By Bennett G. Childs and Andrew M. Harrison
After attending the recent College of Medicine “Discussions About Diversity”, I (BGC) was sorely disappointed to miss the Westboro Baptist Church's visit to Mayo Clinic (1, 2). I was drawn to ask the question: what motivation would drive someone to get up at the crack of dawn to preach hate (as I got up even earlier to pursue the answer)? The protest-protesters were dispersing as I arrived, carrying American flags and picket signs. Tapping him on the shoulder, I asked one guy: “Hey, have the crazy people gone?” He gave me a puzzled look and then perked up. “Oh yeah, the gay-bashers are gone. But they're not crazy. That kind of hate takes conscious effort.”
The list of people hated by the Westboro Baptist Church (3) and their God could fill a book. Though, that may have been done already: homosexuals, fornicators, wiccans, women who do not obey their husbands, and atheists. As I walked away, I started to think about the sort of people it takes conscious effort to not hate: bigots, homophobes, AIDS-denialists (4, 5), anti-vaccinationists (6), men who think misandry is a thing, people who say YOLO, people who end lists with etc., etc... Why do I have to fight down this crimson hate every day?
Well, we are (nominally) a color-blind nation. Having supposedly moved beyond using race and class to justify hate, we are encouraged to hate on the more civilized basis of the ideas people hold. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has been said by many a more enlightened preacher than Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church. “What a load of fecal transplant” many a more militant atheist than myself have un-ironically replied. But there is a hard nougat of truth at the center of that gooey religious sentiment that any person interested in having a serious debate should chew on.
Not only are people clearly more than their skin color or the contents of their wallets, but they are more than their ideas. When I was nine, I talked with a British accent for the better part of a year. Some idea. Around the same time, I was a Christian, firmly believing that personhood began at conception, abortion was the worst, and that I was going to heaven when I died. After a few years passed, I stopped worshiping the King of Heaven and the Queen of England. While my identity changed a bit (for one, I stopped living like I was saving room for a heavenly dessert), I am still Bennett Childs. I am still me. Another example: one of my relatives—who is no war-hawk—swore up and down that we should turn Iraq into a sheet of glass after 9/11. No more. As a result of our actions in the Middle East, he is mortified by the loss of our national treasures: men, women, and (least important) money.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that personal experience is the source of all activism, good and bad. When we put on our steel-toed debating boots to engage the “enemy”—be it the atheist destroying morality, the zealot undermining reason, the Republican with his finger on the war button, or the Democrat with his hand in the till—we argue because we believe we are right. Why? Because we have been called demeaning names by an atheist, seen our classrooms turned upside-down by creationists, lost a son in a foreign war, or felt the pinch of a tax increase. Often our strongest held beliefs really are in a zero sum game with their opposites. Likewise, we are in a zero sum game with those who are our ideological counterparts.
These local experiences give us the passion to try to change the world. But, as a consequence, we forget that just as we have experiences, so have our “enemies”. This is not to say bad behavior is excusable because people are products of their culture or that there is no minimal, universal human morality. I reject such pandering cultural relativism as what it is: low pressure thinking that will never get the grit of the real world out of your hair. However, just as your mind may change dramatically at some point, so may the mind of your worst enemy. The best part of being alive is that we keep having more experiences. The bad ones are a subset (at most 50%) of the transformative ones. Maybe the debate you are having right now could be one of them, so step up your game.
Speaking from personal experience arguing with religious people as an atheist, I can assure you that the commandments handed down from on high by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens do not work on the small stage of a real world debate. We should remember that when Dawkins debates Cardinal Pell, the only word one could say to make the other change his mind is “Imperio!”, followed by a blast of black magic. If you think the rhetoric that makes good entertainment is also the basis for good conversation, ask yourself if you think pornography is a primer for a healthy sexual relationship. Just like sex, the usual argument has no audience to engage other than the people directly involved. We should carefully distinguish arguments designed to convince our opponents from ones designed to make him look like his debating boots are on the wrong feet. For instance, it is a powerful tool in mathematics to follow a line of reasoning to its absurd conclusion as disproof by negation. This approach also works well for other types of argument. However, to use a slippery slope argument, you must avoid the devilish temptation to turn to slippery-slope arguments. Or worse, personal attacks. For example, when Zeno's paradox was shot down, it was not because Aristotle wanted to make Zeno look like a chump. Although, this is one example of Aristotle arguing with the dead, which is generally considered poor form. Thus, people on both sides of any debate should think carefully about trotting out well-worn debating gambits to secure their title as “free-thinkers”.
We (BGC and AMH) believe the recent College of Medicine “Discussions About Diversity” (sponsored by the Mayo Clinic Office for Diversity and held on July 24, 2013) was an excellent introduction to the topic of promoting diversity in higher education (7). The turnout was excellent and Leighton Auditorium was packed! Much emphasis was placed on differences, which have been used to justify large-scale oppression on the basis of race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. If you wish to learn more about the latter issue and LGBTI-issues in general, we refer you to the recent presentation by Joseph D. Gallego (Mayo Medical Student), which was held in Geffen Auditorium at noon on July 23, 2013 (8).
The speakers (photo below) did an excellent job of covering these subjects. In doing so, they alluded to the other axes of human diversity. Every day, we are already challenged to not mouth off at people with diverse opinions we consider foolish. We expect that even when our society moves beyond hating on the basis of race, money, and sex, we will still be sorely tempted to hate on the basis of ideas. So, by all means, hate ideas. But remember: there are only 6.8 billion people on the planet. Thus, we cannot afford to shut anyone out of the conversation with vicious, personal rhetoric. And, if you feel like maybe we have an overpopulation problem, kiss our grits, you alarmist.
From right to left: Barbara Porter (introduction) and panelists: Andrew Harrison, Dr. Peter Amadio, Dr. Louis (Jim) Maher, Dr. Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Jill Smith, JD, and Dr. Eddie Greene. Acknowledgement: Bernaa Lao (Office for Diversity) for this photo.
Bennett G. Childs is a current student in Mayo Graduate School (and former student in the Medical Scientist Training Program) under the mentorship of Dr. Jan M. van Deursen. Andrew M. Harrison is co-manager of the Diversity in Education Blog and a current student in the Medical Scientist Training Program under the mentorship of Dr. Vitaly Herasevich.