sameliness is next to godliness.
I’m worried about our ability to think critically and discuss tough things without falling into the shitter. For this reason, I want to talk about conflict and books. This means I also want to talk about Richard Rohr, Amanda Ripley, and Moms for Liberty, but not in that order.
If you haven’t heard of Moms for Liberty (M4L), it’s a national organization that, among other things, wants to give parents more control over what happens in schools. The stated mission: Moms for Liberty is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.
Their website lists 6 specific calls for action: (1) holding leaders accountable or replacing them with liberty-minded individuals; (2) spreading awareness about the limited role of government; (3) fighting government overreach and intimidation tactics; (4) promoting the teaching of principles of liberty; (5) engaging communities and elected leaders on key issues impacting “our” families; and (6) electing liberty-minded leaders.
I have a lot of questions. Not least among them:
* Is America dying? All of it? Or just parts? Is this about all the mass shootings?
* Whose parental rights are we defending? Parents of gay and trans kids? Parents of Black and Brown kids? Parents of Muslim kids? Parents of indigenous kids? Parents who don’t want their kids shot at school or at the mall or the parade or the grocery store? Or just parents of white, hetero, cisgender, non-Native, gun-toting Christian kids?
* Where does storming the capital with zip ties and guillotines fit in “intimidation tactics”?
* And, how exactly are we defining liberty here?
Lately, it would seem that a lot of M4L’s resources have been funneled into removing books from school libraries. You might be tempted to call these efforts “book banning”, but M4L says it is absolutely not book banning. They don’t want to ban anything. They just want the books, the people who wrote them, and the people they were written about, to stop existing, because they are not “our” families. (I have paraphrased.)
Regardless, how restricting what we read and discuss in public schools promotes “liberty” is confusing to me; but so are a lot of things, I suppose. Like why M4L is, conversely, absolutely opposed to anything that would limit gun-getting.
Limit books: Yes! Reading is dangerous!
Limit guns: No! AR-15s are totally safe!
As you might guess, Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds (who, with her cronies, managed to shove through a rather unpopular and very expensive piece of legislation that gives public money to families who choose private school – at least 92% of which are faith-based) and the Polk County chapter of M4L are besties. Reynolds says any book they (or anyone else) manage to get removed from one school library, should signal a blanket requirement for parental permission before students at any other school in the state where the book may still be on the shelf can borrow it. Keeping it uniform, just like our kids: All the same.
Sameliness is next to godliness. Is that how that saying goes?
You can download a free rating system from M4L's website. The rating system was developed by BookLooks.org, a parent group out of Florida. The rating system – similar to The Miller Test -- gives books found in school libraries a rating from 0 ("for everyone") to 5 (“aberrant content”) as well as a list of specific words, phrases, sentences, and illustrations found within the books and on what pages.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison got a 4 (obscene and not for minors), by the way.
Book Looks denies that their intent is to “ban books” or even have books removed from libraries. They insist they are simply a resource for parents. They compare their work to ratings assigned to movies and video games. If parents want to use the rating system to guide discussions with their kids as they read certain books: Great. If groups like M4L want to use the guide to petition schools to remove books: Fine. They don’t care.
Should we care? Hold that thought.
I’ve been reading Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, author, and founder of The Center for Action and Contemplation. Rohr, as it turns out, is very critical of the expression of Christianity he observes to be popular among some conservative evangelicals. As he tells it, many have reduced the radical and revolutionary teachings of Jesus to binaries and transactions: Dualistic thinking.
Rohr passages like this one make me think of Moms for Liberty:
“…many Christians whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior, and which usually asks nothing of them personally… (e.g., celibate priests focusing on birth control and abortion as the core of evil, heterosexuals seeing gay marriage as the ultimate threat to society, liberals invested in some current political correctness while living lives of rather total isolation from the actual suffering of the world, Bible thumpers ignoring most of the Bible when it asks them to change, a nation of immigrants being anti-immigrant, etc.).”
Perusing BookLooks and M4L book reviews with 4 and 5 ratings, content largely represents gender identity, sexuality, and what they call “inflammatory racial content”. In other words: stuff that doesn’t look like them or fit their families.
“Almost all true spirituality has a paradoxical character to it, which is why the totally rational or dualistic mind invariably misses the point, and just calls things it does not understand wrong, heresy, or stupid.” That’s Rohr, too.
In Breathing Under Water (2011), Rohr suggests that most of us have become addicted to our own ways of thinking and our own narrow worldviews. He goes on to propose that we need “conflict, relationship difficulties, moral failures, defeats, and even seeming enemies,” in order to identify those addictions, recover, and then expand.
…which brings me to Amanda Ripley.
Ripley is an author and journalist. Around 2016 and the first Trump campaign, she became increasingly frustrated with how journalists were doing journalism. In a highly charged, viciously divided, and increasingly tribalistic politic, she observed that she and her colleagues had been doubling down on what they believed to be objective truth-telling. In so doing, however, they routinely missed the opportunity to present more expansive (and therefore more inclusive and connective) complexities. She argues it made things worse instead of better.
Since then, she’s been researching and writing about conflict. Like Rohr, she insists that we need it to grow. She even argues that we need MORE of it. But not all conflict is the same: Good conflict creates growth; High conflict ruins everything.
Ripley’s work explores ways of turning high conflict into good conflict. She cofounded the Good Conflict project with partner, Hélène Biandudi Hofer, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, to provide tools and workshops for organizations mediating disagreement. I listened to her interview with Krista Tippett on the Onbeing podcast, and it made such beautiful and inspiring sense.
At the simplest level, high conflict works in binaries. It robs any given moment or person or issue of its breadth, breath, and layers. It promotes Us vs. Them mentalities, Good vs. Bad, Right vs. Wrong, and Winner-Takes-All. High conflict asks dead-end or incomplete questions and widens already giant, difficult-to-cross chasms.
How do we know we’re in “high conflict”? One clue, offers Ripley, is when we begin to harm the very things we are trying to protect. Maybe we see this in movements to “save America” that trample on actual democracy. Maybe we see this in organizations that want to protect education by promoting private school vouchers and book bans. In the fervor to protect “our” families, “our” schools, “our” liberty (whoever “our” is), we are actually creating more poorly-resourced schools, disempowered educators who are leaving in droves, students who cannot think or discuss critically, and a less free, less just, less compassionate society.
Good Holy Mother.
Gracious Sakes Alive.
How do we fix this?
The phrase high conflict is borrowed from what was initially a term for nasty divorces – when one or both exes are more committed to their side of the conflict – trashing the other, attacking their friendships, their relationships with their children, their finances, their character -- than to acknowledging the complexities of the heart and moving forward. We’ve seen this, haven’t we? Ad nauseam. It’s a tired old cliché of a story, and not one single person ever wins. Ripley borrowed this phrase for good reason. One of the first steps in shifting from high conflict to good conflict in a divorce is accepting that the other person isn’t going away, and that there are children.
Applying it more broadly: Those we deem as “the other” are not going away, no matter how many of “them” we unfriend or unfollow, or how many of “their” books we ban, or which of “them” we get fired or canceled. Our children (no matter how much we attempt to segregate with private schools and gated neighborhoods and “don’t say” orders) will bump elbows and shopping carts and meet at stoplights and election booths. Our only way out of high conflict is through curiosity and dialog about the complexities of being human.
Not saying “gay” doesn’t make anyone less gay. Decrying the spectrum of gender identity does not make anyone feel any more at-home in their body. Ignoring the deep ruts of racism doesn’t make us less likely to get stuck in them. Likewise: Burning MAGA hats doesn’t fix the dis-ease that Trump supporters believe he can resolve. Deleting the Q-Anon friend from your contact list doesn’t make Marjorie Taylor Greene go away. Are children who grow up unchallenged and in forced perpetual same-ness, less equipped to handle the world and the myriad of beings who inhabit it?
Rohr talks about “the big 5” human issues: love, death, suffering, God, and infinity. He says when we try to think on these things with the calculating/dualistic mind… “we are producing a lot of neurotic and angry behavior as people cannot deal with these central issues”.
What if we committed to teaching children how to think critically and have difficult conversations? What if we let go of this limiting, dualistic worldview and helped them hold all the natural paradoxes of our existence without losing their marbles and burning down the neighborhood?
Back to book ratings…
I have no argument at all whatsoever against knowing what kids are reading: Yes! Of course! What makes me nervous is the possibility that someone with an Us vs. Them, dualistic worldview, blindly (or knowingly) maintaining High Conflict, is using cherry-picked content to make impactful judgments about what young people can access and discuss as they explore what it means to be human. What if instead of ratings, books just came with lists of topics presented in the work, including helpful discussion questions? What if we skipped the rubber stamps and gavel banging altogether?
More to come on that...