“Then why do you teach?” a senior asked after I repeated my mantra, “You don’t want math to keep you from the better paying job.” The other students responded with gasps, “How could you be so rude?” “That was the worst question I ever heard!” “That’s bullying!”
Her face reddened, she spluttered, and I intervened. “That’s a great question!” The other students began to defend me and argue with me at the same time. All she was really asking is why I spend my life serving them instead of making a lot of money for myself. I welcome that. Why did the others assume I was being assaulted? When the other students jumped to conclusions about the intent of the question, the inquirer became the object of humiliation.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this lately. I teach in a culture that is diverse, and we are committed to getting along. My students care about caring. My concern is that we have become so aware of possible offenses that we may be forgetting the importance of intentionally giving others the benefit of the doubt. As adults, like students, we can become overconfident and prideful in our social intelligence, forgetting about those times we misjudged how a word would be received. Should we be proud of ourselves for being sensitive and caring about injustice when we call someone out for their insensitivity? How could they? They should have known!
An interesting study shows teens are increasingly supporting free speech, but only speech that is not offensive. That might sound like we are becoming a kinder, gentler nation but my concern is that what the one considers to be offensive and bullying can be highly subjective. We are certainly seeing a lot of media coverage where it seems perfectly okay to bully someone who who says or does something that goes against the grain.
My biggest concern is the increasing restrictions on religious speech. While Christianity has been associated with privilege, it is increasingly considered offensive to say anything about it in public. Christians, by the biblical definition, are constrained to speak of what they know about Christ. Other religions are likewise obligated to reach out. By considering religious speech offensive, we force religious persons to choose between denying their calling or risk a host of social and professional consequences. One of the arguments against religious speech is the fear of absolutism. By banning religious speech, though, we codify absolutism: absolutism is absolutely not allowed and relativism becomes the privileged religion.
How much better it is to go to individuals and explain our concerns one-on-one. It is one thing to question one’s motives, to ask them to stop, and opt for other social connections. It is quite another to deliberately humiliate someone while claiming a higher road. There is safety when the norm is that our listeners will give us the benefit of the doubt for what’s going on in our hearts. Even when someone is passionately opinionated, who knows why and what has led them down that path? That is not to say we must agree, but shutting them down eliminates all prospect of learning from a dialog.
To answer the question, I explained that my church gives tons of money to the poor, I’m trying to keep students from going there to begin with. I challenged the class to remember how kind that student is and how there was obviously no offense intended. Then I asked them to consider how, next time, they could give the benefit of the doubt. How much safer would be world be if we were all watching each others’ backs.
The lights came on and nods of agreement were followed by a pervasive feeling of peace. In a culture that increasingly embraces relativism, one would think “benefit of the doubt” would be part of the, “your truth is as good as mine.” For some reason it isn’t working out that way. But with charity of heart, absolutists and relativists can function well together. We can go there, together we can go there…let’s go there.