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Teach Your Children (How to Argue) Well: An Alternate Take on the Shawano, Wisconsin “Gay Debate” Controversy

January 19, 2012

There’s a poignancy to public controversies involving student newspapers. They bring free speech rights and community standards into conflict, and the result can be revealing. But sometimes the people involved miss the point, which is exactly what happened this week in Shawano, Wisconsin. In their rush to condemn anti-gay speech, parents, teachers and school officials may be squandering a unique opportunity to teach students about the real-world consequences of bad argument.

Here’s the situation: a high school newspaper in Wisconsin recently published a set of student-written editorials that took opposing views on whether same-sex parents should be allowed to raise children. One of the two editorials violently condemned same-sex parents based on biblical authority, prompting outrage from district parents and an official apology from school officials.

USA Today covered the story, reprinting coverage from the Green Bay Press-Gazette. A PDF of the editorials can be accessed here. Here’s an excerpt of the apology issued by the school board:

The Shawano School District would like to apologize for a recent article printed in the Hawks Post newspaper. Proper judgment that reflects school district policies needs to be exercised with articles printed in our school newspaper. Offensive articles cultivating a negative environment of disrespect are not appropriate or condoned by the Shawano School District. We sincerely apologize to anyone we may have offended and are taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future.

The school district apology frames the editorial as hate speech, calling it an “offensive article” that creates “a negative environment of disrespect.” This is a reasonable perspective although, as I’ll argue, it misses the point and squanders a fantastic teaching opportunity. The apology makes an implicit argument: the student article was bad because it condemns same-sex couples. This may be true, but it obscures another truth, which is that the student article was bad because it was poorly argued.

I agree that we should not ignore the connection between this kind of speech and the welfare of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) students, students perceived to be LGBT, and students with same-sex parents or LGBT family members. Nor should we ignore how painful it would be to have your parents’ right to raise you—and legitimacy as human beings—questioned in a public forum. Still, I’m not sure that treating students as bigots, no matter how ignorant or hateful their writing might seem, is the best way to help them learn from all of this. Moreover, if  you read the editorials closely, you’ll see a student who needs help understanding and refining his argument much more than he needs a lecture on tolerance (although the community should feel free to give him the lecture too if they want).

If I were to offer a seminar on research and writing for these students, here’s a sample of what I would use this controversy to teach:

1. Effective public arguments offer public reasons.

I’m not suggesting that we teach high school students about Perelman’s universal audience (which, honestly, I struggle with), but I do think we should teach them that public arguments and religious arguments are different things. If they want to make arguments that are convincing outside of a single religious affiliation, they should seek to provide what John Rawls called “public reasons,” which concern the “good of the public and matters of fundamental justice” rather than the “reasons of churches and universities and many other associations in civil society.” Our student author is already somewhat aware of a tension between faith and citizenship:

In the United States only 11 states allow same-sex marriage. Most do not because our government is generally based off of religion and the Bible. Also, if one is a practicing Christian, Jesus states in the Bible that homosexuality is a detestable act…

Although this student oversimplifies the influence of religious doctrine on government, he carefully hedges, adding “generally.” He also prefaces his biblical argument with “if one is a practicing Christian…” meaning that he is probably aware that his audience is not entirely Christian—these are both great starting points.

2. Good writers carefully evaluate outside sources

Our student author also quotes Paul Cameron, founder of the Family Research Institute, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. My first year students often struggle with evaluating sources, especially sources available electronically. Learning the difference between peer-reviewed academic research and sources like the Family Research Institute is a great entry point into the problem of evaluating sources, particularly because the publications of the Family Research Institute are designed to seem credible.

3. Smart writers consider their audience

This idea is so embedded in my writing practice that I sometimes forget that students need to be taught what it means in practice. Rather than argue that our student author’s views are illegitimate, I might encourage him to consider the values of his audience by asking questions like these: Are other high school students likely to accept biblical reasoning as the basis of an argument? Might some of his audience be gay or have gay parents? And so on. That way, he might have reconsidered his argument not because it is “wrong,” but because it fails to provide compelling evidence for a given audience.

If you want to know more:

  • The John Rawls quote is taken from the 2005 edition of Political Liberalism, page 213.
  • It’s interesting to consider this controversy in light of so-called neutrality rules (also called “don’t say gay” policies) created by school officials who argue that removing any mention of homosexuality from the classroom creates a “neutral” environment. One could argue that what happened in Shawano is preferable to silence, and that having these views exposed is a painful necessity if they are to be changed or challenged.
  • I have avoided using the actual names of the student authors. Their names are available on the PDF copy of the editorials, but the opposed author is too young to have a Google problem, don’t you think? Also, be sure to read the editorial that is supportive of same-sex adoption. The young author makes a cogent, well-sourced argument. It’s an impressive piece of student writing.
  • If you examine the editorials, you’ll notice that the two authors are pictured together, in a mock combat pose. My copy is blurry, but the two students seem lighthearted, and that’s significant. These students are, at the very least, engaging with each other in a friendly way. It’s easy to miss how important it is in a civil society to be able to argue with someone fiercely and then still joke around with them later.
  • A note to the Shawano School District: My teaching services are AVAILABLE for a modest fee and travel expenses. A quick selling point: I make the kind of hip pop culture references that students “get.” See below.
  • I normally expect stories like these to involve parents who are outraged about positive mention of LGBT issues in schools. Part of my schema for this kind of outrage is undoubtedly drawn from popular culture. For example, Helen Lovejoy, the preacher’s wife on The Simpsons was known for yelling, in connection with almost any contentious political issue, “won’t someone PLEASE think of the children!” In this case I guess she would have yelled, “won’t someone please think of the children… of same-sex parents!” I can also see South Park’s Mr. Mackey lecturing the students: “students, anti-gay prejudice is baaaaaad, mmmkay…”
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One Comment leave one →
  1. CBlank permalink
    February 2, 2012 1:09 am

    Great example of a teachable moment lost in politics. I’m thinking I’ll have to show this to my students.

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