“Get out your phones”: Diversity, moral courage and teaching moments

USAFA

By now you will have seen the video from the United States Air Force Academy of Lt. General Jay Silveria addressing an all too common event at institutions of higher learning, the scrawling of racist epithets in public places directed towards fellow students or other members of the community. My own institution Pacific Lutheran University in the Pacific Northwest faced this moment in 2000 when homophobic graffiti graced our Administration Building. These are difficult and traumatic ‘teaching moments.”

Lt. Gen. Silveria provided one of those moments and much of what is documented in the video are what we would hope and expect that educators say in these moments: 1) this is not okay; 2) our community rejects these messages and the bigotry and institutional and systematic racism and privilege that generated them and 3) we are stronger for our diversity.  His righteous and appropriate anger was clear, but so was his resolve on behalf of his community.

But there were two points that struck me as different and powerfully important. First, while he rejects the ideas represented by the graffiti as bad ideas, he also exhorts and asks his audience what their better ideas are. This is not just rejection of certain actions and speech but an invitation to and a demand for better. In a society where there is constant and easy criticism of everything on a daily basis (and seemingly by everyone, regardless of knowledge, expertise or experience), it is important to point out that criticism alone is not helpful. We need better ideas.

This reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s arguments about free speech in On Liberty (Chapter 2 for your homework!) where he argues that debate and understanding of all ideas (especially those that are wrong) are necessary to generate correct ideas and to know they are correct, with continual testing and examination.  The act of claiming an idea is true and beyond examination is itself as claim that should be subject to debate and examination and very often a political shortcut to avoid discussing the idea or having difficult questions raised about it. (If an idea is obviously false, it should have no trouble being refuted in the process of rigorous discussion and examination, Mill notes, and such examination is essential to understanding exactly how and why it is false so that it does not become a ‘dead dogma’.)

We need better ideas, not just criticisms of those that are wrong. How do we know they are wrong if we don’t have better ideas to weigh them against? And of course, new, interesting ideas emerge all the time. We should be open to that and always looking for better ways. This is at the heart of many an education process and hopefully, in the political project that we call democracy.

Second, Lt Gen. Silveria asked the members of the audience to take out their cell phones (a command?) and to record his statement of ‘Get out.’  This is interesting, but even more interesting is the reason why.  He acknowledged the need for corporate and communal moral courage, and that having such a recording to use and appeal to in various situations was a resources and back up. It is not often that we even acknowledge that there is such a thing as communal moral courage, focusing most often on individual moral courage against a group or authorities. However, it IS important, and even more important is the idea that we need support and resources for and education in, this kind of moral courage.

This is clearly a consummate and reflective educator and leader at work. He is not just laying out the standard and the expectations, but equipping, preparing and providing the necessary rehearsal and performance resources so that the members of his community can develop and demonstrate the moral courage to uphold this standard. It does no good to set a standard and then just expect your people to do it, as if by magic or luck. They need practice, resources and support. Those cell phone recordings may be the critical thing in a difficult moment that gives someone a tool they need to be morally courageous – knowing they are not alone in their commitment to the standard.

That is some impressive pedagogical practice, Sir. Well done.

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