Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let’s talk about Something Else: Teachable Moments and Unreachable Minds

By Gary Berg-Cross

In the abstract, casual moment it’s sometimes hard to get average folks to talk about topics like secular humanism, natural ethics and the like.  Sure these are important topics, but in the normal flow of things they can be a heavy lift and off putting.  But since it is important we should understand natural opportunities for such topics in the context of larger issues that ARE on the agenda to be discussed.

Following the Newtown shootings there has been justified focus on the topic of gun safety and why such things happen. There has been just a bit of discussion of non-religious views of the situation and the grief. It is what some call a “A teachable moment” – a term used widely in discussing learning and education, as a time when learning a particular topic, task or idea becomes possible or easiest for situational or developmental reasons. The concept is ancient with common sense predecessors like interest, motivation and ripeness. But it was popularized (and became perhaps too much of a buzz phrase) by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. The concept is also widely applied to therapy as an observation that some interventions are only successful when the “time is right” and the patient ready and open to consider something new. Religious messages often jump into these debates, witness the influence on healthcare discussions.

Of course there are other factors needed such as having the right teacher/therapist/parent/leader at a teachable moment.  A good teacher is someone not only able to communicate knowledge, but one who is a credible source also and one able to hold individual/group attention that goes along with learning.   So in the gun discussion good communicators identify where they are coming from, such as, “my perspective is as a gun owner.”  Of, course this is an easier category to understand than saying “my perspective is as a secular humanist,” so in a teachable moment we have to be ready with some back up, non-threatening explanation that includes the idea that I don’t have to be in the gun-owning tribe or with the religion belief crowd to have a say on a topic of interest like the ethics of guns. That’s probably even more difficult for people coming from the New Atheist tribe, but it is something we need to get accepted as part of the discussion of things.

As we enter a time when immigration, climate change, lowered defense spending and stimulating job growth will be big topics along with gun safety it seems appropriate to consider whether we have reachable minds.  Is the national thinking cap and cultural climate receptive and ready for freethinker’s perspectives? Can we help make it so?

A start is to work for acceptance of freethinkers as part of the conversation. Perhaps attention will be distracted and go elsewhere or sideways. We’ll see if people are interested, but it is likely to be a difficult task. In ‘Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam’ Nick Turse bemoans the fact that there was no public interest in Vietnam war crimes allegations. The public mind was largely closed and  unreachable. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre were aired, but stirred only a very brief public outrage before subsiding into indifference as talk moved on to more acceptable topics. The Winter Soldier hearings, which Vietnam veterans like now Senator Kerry participated in, were largely ignored and the testifiers treated with disgust. As John Tirman noted in a WAPO review of Turse’s book:

Turse has the journalist’s faith that exposure will result in justice, but in the case of war, there’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities, much less act upon them. British scholar Kendrick Oliver made this argument brilliantly in his book on My Lai, showing how reactions to revealed atrocities follow a pattern that ultimately leads to a rally-round-the-troops phenomenon. One could contend that war, by its very nature — and not just in Vietnam and Cambodia, but in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan — similarly leads to indifference to civilian suffering or even to blaming the victims.

This is the type of reaction freethinkers face all the time.  Revealing that one's thinking is flimsy and biased can lead to people digging in and rallying round their comfortable and unchallenged beliefs. It’s in part the problem of minds being closed by a drive towards loyalty, stability, respect for authority and group cohesiveness along with purity of thought.  Perhaps we’ve learned a bit of lesson, but still what is needed are teaching moments with the right voices ready to take up the issues.



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