3 Angry (but good!) Letters

This month we are using some of our school meeting time to focus on a range of challenging social issues. Last Monday, for example, Alex Duffy, an individual who identifies as “gender queer,” spoke to us about broadening our understanding of gender and masculinity. Later that same day, we heard the world’s most famous fugitive, Edward Snowden warn us about the danger of government’s over-reaching use of surveillance. This morning we will look at Black History and consider some of the continuing challenges of race and racism. And later in February, we will look at what we might do to de-stigmatize mental health issues, as part of Mental Health Week.

I believe it is important for schools to provide opportunities for us to examine important issues, and we hope to do this without turning Monday morning assemblies into a scholastic version of “The Jerry Springer Show.” (I don’t want to hear your shouting, “Jimmy! Jimmy!” as black-shirted bouncers scamper to separate combatants on stage –- not that I’ve ever watched “The Jerry Springer Show” myself for so much as a moment, mind you!) We aim to give you a chance to look at and think about some of the issues that are shaping the world beyond Lonsdale Road.

But here’s where it gets tricky. While it is important for the school to present issues, it is not always our job to “take sides” or advance a particular point of view. At times this may appear cowardly on our part, and not everyone agrees with this approach. Last week, for instance, a number of Old Boys sent me very critical and very worthwhile letters. This morning I’d like to highlight issues raised in three of them.

Letter I. “I have a big problem with Snowden’s line of argument. He claims that he acted in defense of democratic freedoms, yet he flees to Communist China and lives la dolce vita in Putin’s Russia. I thought his line about having more chance to be killed by lightening than a terrorist was puerile. And I believe that that he should, like Daniel Ellsberg, have stayed and made his case in the United States, instead of fleeing to totalitarians who have no doubt reaped a windfall of intelligence from him.”

Letter 2. “Knowing that he is a fugitive from US Justice, an accused thief and traitor to his country, and now a resident in Russia, I am absolutely appalled that you as the senior leader at UCC would allow such an individual to address your students. This appears to be a complete shift in values in the school at which I was educated.”

Letter 3. “Would UCC invite someone on the run, a white-collar criminal accused of a Ponzi scheme, bilking thousands of people out of their savings? Would UCC invite Bill Cosby, a man accused of drugging and raping over 20 women? What about a person accused of killing for religious reasons and hiding in Iran? The issue comes down to who at UCC …decides what crimes are “acceptable” and which are not?

A very disappointed loyal UCC alumnus.”

I happen to agree with our old boys on a number of points. Like the writer of letter one, I hope that Snowden will return to the US and face the courts. Heroes don’t hide. I may be naïve about this – I don’t know what it’s like to experience death threats — but I would like to think the US justice system would go out of its way to avoid making him a martyr. The final chapter on Edward Snowden has not yet been written. I hope that in the end history will see him as being more like Daniel Ellsberg and less like Jane Fonda.

The author of letter two asks why we should allow a criminal to speak to our boys. That is an important question because it cuts to the heart of the civil disobedience issue. I hope that somewhere during your high school career, you will study Antigone, Thoreau, Gandhi, and especially this month, Dr. Martin Luther King in order to understand what happens when a just man or woman confronts an unjust law. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a primer on the importance of nonviolent resistance. It is a reminder that acts of conscience always have consequences.

The last letter writer raises what are for me the most difficult questions. Whom should we invite to speak at Laidlaw Hall? And upon what basis do we make such invitations? Last year Bill Cosby would have been a coup. This year he is a pariah. We wouldn’t invite Stalin or Hitler or Holocaust deniers. But would we invite Richard Nixon or Mao Zedong? This is where things get interesting. Would we offer speaking time to a scientist who doesn’t believe in global warming? (I tend to be a bit more libertarian about issues like this, but I also know that some of my colleagues disagree, some quite passionately — on what they would see as our promoting “bad science”.) At the same time I worry about double standards and wonder why we often hear about the “hard right” but never about the “hard left.” Is there an implicit orthodoxy to which we all adhere?

I was initially opposed to Columbia University’s inviting Iran’s then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the leader of an oppressive regime, but in hindsight, I was wrong. When in front of a packed press conference in NYC, Ahmadinejad announced that there were no gay people in Iran, the audience erupted in laughter, and he appeared visibly shaken by the response. (I guess not many people chuckled in Tehran when he made those kinds of statements!) So there may be value in inviting people with whom you disagree, and the value can cut both ways.

I should also mention that, in this spirit of openness and balance, we do want to have someone speak to us from the other side of the Snowden argument, someone who will talk about the importance of comprehensive governmental surveillance.

We are extraordinarily lucky to live in a country where people with different viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives are accepted and affirmed. Just last Friday, for example, I was struck by even the linguistic diversity of our students; among those running for the 6 stewards’ positions were individuals whose first language was French, Italian, Russian, and Mandarin.

Our job, though, is to do more than just try the chopsticks, nibble on the croissants, pass the pasta, and sample the stroganoff; celebrating cultural richness goes far beyond lauding culinary delights. We should try to promote discussion and understanding and provide time and space for reflection and debate on a whole host of issues from a great variety of perspectives. That is one way for us to live up to our aspirational mission of “igniting curiosity, imaginations, and passion.”

There are other places where such an approach would be unthinkable. There are parts of the world where those who disagree are intentionally marginalized or imprisoned or killed. But if democracy means anything, it means we willingly give others– even those with whom we have profound disagreements — the freedom to think and speak for themselves. The rest, of course, the hard part, is up to you. We trust you’ll think things through and come to your own conclusions, even on some of the more difficult topics.

From a distance, we may appear guilty of institutional inconsistency in giving air-time to someone with whom we have serious disagreements. While there may be some moral ambiguity in the air, I’ll end this morning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I believe you are first rate.

I believe you are up for the challenge.

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29 Responses to “3 Angry (but good!) Letters”

  1. anonymous Says:

    I would like to commend Principal Power for his courage and insight in supporting a program that invites stimulating and thought provoking speakers to UCC.

    Also, my compliments to Mr. Power, who has, in his elegant and profound response to criticisms, deftly displayed the virtues essential to intellectual and moral leadership. Mr. Power has listened to conflicting voices without taking affront, calmly examined and explained the context and rationale for his decisions, and fairly challenged his detractors – and the rest of us – to demonstrate the dialectic fibre to hear unfamiliar – even unwanted – voices in our search for the truth.

    Well done, sir!

    If Principal Power’s handling of this issue provides any message, it must be that the tiller that guides UCC is in good hands.

  2. Tim Says:

    Dear Jim,

    I just read your blog: 3 Angry (but good!) Letters.

    I confess I don’t know what to make of Snowden. I don’t understand what he did. I don’t understand what we are doing. I don’t know enough to make any kind of informed judgment. Moreover, I don’t even know where to go to find an account that gives a reasonable explanation. By the way I think I am willing (assuming I had a choice which I do not) to surrender some of my freedom if it meant that we could safer from people who mean to wipe us out.

    I’d like to add 2 names to consider re civil disobedience: John Brown and Socrates.

    Civil disobedience, acting on your conscience (Don’t people like Hitler do that?) It is perplexing. My Uncle, Marshall Sutton, was a CO in WW II – participated in a starvation experiment – a hero to me and yet I feel, if ever there were are war to fight it was that one. In Viet Nam I felt I was doing wrong, but I could not be sure. Even to this day I do now know what to think about that war and my own part in it. Sometimes I think I should have left and gone to Canada.

    Re John Brown. What do you make of him? Iron of ironies and a little known fact save to those who like me live in Harpers Ferry – is that Hayward Shepherd a free black baggage handler was the first person killed

    Re Socrates: There is a little known part of a Platonic dialogue, The Crito, that is well worth reading when one is thinking about civil disobedience. Crito and friends go to visit Socrates who awaits execution in jail in an effort to persuade him to leave Athens. Socrates introduces the voice of the Laws of Athens and converses with The Laws.

    I fear that in the US, when we experience an existential threat — that is precisely when we have to be most careful – because it is just then that we are most in danger of losing ourselves

    Lincoln suspending Habeas Corpus
    The Palmer Red Raids 1919-20
    Internment of American citizens’ of Japanese descent
    The McCarthy communist hunt
    Wiretapping MLK
    Reaction to 9/11 – 2 wars, torture, Department of Homeland “Security”

  3. anonymous Says:

    Hi Jim,

    This is an interesting area (!)

    I guess this pertains to the ‘Is freedom of speech an absolute right?’ debate and minefield – I don’t envy the task of deciding where lines should be drawn re. who gets to address any public forum, or indeed a high school audience.

    A totally different situation/context, but there was controversy on this side of the pond last week, when the Oxford Union invited Marine Le Pen to speak:-

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/05/marine-le-pen-front-national-oxford-union-university-speech-delayed-protesters

    Commentary on the issue of free speech by university students can be found near the end of the article.

    (This is the prestigious/world famous debating chamber in which Malcolm Risk and Kimathi Muiruri competed in the ‘International Competition for Young Debaters’ tournament last spring.)

    Presenting, understanding, and evaluating multiple perspectives is arguably the ‘currency’ of IB History courses and supporting students in dealing with the tension around accommodating or ‘hosting’ more than one viewpoint at any one time, as well as dealing with the ‘grey’, is a perennial challenge.

    As you say, the school’s role is to create space in which various viewpoints can be presented.

    (Perhaps an interesting adjunct question is, “OK, so, in this age of moral relativism, how do schools create a safe space (or even a ‘sacred space’ if you will) for students to figure out, through formative dialogue, their moral response to, and judgements on those viewpoints?”. Is it even the place of educational establishments to present and help students explore moral frameworks? (And if so, which or whose frameworks? Whose morals? etc.) And if it’s not the place of schools, then is it that of anyone else?)

    Is this TOK? (If so, then what about Y1-FY?) Or, is it that ‘all roads lead to character development’? (No wait…that’s ‘to Rome’.)

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