Thursday, October 15

The colliding ideas of "free" speech and tolerance

It's easy to be offensive these days just as it's easy to take offense.

I was thinking about this the other day when I saw or heard something that yet again prompted me to have an internal dialogue about the whatever it was. I'm deliberately vague because, unlike others, I'm reluctant to expose some of my thinking and opinions to the trolls and troglodytes who rise up with outrage when anyone says (or doesn't say) anything that in any way offends them. And then whoever has said or hasn't said whatever that has caused an avalanche of social media whatever-shaming offers up a statement of profound apology for saying or not saying whatever it was that caused the howling to begin. The apology has become a knee-jerk reaction to the vociferous clamoring of the unruly and offended.

But in these United States, that's what free speech is all about.

We have found ways to try to define hate speech, defamation, slander, and other forms of speech that our society deems as unjustifiable and outside of the confines of that which is free, as we should. I believe, however, that because we seem to have become a society of intolerant tolerance, it is harder and harder to have a conversation; it is increasingly more difficult to express an honest position or opinion without being carved up through social media because hears or reads a hint of something that potentially offends them.

A recent article encapsulated much of this recently: Freedom of Speech? Not at Brown University. While the words "safe" and "safety" were used only a few times in this article, that seemed to be the crux of the publishing matter. How to make sure everyone feels safe and how to make sure everyone feels included is nearly impossible. Actually, I'm certain it's impossible.

Author Emily Shire cites her colleague Lizzie Crocker whose article How a Gay Conservative and a Radical Feminist Were Banned from a College's Feminism Debate also challenges the increasingly dizzying rationale for promoting or not promoting certain opportunities for speech. Crocker notes Bindel's observation that "she was 'outvoted' in the end, but she felt she'd 'done my job' and helped to provoke an insightful discussion" (italics mine).

Crocker also asks who gives organizations such as student unions authority to determine what is "safe" and "unsafe." It was, after all, the student union that disinvited the speakers from the feminism debate and, if you haven't read the article, speakers who were already parlaying via Twitter and showing a great enthusiasm for the conversation and discussion they would be allowed to provoke. Crocker states "they claim to protect us from harm and violence, but too often they conflate offense with harm, and the fear of offending has become its own form of extremism."

In the 1990s we experienced an increasing rise in the use of the term "politically correct." The PC movement has its own history but I think its influences are still being felt today. We continue to struggle to navigate how to be inclusive, fair, reasonable, and somehow manage to offend no one.

Here's a painful reality check: we will never ever be utterly and absolutely inclusive, fair, reasonable, and inoffensive to all people all of the time. If that is to be the case, then complete silence must fall upon the entire world for the rest of time. No one can be permitted to say anything to anyone about anything. Extreme? Sure. Ridiculous. No doubt.

But as we worry about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time so we don't offend someone or so people don't think ill of us or so we don't provoke the "wrong" reactions, we are in danger of becoming a society in which no speech will be permitted, in which all speech is at risk of being censured because it made someone feel "unsafe."

Voltaire is widely misquoted as having said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It's a good paraphrase of Voltaire's intent and pretty darned catchy. Some have suggested what Voltaire actually said in his Essays on Tolerance is "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too," but I can find no proof of that even though I really like that idea, too. However, because of the paraphrase and potential misquote, I got to read a good portion of Voltaire's Toleration and Other Essays [1755]. In "Whether Intolerance Is of Natural and Human Law," Voltaire writes--and please keep in mind the time in which he wrote:
Natural law is that indicated to men by nature. You have reared a child; he owes you respect as a father, gratitude as a benefactor. You have a right to the products of the soil that you have cultivated with your own hands. You have given or received a promise; it must be kept. Human law must in every case be based on natural law. All over the earth the great principle of both is: Do not unto others what you would that they do not unto you. Now, in virtue of this principle, one man cannot say to another: “Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish.” Thus do men speak in Portugal, Spain, and Goa. In some other countries they are now content to say: “Believe, or I detest thee; believe, or I will do thee all the harm I can. Monster, thou sharest not my religion, and therefore hast no religion; thou shalt be a thing of horror to thy neighbours, thy city, and thy province.”
If it were a point of human law to behave thus, the Japanese should detest the Chinese, who should abhor the Siamese; the Siamese, in turn, should persecute the Thibetans, who should fall upon the Hindoos. A Mogul should tear out the heart of the first Malabarian he met; the Malabarian should slay the Persian, who might massacre the Turk; and all of them should fling themselves against the Christians, who have so long devoured each other.
The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.
 Voltaire also writes in his banned Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas as though he were able to speak to the religious intolerant:
This little globe, which is no more than a point, rolls, together with many other globes, in that immensity of space in which we are lost. Man, who is about five feet high, is certainly a very inconsiderable part of the creation; but one of those hardly visible beings says to some of his neighbors in Arabia or South Africa: Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me. There are about nine hundred millions of us little insects who inhabit the earth, but my ant-hill alone is cherished by God who holds all the rest in horror for all eternity; those who live with me upon my spot will alone be happy, and all the rest eternally wretched.
My point? We seem to find more and more reasons to castigate one another, and, seem to be eager to find reasons to do so. We are increasingly intolerant of the beliefs of others--religious and otherwise--and have no compunction about attempting to troll and shame them on social media. We seem to find it easier to creep into odd corners of extremism than engage in actual conversation, to understand the reasons for someone else's ideas.

While we talk a lot about free speech, it seems to me that we have no idea what that really means.

Monday, October 12

Reflecting on sororities and leaning in

Life rarely happens the way we expect. I'm so often surprised by events; pleasantly surprised most of the time, I might add.

This past summer I went to a Kappa Delta Delta Eta reunion. It was the first reunion of any kind I'd attended. In fact, I wrote a blog post about the experience and that blog post was shared with the editor of the sorority magazine by one of my sisters, and then I was asked if it would be all right for the blog post to be published as an article. I hesitated but agreed to have it published in the most recent issue of The Angelos. I was both flattered and nervous.

In the same issue is a letter from the National President of Kappa Delta, Alison Jakes Argersinger. In her article she suggests that "sorority girl" still seems to have negative connotations. Movies and social media don't help combat that image but I've also realized that those sorority women who are successful in their fields--regardless of those fields--might struggle to associate their success with being in a sorority.

That made me reflect on Sheryl Sandberg's message of "Lean in." I haven't read her book but I did watch her December 2010 TED Talk, "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders" and her December 2013 TED Talk, "So We Leaned In. . .Now What?". So I could talk a bit about those TED Talks and Sandberg's message, but what intrigues me most is her emphasis on stories and the importance of our personal stories that inform, frame, influence, and shape our professional stories, and vice versa.

What also interests me are her stories about Lean In circles and their potential. What does that have to do with a sorority? I can't speak for any other sorority, but I can speak to my experience with Kappa Delta and the Delta Etas of University of South Florida, both way back then and more recently. We are a group of women who support and encourage each other because we have a bond. It is both strange and wonderful to me.

Whether or not they are in a sorority, we need to do a better job of recognizing and acknowledging the talents, capacities, and capabilities of women, and encourage them to be their best selves and to tell their stories.

What Lean In circles can do for women around the world, sororities can also do for women during and after college. Perhaps we can be more intentional about thinking about how we help women prepare for life after college, which seems to be more complex and more difficult. Perhaps we can be more intentional about how we gather and engage with one another. I'm not saying we should dispense with gatherings for purely social reasons because we need those, but even at our retreat, the social was interspersed with the professional and the personal because that is how women tend to think and be when they are with other women.
A sorority experience isn't for every young woman, I know. But I do believe the sisterhood women can find in a sorority, and which can be a lifetime influence, can make a difference in how they see and conduct themselves, can help them be participants at the table, can help them lean in, and can help them develop and tell their own stories.

Thursday, October 1

The time for reconnecting is now, not later

Last night I learned that a former colleague, Jimmy Scherrer, passed away suddenly. Just about a month ago.

What's really, really strange is that I was just thinking about Jimmy last week, wondering how he was doing and thinking I was well overdue in reaching out to him. Now it's too late.

I first met Jimmy when he was teaching in LAUSD. He was an amazing math teacher and coach, getting kids engaged and listening. I got to work with him not only in creating some video for teachers to learn about his teaching strategies, but he helped write some content for at least one graduate course to help teachers learn to see not only math content differently, but to complete reimagine teaching math. I loved working with Jimmy.

We kept in touch sporadically. For a while we emailed regularly while he was working on his doctorate. I was, selfishly, hoping to work with him again because he was such a wonderful educational talent. But then he got really busy as he worked on his degree and dissertation, our communication fell off, and I just didn't reconnect even when I thought of him. I'd heard he finished and had moved to NC State; I'm not sure how I knew that. I kept thinking I should email him to congratulate him. Stuff got in the way, or I was lazy, or a combination of the two. Regardless, I failed to reach out so we did not reconnect.

Maybe that was how it was meant to be but I don't think so. I've learned that when people come to mind, it behooves me to shoot an email to say "Hey!" and let that person know I've been thinking about him or her. That's it. No agenda. Just "Hello!" and "I hope you're okay."

Well, NC State was lucky to have him. I feel fortunate to have known him. I know his students at NC State miss him and were moved by his passion for teaching and learning.

It is too late for me to reconnect with Jimmy. This is, however, a somber reminder that the moment to reconnect is the moment that person comes to mind. Not later because, well, there might not be a later.

As for Jimmy, rest in peace, my friend. You are missed.