A brainstorming session by some British ministers included some far-out ideas for the Pope’s visit. Now, they’re apologizing. Yes, apologizing to the organization which systematically raped tens of thousands of our children in recent decades. Bizarre.
90% of communication is non-verbal: tone, body language, facial expression. We’re a tribal species and social interactions are paramount. We need each other to survive and we have fragile egos. We’re all afraid that someone is going to dominate us, steal our mate, get more food or sully our reputation.
But this sensitivity has a dark side. It causes judges to threaten grieving parents with contempt if they show anger toward their child’s killer in the courtroom. It causes parents of raped children to admonish them never to say anything disrespectful about a priest. It causes us to praise soldiers coming home from killing children and civilians. And it causes British politicians to censor themselves when joking about sexual predators in the Catholic Church.
On top of this, in the name of objectivity, journalists report the most heinous events in the same tone used for the weather. If you betray any disgust or condemnation in your tone, you are unfit for the job. To make up for this, we have cable news, editorial pages and documentary films. But much of our communication is neutered, devoid of emotional force so that we can communicate without offending each other.
Is there an appropriate time to get angry? Is there an appropriate time to express it publicly? I think there is. In fact, I think it’s sometimes wrong not to express anger
• When kids are tortured (by priests, abusive parents or anyone they are entrusted to)
• When Wall Street insiders bring the economy to its knees
• When our military kills children and other innocents
Richard Dawkins is known for breaking decorum and speaking frankly. Despite his urbane, calm manner, some people think his tone is aggressive and strident. He points out that he is no more strident than movie reviewers or sports announcers, but when the topic is religion, people get their feelings hurt more easily. Here, the physicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, rebukes Dawkins. Ignoring Dawkins’ message, he fixes on Dawkins’ style:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik (2 minutes)
Tyson’s worry is that Dawkins’ approach will reduce his ability to engage and teach people. It is a valid concern, because education isn’t one-way. It requires enough trust and commitment of both teacher and learner to form a relationship through which ideas can be exchanged. If we offend or alienate someone, the conversation is over before it gets started.
So far, so good; but humans are devious and clever. Whenever a convention like courtesy or respect is in place, there will be con men and cheaters who will try to use it for their advantage. Just think about the last time you answered a telemarketing call. They know most people will answer a ringing phone. They know that most people won’t interrupt or hang up. They use these courtesies against us to make a connection to their market at almost no cost to them and with no regard for our privacy.
Politicians and the military establishment know all about human nature. They create an almost mythological realm of glory, brotherhood, patriotism and honor in death that subverts our normal desires to live with our families and bounce our grandchildren on our knees. It’s all voluntary these days, of course; but dissent is stifled, not just by the government, but by our fellows through yellow ribbon magnets, bumper stickers and plain old threats. “Support our troops” isn’t a mere request. If you don’t, you don’t deserve to live here and you’ll be asked to leave. This is completely antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and democratic principles. Any one of us could be in the minority on any number of issues. How we treat minority voices shows how serious we are about democracy. When it comes to supporting our military aggression, most of us are scared into going along. The cost in human misery and American reputation is incalculable.
Then, we have the Catholic child-raping priests. Raping children is odious under any circumstances. But this scandal is even more repugnant because it went on so long, with so many enablers. And we must count ourselves among them. I allowed my child to attend a Catholic school for 4 years. I had a lot of contact with the staff but none with the priests. The only reason he got through it is luck. Four Catholic priests in Iowa, including the one who officiated at my own wedding, have been disgraced for molesting children. The parents of those children who did get raped were just as attentive and caring as I am. I was simply lucky and they were not.
The problem is that the predator priests used our trust to continue their crimes. Like all con men, they can only do that with our cooperation. Abusing our natural politeness is how they operate. Everyone deserves respect, except when they abuse it.
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense; it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”