When I Was More Innocent: Reflections on People with Differing Viewpoints, 2014 edition

It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those with whose views we may agree, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought. ~Aristotle
Another election season has ended. I’m not especially thankful it ended, in large part because the business of campaigning in America never ends–it merely enters another cycle. The part of the election process which I am thankful for is this: people from various viewpoints who engage in questioning, discussing, and defending their views. It’s through those discussions that I have the opportunity to hone my ideas further–or, when I find my ideas to be flawed, begin the process of thinking through the core beliefs/problem/solution matrix that filters my attitudes.
Aristotle suggests that I should be grateful to those who expressed superficial views. He said that before 24 hour news cycles and Facebook memes were invented; if he were writing today, perhaps he would draw a line between the superficial ideas worthy of delving into, whether to repudiate or support, and those that should be ignored (…and blocked. The ability to block posts and people on Facebook is something I’m extremely grateful for!). Now society faces such an overwhelming influx of information that we too often wear blinders, fending off the overwhelming stream of facts, ideas, and appeals by only looking through our narrow lens. I’m guilty of it too–it’s a crucial coping mechanism for dealing with the onslaught of words and images we daily encounter.
But I embrace Aristotle’s concept. Considering views that differ from mine, or sometimes even superficially expressed views that I endorse, challenges me to work harder to explain–even to myself–why I hold the beliefs I do. I am pushed to examine the underlying assumptions I hold about the nature of the issue and my priorities as I answer, and I have to re-validate the data and facts that I’m using as evidence. People who disagree with me cause me to be a better critical thinker and more definite in my ideas–as long as I’m gaining that confidence based on thoughtful examination and not merely stubbornness, something I admit to at times.
I’ve framed this as a political injunction, but it extends through any ideas, opinions or creeds I hold. When I teach Sunday School (for adults–no one in their right mind wants me near children in Sunday School!), I’ve had fascinating conversations with classmates who hold opinions that baffle me.Those discussions, just like discussions I have about diet, health, education, relationships, nature, child-rearing–all thoughtful discussions–lead me to build a stronger understanding of the world and my place in it. I’m grateful for my opponents from the other side of the aisle, because they help me understand why I’m where I am and whether that’s where I should stay.

Not For Veteran’s Day

Note: I wrote this in 2012; I’m surprised by how much of it I still agree with. 

Two days ago was Veteran’s Day. Yesterday Billy Owens’ birthday. In my mind, those are connected.

Billy was a student in my epic AP class close to a decade ago. He wasn’t the usual AP student, but he wanted a shot and worked hard to earn his place. After graduation, he went into the military, and he was proud of the time he served. I talked to him intermittently both while he was serving and afterwards, while he was a veteran heading to college. The story ends too soon, with Billy committing suicide a while back. I’ve lost track of time, but I know that summer I had two former students do that; this is a rough era for young people, and suicide stats are one of the starkest proofs of it.

That isn’t what I intended to focus on, though. The intersection of Veteran’s Day and Billy’s birthday have me thinking. As a quasi-pacifist, I can’t wave a flag and yell “hip hip hooray for Veterans” if there’s any chance that I’m also glorifying war (Yes, I know that as a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, I’m on a slippery slope  using that criteria. Talk to my dad about it). One of the reasons I want to turn Quaker is because of their “Peace Testimony,” and as I’m writing this, I’m keeping their stances in mind.

When I started teaching, I was appalled that several special ed teachers used the ASVAB test, which qualifies a person for military service, as the major text in their room. They were prepping their students to be gun fodder–that’s the way I saw it then. I was pretty self-righteous about it, but at least I didn’t take to a bully pulpit. Usually.

In contrast, when one of my favorite students from the last couple years came into my classroom last month and told me he’s going in the Navy after Christmas, I nodded and told him that was probably an excellent decision. He’s a very smart kid, very personable–and for a lot of reasons, needs some direction and self-discipline– and he needs out of Lima. Many of my students are like that, needing some time to mature and learn skills, to figure out who they are while earning money and having a roof over their heads and a reason to get out of bed. College does that for some–but not all. The military is often the only other option, particularly in this job market. I hate the fact that there’s a decent chance he’ll be deployed in a war zone, but he knows the price he’s potentially paying for the shot at gaining maturity, experience, and a clue what to do with his life.

The change in my attitude reflects a greater awareness of the world and years of observing people. When I was a total pacifist, back when I honestly believed that with reason, love, and the right incentives conflict could be handled without resorting to throwing plates, fists, or bombs, my experience in the world was limited to people who had roughly the same assumptions about life and ethical constructs that I did. Debates about whether the car radio should play John Denver or the Partridge Family didn’t devolve to fisticuffs, and arguments about who should clean the bathroom at my college apartments may have involved snarky comments and pointed product placement (a can of Comet on the kitchen table eventually gets noticed), but again–no stitches or police were required.

And…as always…I’m a product of my age. It’s easy to say “War is wrong” when the only war you’ve experienced is Vietnam. I remember the  older kids worrying about getting a draft notice, or trying to choose the best way to be 4F. I remember asking why we were fighting there, and the confusing answers I got–perhaps that was an early sign that I ask too many questions, but people tried to answer, each explanation tangling with another, slightly different one, to create a sticky web that lead out one way: War is wrong.

But that was a long time ago, and I suspect that if I go to a zoo, I’ll even see the zebra in shades of grey. The stark right/wrong viewpoint that worked even through much of my 20s and 30s is much muddier now.

At this point, I define myself as a quasi-pacifist. In no particular order, that means I believe this:

  • Choosing to not fight can be powerful. Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement proved that.
  • People have the right to chose to not fight, but they need to be able to do it from a position of strength; pacifism cannot stem from weakness or fear and be effective.
  • People need to know how to deal with school yard bullies, both as children and adults. Weak people are targets, but that doesn’t mean that the best (or only) answers involve brute force.
  • Physical Force or the threat of it is overused in daily life and in the political arena. Almost always, reason, negotiation, and proper understanding of core values will improve a situation.
  • However, evil and myopically-self-involved people (and groups of people) exist in the world. They cannot be allowed to hurt others–but derailing those people must impact the least other people possible, and all possible non-violent means must be used first. “Preventative war” is an unethical concept, and “Collateral damage” is a fancy way of saying “innocent victims.”
  • Emotional rhetoric on from any party in the situation does not mean violence is inevitable or will help. It’s a sign everyone needs time–like a week–in the time-out chair to think about what they’re doing. (My school and the UN both need time out chairs!)
  • The only use of force that I can embrace is to protect those who cannot (not will not) protect themselves. And again, non-violent means of to achieve that goal must be tried first.
  • The fights between people, like between students in my school, should not occur. We should be doing more to create non-violent  interpersonal relationships.
  • The fact that the US military budget equals the next 15 countries’ military budgets combined is unreasonable and immoral.
  • People who choose to serve deserve all the honor and support our country can give them–and I don’t see our national policies doing that now.
  • The best way to honor and support our people in the military is to ensure they don’t have to go into battle, and when it’s unavoidable, give them materials and support, and get them out of it as soon as possible. Or sooner.
  • The high number of military and veteran suicides and PTSD means something is seriously wrong in the system, and we should be figuring out what now. Top priority.
  • There are many benefits to serving in the military, and I’ve seen many students gain confidence and become adults due to serving. Designing a National Service option/requirement should be investigated.

I started this by thinking about Veterans’ Day and Billy, and as a semi-literate somewhat- writer, I know that my conclusion should wrap up by tying all this back to Billy and Veterans’ Day. That neat ending eludes me–possibly because Billy chose an ending that doesn’t fit into a tidy, light paragraph. Billy and I discussed in detail why he went into the military, and he had many good reasons, reasons that my student last month echoed. All I can do is light a candle that the story ends up differently this time…for all the people serving.

Football. And Nascar. And….beer. Yes, lots of Beer**

I didn’t think I’d forgive Barbara Ehrenreich for her narrow-minded, condescending book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a few years ago–and I still would like a couple hours to talk to her about it, preferably with no heavy objects in my reach–but this article about modern feminism may redeem her just a bit.

In the article, she analyzes the state of current day feminism, and laments that the single “woman’s issue” that generates any discussion is breast cancer. Slap a pink ribbon on something, and you’re woman-friendly. No need to deal with social issues or even health issues that are controversial and make women shrill and unreasonable. Wrap the world in princess pink and we’re all “feminists” because we all care about a woman’s issue–even though some science suggests that current standard approaches may not be the best way to treat prevention, detection or treatment of breast cancer. No worries–we’re still very concerned about women and we show that with the ubiquitous pink ribbons.

Does anyone besides Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem call themselves feminists anymore? Well, and Phil Donahue and Alan Alda, I guess. Even I hedge around the word, instead going into long explanations of what I believe; the label is too laden with baggage for me to expect I will be treated seriously if I just say, “yep, I am. You still getting used to the idea that women can vote?”

The feminist movement of the 70’s had so many issues to deal with that they ended up tripping over themselves like a centipede trying to tango. Instead of being known for groundbreaking work in insuring living wages for “pink collar” jobs and opening opportunities for women, the image that lasted seems to be bra-burning and combat-boot-wearing lesbians.

The record numbers of women athletes, women in grad schools, woman professionals and management–that is the product of hard work and talent, no nod given to their mothers and grandmothers who argued and voted and changed the game. My sister’s high school counselor offered her two options for her professional future: nurse or teacher. I can’t imagine anyone working with teens today that look at a girl and see her only options as housewife, mommy, teacher or nurse. It wouldn’t be tolerated. Thanks, Gloria Steinem.

A truly brave candidate for national office–or a truly daring reporter–would fight to open a dialogue again about the issues that have gotten buried in the kinder, gentler, pink-ribboned womens movement. What is the impact of women in the work force? Should society be doing something differently? Are latchkey programs and quality day care priced so the working poor can afford them? What messages are reality television shows giving our young women–and our young men–about relationships, sex, and life? We need thoughtful people acting as the third estate to make those topics dinner table conversation.

The article by Barbara Ehrenreich resonated with me today. I listened to an adult and a group of teens arguing whether boys or girls had it worse. The adult (NOT me) and most of the teens agreed that women have it easy, or at least easier than men. The girls who were drawn into the argument had their opinions dismissed because they were “just girls and they would stick up for girls without seeing how it really is.” Not one girl tried to counter that argument. All I could do was sigh. These kids, members of the sound-bite generation, just wanted to outshout each other, not discuss. And the adult issued proclamations and  dismissed the girls’ opinions as emotional, not logical. (This is why I drink Pepsi at school. It keeps me busy so I don’t scream. The miracle is that I don’t spike it with rum. Yet.)

I’m thinking that next year, I’m not going to teach. I should stay home, barefoot and pregnant, watching talk shows and reality television. I could dress in princess pink and wear a pink ribbon every day. It would be a much easier life.

**Do you really need me to explain the title?

Proposal: The 28th Amendment

Note: when I wrote this in 2011, the idea made satirical sense to me. Now I’m leaning the other way: Baby Boomers and earlier generations should only get a half-vote. They have a less vested interest in the future, and it shows in their voting patterns.

I have a radical proposal, one that could transform democracy: change the voting age. When I was in junior high, eighteen year olds got the right to vote. It made sense, and I can defend that as an experiment. In 1971, when the 26th amendment was passed, 18 year olds were being drafted (meaning, children, the government sent males a letter saying they had to go into the Army…not they were invited to, if it fit with their dreams, goals, and schedule). In 1971, 18 year olds could legally drink alcohol some places, and the average age of a first marriage for females was 20 years old; for males, the median age was 23. Eighteen years olds in 1970’s America really were on the brink of assuming adult responsibilities, so arguing that they should be accorded the same rights seems logical and fair.

However, America has changed a lot over the last 40 years. Sociologists have documented the prolonged adolescence that is common now, and the census bureau verifies that the median age for first marriage now is about 27 years old for females, and slightly older for males. The federal government even acknowledged this by mandating that parents’ insurance cover children to age 26–a sign that people in their mid-twenties are often not in a position to take full responsibility for themselves. One more piece of evidence: the average age for enlisting in the Army isn’t 18, straight out of high school; it’s 21--when many of the draftees from the Vietnam era would have been integrating into civilian life as veterans.

So….the 28th amendment should raise the voting age to the late 20’s, an age when people can see age 30 looming ahead and know that sooner or later, they need to become adults. Age 28 makes sense to me: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain all died at age 27, so that’s become a milestone birthday to some people. Formalizing that to make 28 the official beginning of “your life as a voting citizen” could create a voting citizenry that is less prone to hype in advertising, more skeptical of promises and sound bytes, and have more sense of how the world works and a sense of history, leading to better decisions.

It’s possible that fewer people would vote–I know how hard my school has worked to encourage voter registration and getting out the vote–but I’m ok with that. More people voting easily leads to uninformed people voting, which means sound bite campaigning rules; too often, people are voting based on impressions, emotions and rumors.

I do think there should be one exception: people who have served the country in some fashion–military, Peace Corp, Teach for America, some other official National Service project that requires significant commitment–would have earned the right to vote as well.

This proposal is all just off the top of my head–rambling, freewriting. Not a real proposal, in formal terms. Once I get my Christmas tree down, and my grading caught up, and my laundry done, the campaign may begin….