In Essays & Poems, Faculty Voices

Preserving our innocence: At what cost?

[The Op-Ed was published in The New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung on January 8, 2022.]

Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.

Democracies thrive on the presence of diversity, plurality of thought and competing points of view. The aim here is not about power complexes but on cooperation to ascertain what benefits the common good. 

Tyranny, on the other hand, thrives on mass-conformity and on renouncing questioning assumptions and beliefs that promote a democratic imagination, which honors differences. 

I am responding to Senator Matt Krause’s task as chair of the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee, and candidate for attorney general, to “ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.” Now “Inappropriate” is a slippery word. Equally incredulous is language that promises to shield any student who feels uneasy or uncomfortable by what they read. This fantasy must be addressed, if not directly challenged. Krause has amassed some 850 titles that he believes are dangerous to today’s students. They are available on-line.  

As an educator for over 54 years, I have taught elementary grades 1-5 of Special Education students through high school, undergrads in college as well as graduate students. Shaping the learning environment by purging discomfort requires a closer look. 

History reveals a pattern in the nascent stages of tyranny’s message: “I/we can protect you from others” or “I alone can protect you,” which can lull an entire population into a sense of false security with such a promise. Such a seduction is embedded in a false “benevolence.” 

What concerns me here is the presence in our history of the myth of innocence, which hosts of historians have carefully explored. 

This myth may be exploited in the promise of purging books-that-discomfort by promising to keep outside forces, contrary ideas, assumptions, prejudices outside the compound of thought for security reasons. None of us desires to have our younger people exposed to hard-core pornography, but that is finally not the issue here. 

As cultural critic Susan Griffin informs us in Pornography and Silence, when the pornographic imagination silences voices of dissent, “Language ceases to describe reality. Words lose their direct relationship with actuality.” 

Fictions can be easily be confused with, and chosen, over facts. Pornography, she asserts later, is always about control and domination. It is a form that tyranny takes to suppress Otherness. 

Purging book titles on topics that surround us and perhaps unnerve us, is primarily why this exiling of ideas contrary to our baked-in beliefs is both fallacious and salacious. Innocence becomes a trap, an enclosure based on a fantasy of preserving the status quo and promoting its egregious distortions. 

When students enter the emotional field of unease or feeling uncomfortable, suppressing topics that may reveal such is actually an opportunity for authentic learning to open up. Learning to cope with what makes us squeamish is one of the fruits of real learning, where dialogue can dissolve delusions. 

What if we at least considered another route than purging, censoring and suffocating topics that disconcert and create disease? Opportunity. I think here of the award-winning novelist and cultural critic, Toni Morrison, who wrote toward the end of her life: 

“Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination” (The Origin of Others). 

Literature that brings into consciousness topics of race, gender identity, economics, disparities of wealth and privilege, migrants, haves and have-nots, should not be purged but promoted within a context that does not breed feuds; rather, it can cultivate students’ abilities to articulate their perspectives while learning to listen to contrary world views, and to refrain from condemning them because they are different. 

Moments of unease or discomfort should not be the standard for suppressing other voices. Let them be heard in those instances where “controlled wilderness” can lead to deeper, more reflective listening and tolerance.

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