by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"I’m talking about things to people which I’ve never spoken about in my entire life. And I actually feel good…"
— Joe, a “human book about depression”
Last November, the Toronto Public Library launched a Human Library project. With people becoming increasingly digitalized, the Human Library concept aims to promote tolerance and understanding through the face-to-face telling of stories. Initiated in Copenhagen a decade ago, patrons check-out people whom they wouldn’t normally interact with in their day-to-day lives and talk to them for half an hour. They ideally gain insight into what it’s like to be them.
In Toronto, for example, over 200 participants got to dialogue with, ask questions to, and even grill (if they wanted) a police officer, a comedian, a monk, and a model, among other human books.
Last March, The Guardian captured a portion of a British human library day on video. Besides the image of a woman talking to a punk about his values, I was touched by a gentleman, in this case a “book” about recovering from near-fatal depression, describing how important it was to him just to have the chance to speak.
I’m curious what sort of human book you would most want to check out for half an hour?Comments
by Diane Winston, guest contributor
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution etched on the doors going into the Mass Media building at Western Kentucky University. (photo: Alan Hudson/Flickr)
Sunday’s New York Times article on schools’ efforts to end bullying seemed an “aw shucks” case-study of the law of unintended consequences. School districts, eager to stop the kind of harassment that led to a recent spate of gay teen suicides, are teaching tolerance. Sounds good, right? But portraying homosexual relations as normal rubs religious conservatives the wrong way. “Of course we’re all against bullying,” one Montana minister told the Times. “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”
That statement begs for deeper reporting, but like most mainstream news outlets, when it comes to probing conservative religion and religious belief, the Times seldom wants to go there. For example, some of the biblical passages condemning homosexual acts — most notably Leviticus 20:13 — prescribe death for the persons committing the acts. How does the minister in the Times article reconcile what the Bible “clearly says” with the imperative to protect all children, both gay and straight, from violence? And how do the First Amendment’s clauses respecting religion figure into the mix?
Teaching tolerance is not a simple matter if the takeaway is that all people deserve dignity and respect regardless of religious, racial, ethnic or sexual differences. For Times readers — most of whom, it’s safe to say, believe that pluralism and open-mindedness go hand in hand — it’s a particularly hard lesson. But tolerating difference is not the same as condoning it, which is why the Montana minister and many others want to stop schools that “promote acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle” maybe even more than they want to stop bullies.
Ultimately the problem for religious conservatives isn’t just about homosexuality; it’s about tolerating any state-sanctioned deviation from what they consider the norm. From this perspective, any constraints on religious speech in the public sphere, especially when it comes to sexual mores, is a violation of the First Amendment’s clause respecting the free exercise of religion.
But that’s not a dilemma that Times readers associate with the America of their day-to-day experience. Rather intolerance of others is someone else’s problem — it’s the French who don’t want schoolchildren wearing religious garb, it’s Saudis who won’t let Christians build churches in their country, it’s Iranians who believe in a worldwide Jewish cabal. They don’t realize that beyond their bubble of blue lies a vast sea of red where an increasing number of conservative voters see the promotion of the liberal values of “tolerance” as an effort to establish secularism as the official American civil religion.
If the absolute conflict of religious absolutes seems to increasingly define global politics, it’s also starting to define our own political culture. Americans, especially self-styled secularists, seem unaware of the religious values to which they are absolutely bound: civility, self-determination, and individualism. Despite some glaring historic exceptions (indigenous Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, South Asians), our credo has been live and live — and in the twentieth century the circle seemed to grow. But times are changing and what happens when tolerance is no longer tolerated? The Times raises the question, but we need a lot more reporting on possible answers to it.
Diane Winston holds the the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics, and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She writes a smart blog called the SCOOP and tweets too.
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This article was reprinted with permission from the author.Comments
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, guest contributor
When I was a child, the phrase “Defender of the Faith” did not conjure images of the Latin title Fidei defensor or of the British crown. Rather, it somehow got tangled up with another prominent idiom of my youth, “Masters of the Universe,” which referred to the popular Mattel media franchise starring He-Man. A defender of the faith was a kind of superhero, a person of great strength with an important mission.
These days, the phrase invokes yet another, completely different meaning to me. I now think of a defender of the faith as anyone who attempts to wrestle the reputation of his faith out of the hands of those who, through their actions or speech, disparage it.
Take, for example, the phenomenon that accompanies many terrorist attacks, attempted or carried out, in our contemporary media landscape. After each incident — the latest in Times Square is no exception — scores of moderate Muslims take to the airwaves to defend their faith against the violent portrayal of the (would-be) terrorists. It is sad to say that mainstream media outlets seem to have developed a routine for reporting on such incidents. Hearing from outraged and apologetic followers of Islam is a prominent feature of that routine.
But this phenomenon isn’t unique to Muslims; many Christians also feel the need to salvage their faith’s reputation from extremists. Certainly, this includes the kind of extremism seen back in March in the form of the “Huratee,” the Christian militia whose outfit was raided in Michigan. Other non-violent forms of extremism, however, warrant Christian defenders of the faith as well, like in Austin Carty’s recent Huffington Post article entitled "Nice Christians: We’re Out There."
Lately I have been asking myself: what is the point of these predictable defenses? Is anyone’s opinion changed in this way? I don’t think so. It is not as if a person who believes that all Muslims are extremists is going to listen to a self-proclaimed moderate Muslim and feel certain that his assumptions were wrong. Neither will being reassured by a talking head that there are extremists in every faith comfort someone who already knows this to be true.
Rather than increasing tolerance or expanding dialogue, this knee-jerk defense actually plays further into the broad dichotomy that the American public has come to expect from mainstream news sources. When a moderate Christian such as Mr. Carty makes a well-meaning case for others like himself in the Huffington Post, he’s not making it easier for acceptance and understanding to grow. He is distancing himself from those he’d rather not associate with. In this way, the defense that is made is not a defense of one’s faith but of one’s self at the expense of those other religious people whose practice he judges to be misguided.
Yet, certainly I have found myself on the wrong side of this coin on more than one occasion. I can distinctly remember several conversations with my best friend, a Roman Catholic, in which we tried to imagine a different way to define ourselves that would highlight the commonalities of our faiths rather than differences. But even that endeavor was a reaction to those around us, those intolerant people on both sides, Catholic and Protestant, who, for one reason or another, discounted the other. We lamented that the term “Christian” — let alone “born-again” or “evangelical” — was lost to negative stereotypes and a bad reputation, and thus we wanted to update it.
Nowadays, I laugh to myself when a Christian friend on Facebook identifies his or her religious views as “Christ follower,” for it is this same sense of self-defense that pushes me to disassociate from those intolerant believers of whom I am embarrassed.
Let us not alienate fundamentalists within our own faiths. Instead of separating ourselves and pointing the finger of blame at those with whom we disagree, perhaps a true defense of faith is called for — a more complete wish to understand how someone could aggravate the tenets of a religion to a violent state.
We have an opportunity with each unfortunate and sometimes-deadly act by extremists of all religions to, rather than estrange ourselves from them, attempt to bring them back into the fold by means of understanding our common identities as adherents of a particular religion. Only then will we truly be defenders of the faith.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer and educator living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie. He is managing editor of Patrol Magazine and has written for The Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter.
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