October 15, 2012

Twitter: As If Subtlety of Thought Weren't Already Difficult Enough

Justin Katz

It's hardly original to suggest that the real detriment of our era of political correctness isn't so much the specifics to which we're asked to conform, but the habits of thought that the overly sensitive ear engenders. That's actually a detriment with two parts.

First, it makes discussion a power play. Even in the long-gone millennium of my college years, it was already the case that a classroom discussion could be derailed by the wrong word used in a benign way, if the opposing side could affect to take it differently. Something like "the other guy" might provoke J'accuse! shouts about the "Other."

When that is the case, winning an argument ultimately requires having enough power (in allies and in authority) to push your preferred word usages on the overall discussion. There's no: "That's horrible!" "Let me clarify." "Oh. I disagree, but I see what you meant. Proceed." Instead, the debate becomes: "That's horrible!" "You're too stupid to understand!" "You're too dense to understand!" "Yeah, well I've got enough people to shout you down!"

Second, that dynamic creates incentives against subtlety of thought and challenging of assumptions. If you don't choose a side clearly, effectively ceding all ground that requires context, no context will prevent bad-faith readings. From there, explanations are made to seem like backtracking, hit-and-run, slithering, or whatever undesirable characterization political opponents prefer to proclaim.

And then there came Twitter.

This afternoon, I happened upon the following tweet:

In case anybody doesn't know the handles, that's Bob Plain, current editor of the progressive RIFuture and Jessica Ahlquist, who made a name for herself by signing on to the ACLU's successful campaign to tear an historical non-denominational prayer banner from the public space of a Cranston high school. At the time, I wrote:

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?
  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

So, with that as intellectual background — and knowing full well to whom I was speaking — I tweeted:

Bob, I'm pretty sure, understood my quip as it was intended, because the following exchange ensued:

The article to which Ms. Ahlquist linked contributes to the context:

... Schindelheim, ordered students to “sit in a circle and sing and pray to God,” making the kids recite The Lord’s Prayer in their native Spanish.

She even whipped out her cell phone and put her priest on speakerphone, so he could listen to her class’s prayers, investigators said.

Schindelheim, who has worked in city schools since 1991, confessed when investigators questioned her about the incident.

She "confessed when questioned." And then she went on medical leave. So, a teacher in a distant school had a very off day, acknowledged that she was wrong, and a note has been appended to her permanent record. More than a year later, in Rhode Island, where atheist activists seem like they may be planning a push for floodlights in classrooms so that window sashes never make an unintentional shadow cross upon the wall, I thought it worth the effort of a tweet to convey the notion that a little perspective was in order.

The effort of a tweet turned into several extended exchanges, as if I had suggested that the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" should be interpreted as a sweet and innocent love song.

Humor entered the battle, though, when Portsmouth progressive John McDaid (with long years of considering me an enemy, it seems) jumped in:

No doubt, I'll find this to be the next front page story in the Sakonnet Times about my 140-character-or-less debates. From the commentary around town, you'd think that the educations of the 1,900 or so students in the Tiverton district hinge on a school committee candidate's refusal to voice regional orthodoxy on Twitter, forget less exciting topics like stagnant results in math and science.

In terms of my campaign, I can only suggest that parents, taxpayers, and teachers clearly need not fear that I'll operate in secret and without discussion. I put my cell phone number and personal email address on the cards that have been mailed and otherwise circulated. My Twitter account is easy to find.

In terms of my broader mission online, I can only say that I'm not going to conform with the rhetorical sterility that already dominates too much of public discussion. It has been very disconcerting to me to hear the First Amendment cited so often as an excuse for declaring certain statements and ideas as completely out of bounds. At least in polite, correct society.

I'd propose, instead, that we ought to take the full First Amendment as a reminder that, in the United States, we want people to express themselves, even if what they say is unpopular. That way we can strive to correct each other while we're still just talking, and we can check whether we are the ones who need correcting.

If we truly see ourselves as an extended community, then we need some perspective, such that we don't treat a one-time indiscretion on the part of a teacher as equivalent to a one-time school shooting. But I'm learning in Tiverton, in Rhode Island, and at the national level that a frightening number of people define community in an exclusionary way — meaning that those who disagree must be excluded.

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Rephrased, what's worse?

1) Displaying a banner that clearly supports a particular religious view over others simply because the majority is comfortable with it, precisely the kind of expression of preference the Constitution you so fervently defend sought to prevent or
2) Having to use outside support and a lawsuit to make elected officials follow the blatant, plain understanding of our laws?

Note, just because within the frame of 1791 America the idea that a lack of religious support would include a total lack of religion was not commonly understood does not mean that our expansion in understanding is invalid. It is a rather normal healthy progression to go from, "Well of course we can be non-denominational and not support any one view," to "Well of course we can include multiple religions and not support any one view," to "Well of course we can't really discuss religion without being sectarian and supporting some beliefs at the exclusions of others so the notion of non-secular and non-religious collides."

There should be zero doubt of precisely what Roger Williams would have done, and there certainly should be zero doubt that majority support is not even remotely sufficient as a justification.

Posted by: Jason at October 15, 2012 11:36 PM

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I disagree on just about all counts. I'll elaborate on two:

1) You may consider that "a normal healthy progression," but I do not. My main dog in the fight, though, is who decides what applies? In terms of civic structure, I think it was a travesty to make all mentions in the Constitution of specific bodies (e.g., Congress) apply in equal force to all levels and employees of government. The experiment of the U.S. is to see if we can all live together with as much of our own type of government as possible. The trend to insist that, on precisely the core questions of self government, the preference in Providence, RI, must be the rule across the United States is the route toward totalitarianism, even if it's a slow march. Let Texas be Texas and Massachusetts be Massachusetts, and over time the community that is more prosperous and happier will win the debate without mandates from unelected judges prodded on by special interests and teenage complainants.
2) Your confidence vis-a-vis Roger Williams assumes that his thinking, transported through time, would adhere more to your thinking than mine. I doubt the evidence.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 15, 2012 11:54 PM


How in the world do you believe that's a natural progression?

You go from you can be non-denominational to "we can't really discuss religion without being sectarian and supporting some beliefs at the exclusions of others so the notion of non-secular and non-religious collides".

That's a lonnnnnnnnnnggggggg logical leap, my friend.

Put simply, there are those among us who wish to protect us from religion rather than allowing the free exercise thereof.

Justin, modern day liberalism is just a facade covering up lefty thought. Liberals don't want to protect people's right to believe what they want, but only protect liberals' lefty notions.

Posted by: don roach at October 16, 2012 1:07 AM

"Bob, I'm pretty sure, understood my quip as it was intended."

Justin - You made the mistake of trusting Bob Plain to give you a fair shake. Plain has a disarming way about him with his disheveled appearance and college-like demeanor, but he's only interested in furthering the progressive agenda in reality and conversations are to him just a means of gathering ammo. Like so many in that crowd, he's civil only until it is in his interest to not be civil. Plain already has a hit piece up against you on RIFuture with your photo front and center, calling your tweet "obnoxious" and using it to paint you as a radical too extreme for Tiverton school committee. I made the same mistake of trusting Plain by commenting in discussions on RIFuture. He rewarded my participation with a similarly toned hit piece against me, falsely accusing me of libel for acknowledging widely reported facts about a teachers union, and gloating over banning me. I appreciate that you try to maintain good relations within the community, but communication with Plain is an all-around bad idea. You should fully expect any comments to wind up on his blog in the most unfavorably light possible for public vegetable-throwing by the progressive RIFuture crowd.

Posted by: Dan at October 16, 2012 9:23 AM

It is a fairly large leap because I didn't feel like giving you all the missing links. Too much effort.

But this is like the progression around slavery. First you can own them. Then you can quarantine them. Then you have to support them, but still quarantined. Then you have to let them into the same space. Etc etc.

Eventually, any sane person realizes that the notion that any of these previous carnations did not, in fact, violate the principles of equality is ludicrous on face value. The notion that reading a "non-denominational" Bible that actually drove Catholics out of the system was a lack of state endorsement is laughable in hindsight. Society gets smarter about these things over time.

I don't have the time right now to fully expand on Justin's response but I will say this:
It's wacky to expect that the rights in the Constitution, all of which are explicit limits on government power in some way, should be reduced as we go to different levels of government. This is a radical view, likely based in some pretty far-right contracting notion that doesn't hold up, and I'm a bit surprised to see you advocate for increased government power.

Posted by: Jason at October 16, 2012 11:13 AM

Despots, fascists and dictators rarely think they are bad people. The are all working for the common good--and they know what is good for you.

Posted by: Mike at October 16, 2012 2:19 PM


Asserting that something is obvious doesn't make it true. On the opposite side, arguing that the amount of control that a government can exert as things get local is a pretty common argument. If you haven't heard it, an expanded reading list might be in order.

On the Constitutional argument, the document is an expression of structure. The Tenth Amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The First Amendment applies, for example, to the U.S. Congress.

This does not mean that I support censorship or government religion at the state or local levels. It means that I don't claim authority to tell people thousands of miles away whether they can govern themselves in a way that I don't especially like. In a final analysis, we have no real civil rights if we have no right to live under the type of government that we choose.

There have to be limits, of course. If the 14th Amendment had been better written, it might have jibed better with the Declaration of Independence in such a way as to ensure that everybody would have two core rights: To work to change the area in which they live through the civic process; two leave an area that they aren't able/willing to change. Within those two are broad principles involving speech, voting, unjust arrest, and such, but something like school prayer would clearly not apply. (And again, I don't want school prayer at the level at which I think such decisions ought to be made.)

To call this principle "wacky" is to insist on asserting one's own ideology as the One True Belief.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 16, 2012 2:30 PM

Despite being mostly atheist, what strikes me as the best part of all of this was Justin's original comment:

"My goodness. Are the kids OK?"

Posted by: Monique at October 16, 2012 3:00 PM

I my honest opinion conservatives would actually be happier living in the middle east countries like Iran, Libya or Syria since they share so many of the same beliefs. Like, but not limited to, prayer in schools, religious displays in schools, abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, separation of church and state, welfare etc

That's why I always recommend those middle east countries to my rightie friends and neighbors who are thinking about leaving the cultural black hole Arizona . or their vacation or retirement destinations

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at October 16, 2012 7:09 PM

Ooh, and don't forget, many of those nice dictatorships have NO INCOME TAX! It's a wingnut dream world.

United Arab Emirates

I've been to UAE and Oman. Quite nice in fact.

Posted by: Russ at October 17, 2012 2:22 PM

Oh look, Plain has another hit piece up against Justin:

Plain wants to know where the funding for this blog comes from. Ask Plain if he has been collecting unemployment while running RIFuture as editor full time. It would be very interesting if taxpayers have been paying for him to go kayaking, hang out at the state house, and run his basically partisan political blog for the past year.

Posted by: Dan at October 18, 2012 2:29 PM


That post is hilarious.

A guy from halfway across the state takes a position on my school committee candidacy.

* He asserts that I don't think homosexuals should be allowed in the Boy Scouts. Evidence: I don't think it should have been one of the first significant acts of a new liberal pastor to drive the 5-11 year old boys in the local Cub Scouts from his church property.
* He says that I don't support separation of church and state (at least in terms of public school prayer). Evidence: I don't think a one-time lapse in prayer judgment on the part of a teacher in NYC two years ago should be a national issue now.

And I'M the one who's "intellectually dishonest" because I took his belief that a passage of Jesus' teachings is "creepy" as a suggestion that he thinks Jesus is creepy.

And then on his funding tit-for-tat (I think he's talking about the Ocean State Current; AR doesn't have any major funding sources):

He's directly associated with an organization that I will be opposing in negotiations if I'm elected. With that, he equates funding sources (which I honestly don't know) from broad-based groups with no direct personal interest in what I write.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2012 3:50 PM

Justin - As I stated, you and I made the mistake of trusting Plain to give us a fair shake. I was loudly banned from his blog for posting widely reported facts about NEA leadership, so it's absurd for him to claim that he has no allegiance to them. It's obvious to any detached observer what's going on. Now you know what Plain truly is and how much he cares for presenting facts and affording the subjects of his articles the benefit of the doubt. It's all about the agenda, piling on, and creating soundbytes over there.

I know it's not your style to go after the person, but if Plain keeps attacking you and questioning your funding, I would be thrilled if you could look into Plain's unemployment/employment situation. If he has been collecting unemployment while running one of the state's most active political blogs full-time and not looking for work, that is immoral and illegal, and it would be a huge blow to the credibility of that site.

Posted by: Dan at October 18, 2012 4:02 PM

" AR doesn't have any major funding sources"

... other than the million dollars a year from the Koch brothers, you mean.

Posted by: Monique at October 18, 2012 10:13 PM

No, Koches backed out. Luckily KAOS stepped in to replace them.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2012 10:19 PM
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