Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Time to Smite the Mortals

It's probably a very good thing I don't actually have this power, because the list of smite-ees would be long indeed. Granted I've been getting over a cold and had a sick honey, so I might be overly cranky. Lately the things making me more testy have to do with overreaction from uninformed loudmouths.

UW's Social Justice Research Center had announced it was bringing Bill Ayers to campus to speak. He is a VERY controversial figure, to be sure, but was coming to speak about education reform, not war or bombs. When the news got out, there was certainly plenty of public...comment. His speech was cancelled soon after... again, to the tune of much comment. I made a point of reading the articles and public comments on the Boomerang website, and they made me quite sad.

One side of the debate ranted about how taxpayer money could be used to pay a terrorist to speak to our poor, impressionable youth. Many threatened to stop donating to UW, called for the resignation of the President and the SJRC Chair, and/or generally threw a hissy fit about "liberals" and "socialists" trying to take over everything and brainwash everyone. Some said they wouldn't consider sending their kids to Laramie for school if someone so horrid as Ayers was allowed on campus. Others said he should be turned away at the Colorado border, and some suggested anyone who wanted to hear him should leave too.

The other side went nutty when the speech was cancelled. They accused UW and the SJRC of caving in to outside pressure, being only focused on making more money, and destroying any hope of free speech. They howled about how UW let Dick Cheney speak on campus and accepted a pile of money, usually referring to him as a war criminal. The press releases said that professional and security concerns were the reason his visit was cancelled, and that sent the "Let him speak"ers into a tizzy even more. "It wasn't a problem for Cheney," they said.

Folks on both sides got rather out of control, as seems to be the norm for political or controversial debates these days. They engaged in name-calling, fear mongering, and rested their arguments on the worst logical fallacies. People posted under names like "KillBill," "NoInfringment," "Fire Rios ASAP," and "SocialismSucks." In short...they behaved like 5 year olds. Both sides told the other that they didn't know what they were talking about, blamed them for all the country's woes, and were frothing-at-the-mouth mad.

Maybe my problem is that I can see both sides of the issue. I understand why people were upset about Ayers' visit. I also understand why people wanted to hear him speak. I also know something about being in the center of controversy...and having to deal with security concerns. I have to admit that I do not have specific knowledge about threats that were made privately to UW or the SJRC's director, Francisco Rios. I do know what I've heard people say around town and what I read on comment forums online, and can only imagine how much further anonymous messages went.

When someone threatens your life or your family, it's hard not to think twice about moving forward. I had some real gems when we did Angel Action. I had more with anniversaries of Matt's death, other protests by Phelps, or articles that were published. I ignored them because it was ME on the line. If the threats had been against my family or friends, things might have been different. I refuse to judge Francisco for cancelling the event because I don't know what went into his decision. I'm sure it wasn't made lightly, quickly, or easily. I know what I saw online, and that even more nasty messages were removed. What else was removed? Threats to bomb the speech? To bomb Francisco or his family? The SJRC? Innocent students and community members who made the mistake of attending? How far would you push if others might be at risk?

I also understand that standing up for what's right is always important, not just when it's safe or easy to do it. But what else would have been involved? How much security would have been necessary to ensure everyone's safety? How much would it have cost the University? Most of the threats I received were from anonymous folks living who knows where, usuing aliases like "Dr. Giggles." There was one that scared me, though. It was from a UW student...someone local. It was a veiled, non-specific threat. The type that's hard to prepare for and equally hard to imagine...but hard not to take seriously. There's a reason there were snipers on the rooftops at the courthouse and Union when Phelps and the Angels were in action.

In today's Branding Iron, mixed in with even more letter about the Ayers cancellation, was a letter to the editor from a UW student. She claims that a session at the Shepard Symposium condones the bashing of religion. The session in question is centered around a documentary film that includes criticism of James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame. I should note that the film hasn't played in Laramie before. I suppose it's possible that she saw it somewhere else, but suspect it's more likely she's made up her mind about what the film says without even seeing it.

The irony is that in her letter, she talks about how "whenever you tell one group that another is spewing hate and hateful actions, it is a recipe for creating hatred, not to mention discrimination, violations of rights and violent civil action." She then proceeds to finish her letter by saying that our "state institution" is "monstrasizing (sic) a faith." Didn't you just say this film, which you've never seen, is hate speech? While in the same breath saying you shouldn't say someone else hates? If you don't like that particular session, don't go. I happen to agree that Dobson is a hate monger, though I'm pretty sure she doesn't, but that doesn't mean I think all Christians are haters.

It also just so happens that I know the filmmaker in question. She works at DU, and I encouraged her to submit the film as a session for consideration to the Symposium. I admit that I have not seen the film myself yet, but also know that as a documentarian, human being, and devout Christian, Sheila did not create a project that bashes any religion.

My point today is this: somewhere along the line we forgot how to think and reason, or at the very least we forgot how to teach our kids to do it. We forgot that it's okay to debate someone's case if we don't agree with them, but not their character. That we should educate ourselves before stepping onto a soapbox. That we should listen to ideas that are not our own - and have enough faith in ourselves that we won't agree with something we shouldn't. We may not always like the games that other kids are playing, but it's their playground too.

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