Ethics Quote of the Week: Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978)

The Angry Man

The other day I chanced to meet
An angry man upon the street —
A man of wrath, a man of war,
A man who truculently bore
Over his shoulder, like a lance,
A banner labeled “Tolerance.”

And when I asked him why he strode
Thus scowling down the human road,
Scowling, he answered, “I am he
Who champions total liberty —
Intolerance being, ma’am, a state
No tolerant man can tolerate.

“When I meet rogues,” he cried, “who choose
To cherish oppositional views,
Lady, like this, and in this manner,
I lay about me with my banner
Till they cry mercy, ma’am.” His blows
Rained proudly on prospective foes.

Fearful, I turned and left him there
Still muttering, as he thrashed the air,
“Let the Intolerant beware!”

Poet Phyllis McGinley, quoted in the comment thread on the Volokh Conspiracy’s post about the Supreme Court decision this week in Glowicki vs. Howell Public School District.stop-intoleranceThe case is a fascinating one, one of those perfect storm situations in which a series of random events and topics coalesces into an ethical dilemma. A high school teacher chose to wear a purple shirt one day to show support for a student group’s efforts to publicize the national campaign to raise awareness of anti-gay bullying. In one of his classes, he commanded a female student wearing a Confederate belt buckle to remove it. A thoughtful contrarian in the class—most teachers hate those, and I speak from bitter experience— cross-examined the teacher regarding the differences between wearing a belt buckle that some might feel symbolizes support for offensive causes, and wearing a purple shirt that symbolizes support for gays. The student said he felt that if the belt buckle, as the teacher maintained, discriminated against blacks, the teacher’s T-shirt discriminated against Catholics. I’m Catholic, said the student, and I don’t accept gays. From the post:

” [The teacher] explained that one cannot say “I don’t accept gays” any more than one can say “I don’t accept blacks” [and] “then asked [the student] if he accepted gays or not. [He] said he did not.” At this point, “[the Teacher] threw [the student] out of class and wrote up a referral for unacceptable behavior.” At this point, another student asked, “I don’t accept gays either[,] can I leave[?]” [The student] said yes….After Daniel and the other student departed, those remaining in the classroom asked “why [McDowell] had thrown them out and why didn’t they have free speech.” McDowell “explained that a student cannot voice an opinion that creates an uncomfortable learning environment for another student.”

What a recipe! Anti-bullying, plus gays, a dash of Civil War history and the Confederacy, a scoop of Catholic Church dogma, a cup each of freedom of religion and speech, with a dollop of classroom indoctrination and intolerance, all pureed into a feast for the Supreme Court!  I am resolutely depressed about the state of public education, and I hold the teaching profession responsible for much of it, but one has to feel sympathy for the teacher in this scenario. He blundered into an exchange that only a Constitutional scholar would have a fighting chance of navigating confidently. The school sided with the student, and reprimanded the teacher, who ended up suing. The Supreme Court, in an opinion delivered last week, disagreed with the teacher’s interpretation of what constituted First Amendment speech in the classroom:

“While the Court certainly recognizes that schools are empowered to regulate speech to prevent students from invading the rights of other students, “people do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or for that matter their way of life.” Relatedly, a “[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.” While a student or perhaps several students may have been upset or offended by [the student]’s remarks, “Tinker straight-forwardly tells us that, in order for school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, they must be able to show that this ‘action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.’”

This seems to me to be correct and fair, and also to provide some protection against the school-supported political indoctrination that is becoming epidemic across the country, with teachers taking partisan or controversial social policy positions and treating any student resistance as disruptive.

As always, the comments to the Volokh post are fascinating, if typically obsessed with legalistic and linguistic nit-picking. I was grateful for the interjection of the poem, which I had forgotten, which cut through the fog—“Was the student endorsing the bullying of gays? Does the Catholic Church not accept gays, or just not accept what gays do?”— to get to the heart of the controversy: the free exchange of ideas and opinions in an educational environment. If a teacher is going to take the education of his students into the thorny and gray realms of social issues and controversies, he had better remain a neutral facilitator, and not  abuse his position and authority by demanding that students quietly accept his views, majority views or politically correct views while he is prepared to be intolerant of theirs.

______________________________

Pointer and Source: Volokh Conspiracy

Source: Holy Joe

Graphic: damainegerikutercinta

9 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978)

  1. It’s too bad the teacher is of the intolerant intolerance group. A teacher with a sense of humor could have laughed and admitted he was wrong. That would have been a great way to have a productive classroom discussion instead of a stupid divisive court case.

  2. That is a poem for our time. It’s both rare and refreshing when both school administrators and the federal courts reject a case of militant political correctness. I guess it’s still possible to be so in-your-face outrageous about leftist indoctrination that even the usual apologists have to back away. Most of us are aware, I’m sure, that no more intolerant people exist than those whon scream “tolerance” in your face on the least pretense.

  3. With regards to your last paragraph, speaking as a Catholic- The official stance of the Catholic Church is not to be unaccepting of homosexuals. We hold that sex is for the purposes of conception, and that since homosexual sex cannot result in conception it is taking pleasure in an unacceptable way, as are masturbation or birth control (taking sexual pleasure outside of its full context of reproduction). Just checking in with that definition, as it seemed appropriate to the end of the article (I’d rather not field any attacks about whether that position is right or wrong, I’m just filling in the question from the last paragraph).

    On a side note: As one of the duly designated thoughful contrarians through my school carreer, I HATED teachers who would stick their feet in protests/controversy and then turn around and rip into students for the same thing. If this guy wasn’t willing to let students voice any potentially controversial positions/symbolic speech in class, he had no business taking part in the shirt solidarity thing.

    • Heck, the Catholic Church once officially thought that even procreative sex was sinful. Being anti-gay is simple a bi-product of the popularity of dualism among early church leaders.

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