writing where they can't hear the tone of voice that may signal it, and many adults never do. But it's a very common tactic on social media, especially Twitter, and even after it has been explained to them many times, many adults persist in take posts from the Onion as straight news.

Is it unfair to expect adults to recognize satire and irony?  I say it's not only fair but obligatory that they learn.  I've noticed that even scientists seem to dream of a world where all problems will present themselves neatly and cleanly, so that they can be solved like the most basic arithmetic problems.  (Though they also like to congratulate themselves on seeing past Nature's sneaky attempts at deception.)  Even when there's no attempt to deceive their opponents, debaters will often deceive themselves.  Critical thinking involves learning to recognize fallacy and error, even or especially when they aren't deliberate.  (It also involves learning to recognize fallacy in your own beliefs and arguments.)

So when liberals demand that satire and sarcasm be labeled for them so they won't get confused, they're not only undermining public discourse, they're announcing that they're too dull to read for comprehension above a first-grade level.  (I single out liberals here because everyone knows that this is true of conservatives.)  Yet these same people often congratulate themselves on their power to see past the lies and escape media brainwashing, which you can't do if you expect the media (let alone other people) to tell you in advance when they're lying or joking.  And don't right-wingers delude themselves that they have seen past the media lies?  If you read Twitter, or the New York Times, in the expectation that you can take it all at face value, you're going to fall on your face regularly.

An old friend, a graduate student in philosophy, used to chide me for being skeptical of religious claims, saying that she felt I was 'afraid of being fooled.'  As if that's an unreasonable fear, even if she were right about me.  It's a very common fear expressed by Christians, historically and in the present.  But that can only be part of it.  More of it is a self-critical desire not to be mistaken about the world I live in.  I'm not afraid of being mistaken, I want to learn from my mistakes, and I know that takes effort.  I can't think of many more valid and interesting pursuits for any human being, and I remain unable to understand why a philosopher of all people would consider that aim discreditable.

In any case, if you misread a satirical statement on Twitter, there will be plenty of people who will correct you, with varying degrees of empathy.  Most of them, whether they'll admit it or not, have been Waltered themselves at some point, and will be again.  And that most definitely includes me.

All this, I think, casts some light on why so many liberals are eager to suppress free discussion about disputed (I won't say "controversial") topics.  It's a desire they share with the Right, because they don't know why they believe what they do and don't know how to think about it.  The possibility that someone might disagree with them, rightly or wrongly, makes them very uncomfortable.  They don't mind making others uncomfortable, but they must never experience the discomfort of uncertainty or knowing they're wrong about anything important.  When they say that learning history should make you uncomfortable, they don't include themselves, just as when Trumpies say "Fuck your feelings," the operative word is "your."