Opportunities lost: When bullies derail dialogue, we all lose
In a world of spin, no one expects truth from corporate executives or the politicians who serve them, but many of us hold out hope that in the classroom and sanctuary we can engage one another honestly in the struggle to understand the world and our place in it. So, while I've had my share of squabbles with schools and churches over the years, I remain committed to them as important truth-seeking institutions.
As a university professor who has recently returned to church membership, I have a lot riding on those hopes, which is why it was particularly disappointing in recent weeks to be scheduled for speaking engagements and then abruptly canceled by a Catholic diocese and a private high school in Texas. In both cases, some people in the institutions were eager to have me share my knowledge and experiences, only to have the leadership give in to complaints from conservatives.
My disappointment wasn't personal -- I've been rejected enough to be able to roll with these punches -- but about a concern for the future if the institutions we count on to create space for dialogue are so easily cowed. The problem isn't that I lost chances to speak, but that everyone lost a chance for engagement.
The first cancellation came from the Diocese of Victoria in September. Staff members organizing the annual "Conference for Catechesis and Ministry" asked if I would lead one session on media coverage of the Middle East and another on strategies for speaking with children about war. I signed on immediately, grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important issues.
After the conference schedule circulated, staff members heard from a conservative member of the diocese who objected on the grounds I am politically radical (true enough), anti-American (a nonsensical charge), and a promoter of anti-Catholic teachings (true, if one thinks that all Catholics who support the full humanity of gay/lesbian people and advocate abortion rights are anti-Catholic, too). The threat that this person's campaign would spark public protests led the diocese to retract the invitation.
Last week I received a similar call from an administrator at St. Mary's Hall, a college-preparatory day school in San Antonio. I had been asked to speak about power and privilege, drawing on my book on race and racism. I was looking forward to talking with young people about an important subject, but once again a complaint about my political writings and activism against U.S. policy led administrators to cancel my talk.
In both cases, of course I can't know exactly what was behind these decisions. I assume the folks in charge decided it was safer to exclude someone with left/radical politics than to risk the backlash from more centrist and conservative constituencies. But I didn't give the cancellations much thought until last week at the end of a long evening at a private school in California, where I had been invited to speak about power and privilege. When the formal program ended, a dozen people lingered, and we pulled chairs into a circle to continue the conversation about race and gender, capitalism and empire.
When I finally suggested that I was running out of steam and should head toward my hotel and bed, one of the parents from the school said, "I realize you are tired, but I would stay here all night if I could -- I'm so hungry for this kind of conversation."
That remark led to more talk about how these conversations are too rare in a depoliticized society where so many people are afraid to speak their minds. Others agreed that they wished for more spaces to talk honestly about fundamental questions: What it means to be a person in a complex world, to be a U.S. citizen in a time of imperial war, to be materially comfortable in a world where so many lived without the basics.
I can understand why church and school administrators would take the safe route and cancel a talk by me to avoid potential conflict; I don't feel any personal resentment or hold any grudges.
But I can't help but be disappointed in those officials, not for denying me the chance to speak but denying others a space in which collectively we can struggle to get closer to the truth. Who among us is not hungry for that? Even those who wanted to silence me -- at some level don't they yearn for that conversation?
As a university professor and freelance writer who is active in a variety of political movements, I will never lack for spaces in which I can be heard. I'm worried not about myself but about that man who was so starved for ethical and political engagement that he was willing to stay in that room all night to have that taste of an honest conversation about issues that are so difficult and so important.
When such space for engagement is gone, what hope is there for faith and education? Indeed, what hope is there for democracy?
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .