December 6th, 2011

A Pocket Full of Murder

Moments of Startling Clarity

Warning: The linked article opens with a photograph once featured on the cover of Time magazine, which many people will find disturbing. That doesn't mean you shouldn't look at it (you should), but it does mean you should be prepared.

Ever since I first read this article I've been wanting to link to it, but couldn't do so conveniently until now. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's a relevant excerpt:

I was teaching my senior [high school] Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies -- multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions.

But I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.”

Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

My brother (yes, it is my brother who wrote the article, and I couldn't be more proud of him) goes on to make a number of important points about the failure of "character-based" education programs in a school system (and a society) that insists moral judgments are relative. Particularly here:

How can we claim to be forming character in our students when we refuse to commit to any moral position ourselves? If character education is to have any substantive value, it ought also to specify with what or whom we should empathize (or conversely, not empathize) and to explain why or why not. That said, there are areas in which we have been quite directive. In anti-bullying campaigns, homosexual rights assemblies, multicultural fairs, social justice drives and women’s rights initiatives, we do not hesitate to preach, admonish or dictate because we feel so fervently committed to our ground. But it is clear that the message of women’s rights had been, in the case of Bibi Aisha, outshouted by the metamessage too often embedded in these programs -- that there are no real standards, no certain moral truths, and no final ground to stand on; and that anyone who thinks there is, is simply naïve or a bigot. In this case, even the strong rhetoric of women’s rights could not survive the acid bath of universal tolerance.

G.K. Chesterton famously stated that "Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions," and certainly the kind of tolerance expressed by the high school students in my brother's Philosophy class falls into that category. But what else can we expect from young people when they (and we) are told over and over, in the classes they attend and the TV shows they watch and the books they read, that making moral judgments about other people's behaviour is the worst kind of arrogance and self-righteousness, and that any views they might have about right and wrong ought to be kept strictly to themselves for fear of offending someone?