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Per psychology today:

Yesterday, Mr. Delong, a 10th and 12th grade Honors English teacher in Piasa, IL was suspended for assigning an article about homosexuality in the animal kingdom to his students. Should teachers ask their students to read about controversial topics? Should we allow parents veto power over the curriculum?

This suspension makes one thing clear: we're not even supposed to have the discussion about certain topics which make some people uncomfortable.

A few years ago, I got an e-mail from a former student.  It's one of the many things floating around the internet, which is listed in some detail at snopes.com.  

The specifics of the e-mail itself are not relevant-- it's about ANWR and how it wouldn't be that bad to drill in it after all, and how it wouldn't do that much damage.  Feel free to read it for yourself if you like, but this story isn't about that.  This story is about her comments after I challenged her a little on it, and why these e-mails, along with so many other pernicious lies tend to be so pervasive.  

This was her response:

I just thought it really interesting as it honestly gets harder and harder to find the truth in these situations! These days with internet...who knows what is real and what is fabricated which is exactly why I sent this along to all. It may be the truth, it may not, damn these things are hard! It is just another piece of the puzzle. Honestly, how do you know this is NOT the case? I don't!

It was at this point that I suspected I had failed as a teacher, and more importantly, it was at this point that I got a glimmer of what was to come.

The point of these e-mails is not to make an argument.  It's not to present facts and support them.  It's to call things into question and give people plausible deniability.

Take, for example, the many e-mails that got sent out during the election of 2008: Obama the Muslim.  Obama the non-American.  Obama the friend of terrorists.  This, of course, was not done just through e-mail, but sometimes even supported his opponents.

But the intent of these stories was never to convince people that any of what they said was true.  It was to give people pause and concern.  It was to drive up the negatives.  It was to cause people to call Obama into question.  People who were uncomfortable with not voting for him simply because he was black suddenly had a whole new set of excuses as to why they should be concerned with him.

Back to what my student said:

It may be the truth, it may not, damn these things are hard! It is just another piece of the puzzle. Honestly, how do you know this is NOT the case? I don't!

This, of course, is absurd.  You learn the truth about things by evaluating sources, investigating them and making reasonable and justified conclusions.   There is, of course, one thing she was right about: sometimes it is hard.  But that's part of the responsibility of living in a free society: knowing what the &^%! you're talking about or, at the very least, not basing the most major part of your political activity on things you don't understand.

Years ago, a friend told me a story: she and her partner were walking on a bridge at dusk; there was another couple nearby.  At some point, a huge number of bats flew out from under another bridge and across the water.  One of them, sort of whimsically, said "there go the fruitbats."  She, of course, didn't know if they were fruitbats or some other kind of bat.  They were just being silly.

The other couple nearby overheard them.  The woman asked her guy "those are fruitbats?"  At this point he concocted a fairly elaborate story of the nature of these ersatz fruitbats, why they hang under the bridge, what sort of fruit they eat, etc.  The guy, obviously was making it all up, probably to impress his date.  But I think about that story sometimes and wonder how readily and comfortably we lie, pretend and simply make it all up as we go along.

Bear in mind: I've no problem with a good tall tale.  As children, we live and thrive on tall tales: spinning stories out of nothing but our imaginations.  But there is a point that needs to come where we grow beyond these things, learn to have conversations in a world that has some connection to reality, and learn to put aside the childish approach towards reality which trades not in honesty and respect but in simply saying whatever you think will make you win.  Even in the example I outline above, I've no real problem with some guy just babbling on about fruitbats to impress his date.  

But... there's something happening that's really been bothering me for some time now, and I think it's this:

We don't argue any longer.

By "we" I don't mean everyone.  I'm talking in the realm of politics and policy; I'm talking about the way we used to argue.   Here's an example of then Senator Paul Simon, presenting an argument, a point of view, a perspective, on how we should interact with the rest of the world:

Note the lack of name-calling, the lack of interpersonal squabbling.  Agree or not, Senator Simon is trying to tell you why you should agree with him, not berating or attacking you for failing to.  Similarly, Bob Dole is clearly capable of a good argument:

But why argue when you can diminish, ignore, cajole and pretend?  Why argue when you can simply suspend someone for introducing a topic?

Why argue when you can just intimidate instead?

Why argue when you can, instead, simply pretend that Obama is affiliated with terrorists?  Why argue when you can shout people down?  

Why stand on the merits of your own facts?  Why rely on reason?  Why bother with tools, research and skills when you can just shrug and treat all positions as equal, no matter how ridiculous argument is?  Why take responsibility for knowing, for learning, for doing?  

I'll tell you why.

Because it's worth it.

Originally posted to juliewolf on Sun Nov 01, 2009 at 02:59 AM PST.

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