Friday, March 04, 2011

Free speech, flabby thinking and multiculturalism

Cross-posted from Smart and Good:

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.


Aaron Schutz said...

Interestingly, only Scalia agreed with you on the court. The reverse argument is that when flabby thinking prevails, you want to leave the widest possible range for free speech.

Art said...

You do a disservice to the cause of reasoned discussion about public speech when you misrepresent what the Court said in the Westboro case. In your first sentence you said, "The Supreme Court has confirmed that the odious Westboro Baptist Church members may disturb military funerals in the name of free speech...". In fact, the Court did not define the precise conditions in which Westboro may picket military funerals. But the opinion strongly suggests that the Court is not giving Westboro the free hand that you imply it is:

"The picketing took place on public land approxi-mately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, in accordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs ... for about 30 minutes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder’s father (Snyder), petitioner here, saw the tops of the picketers’ signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watching a news broadcast later that night."

Barbara Stengel said...

Thanks for the careful clarification, Art (and Aaron). Maybe I'm the one guilty of flabby thinking here, relying on my own experience with Westboro Baptist (on a college campus) rather than a careful a reading of the Supreme Court decision.

I appreciate and accept the correction ... even as I press (and maybe even exemplify) the point that another's experience/perspective is an opportunity to grow in one's own understanding IF one stays open to it.

Anonymous said...

There's free speech and then there's the Westboro version of free speech. I find it absolutely disgusting that they are permitted to carry on their despicable behavior. At the same time, I wouldn't blame it on multiculturalism. If Westboro is allowed to crash funerals of our fallen soldiers and condemn the president and SCOTUS justices to hell, how can we keep angry protests by white supremacists and fringe elements of Islam in check? Still, you make a great argument thought.

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Tikno said...

A good article, Barbara.
I think, we do not have "absolute" freedom of speech. There are always a border (a space) for others freedom.

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