When you start to speak out on a controversial or contested issue, interesting things can happen and people can behave in ways that may leave you appalled, smiling, or just shaking your head. It’s quite a mixed bag, for sure. I’ve been thinking about those potential outcomes a bit lately and I wanted to share two things today that deal with this topic.
The first one is that a comment of mine was, for some reason or another, deleted off of the blog of a blogger named Shane Vander Hart, an HSLDA member who is editor-in-chief for “Caffeinated Thoughts: Stimulating Christian Conservative News and Commentary.” Vander Hart wrote a piece on Tuesday opposing Libby Anne’s call for Iowa’s governor to veto the new total deregulation law for homeschooling. Vander Hart titled his piece “Iowa Homeschooling Law Brings Out Liberal Ignorance.” At first he had me laughing and shaking my head, because it was pretty clear that the real ignorance problem was squarely situated within the material he had written himself, which included some pretty ridiculous commentary (the usual stuff, really) about homeschooling regulations in general:
“Who is ultimately responsible for a child’s well being? If you say the state then you are a statist – wear it loud and proud. A biblical worldview would state that God gave parents responsibility over their child’s well-being.
Secondly – this assumes that parents who choose to homeschool care less about their child’s education than the state does. Which is untrue, absolutely untrue, and it shows me that “Libby Anne” probably doesn’t know any homeschooling parents. Those who choose to homeschool make great sacrifices to homeschool, they do it because they want a great education for their children, and they take their responsibility to homeschool very, very seriously.
Do we want the state to leave us alone? Guilty as charged. One liberals like Libby Anne and Hemant Mehta don’t understand is that people who choose to homeschool are already under a ton of scrutiny often by friends and family. There is accountability.”
Just before showcasing these poor fact-checking and critical thinking skills, he had accused the blogger Libby Anne of doing a “hack job” on the issue. I (of course) sounded off on the foolishness of what he had to say, my comment went into moderation, and (surprise, surprise) it never got approved.
I sent Libby Anne a message yesterday to tell her that she is awesome, as she has really been trying to get the word out about the HSLDA agenda as well as this terrible change in Iowa homeschooling law and what we can potentially still do to stop it. I also told her that I had pretty much yelled at that Vander Hart guy, writing a long comment, and that my comment was apparently censored or lost. She said that she had written him a comment that had seemingly been censored too – one letting him know that not only did she know parents who homeschooled (he had asserted she likely didn’t), but that she had parents who homeschooled, being homeschooled K-12 herself. It’s been a couple days and since then other comments have gone up but mine and Libby Anne’s (and I’m assuming there were likely some others) never did. Why did Vander Hart not approve Libby Anne’s comment or mine, since they were obviously both relevant to the discussion at hand? Well, I have my ideas as to why and I think it connects with the second thing I’m including below, a quote from a book that comes to mind a lot and has been been at the forefront of my thoughts even more lately. Discussion was not the aim here. Informing people was not the goal. Reframing the issue was.
Luckily I took a screenshot of my now-deleted comment just after posting, while it was awaiting moderation, having had a gut feeling that what happened might end up happening. (Taking screenshots in situations like this is a little like carrying an umbrella – a bit cumbersome when the weather stays good, but something you’re glad you did when you encounter a raincloud.) So here is my comment that did not get posted:
First off, while it is certainly the right of any blogger to delete blog comments as they see fit (Note: my personal comments policy is that I almost never do so) it is certainly my right to call someone on it when they are found to be selectively deleting opposition comments in order to stifle debate, particularly when the issue is so important as, I don’t know, the wellbeing of children! I also think that censoring comments when the only ostensible reason for censorship is that someone strongly and cogently disagrees with you is pretty frigging disingenuous. It’s is also a pretty weak thing to do, and generally is only done by people trying to make themselves and their argument look good when it is actually full of holes.
The insidious thing about censorship though is that when it is found out, it ultimately comes across as a pathetic thing to do and pretty shameful for the person caught in the act. It also underscores the fact that the person making the weak argument is either unwilling or incapable of correcting or improving upon it and too insecure to let their readers see what the other side thinks. Because there is so much weakness on display when you see this, it is easy to just roll your eyes, dismiss it as unimportant jabber by a person without credibility, and move on. And that’s where censorship gets its power. Lots of times when censorship occurs, we don’t notice. We don’t catch it. We are on the lookout for what is there, not what isn’t. Then, when we learn that censorship has happened, we just dismiss the person who engaged in it and keep going. The problem is that lots of times that’s how censorship works. If enough people engage in a certain sort of censorship, they get something powerful. They get to define reality. Censorship gets these weak people sneakily engaged in it exactly what they want – their desired story is the one that gets told and other stories that run counter to their story get silenced. People believe them and they don’t hear you.
Sadly there are a lot of these sorts of weak arguments (and a few too many weakminded people) floating around out there discussing children’s education and children’s roles in society like this, and I encounter waaaaay too much yammering on about the role of homeschooling in relation to God-given parental rights (an argument that generally seems to boil down to a “nuclear family + homeschooling = golden calf, appointed by God, that must never be questioned or even glanced at sideways” type of thing). The people who are in the best place to push back against this stuff often get shut out of the discussion, banned from the comments section, have the dialogue and the agenda set without them there.
Now I would like to share a large (and in my opinion, unforgettable) quote from Judith Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery,” which is pretty much one of the most well-written books on the topic of trauma and recovery from it, ever. This one quote gets stuck in my head a lot, explains so many of the issues I see, and I figured I’d share it so now it can get stuck in your head too.
To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict.
It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering. . . .
In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.
The perpetrator’s arguments prove irresistible when the bystander faces them in isolation. Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way. This is true even when the victim is an idealized and valued member of society. Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war. When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events in her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable.
I could say so much right now about how deeply this quote resonates with me, how often I see this story played out in the world around me, but I think it is largely self-apparent. You know this story too, have likely had some form of it, whether mild or severe, happen to you as well. This picture Judith Herman paints is the most common context that censorship and a toxic sort of reframing happens in, and it happens often and with dire consequences. It is so unhealthy to have your experience rendered unspeakable and it is quite maddening to see how commonly the words of people who have been victimized are discounted, labeled as defective, thrown away.
And that’s what’s so sneaky and wrong about censorship. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, we all sometimes depend on the kindness of strangers and often find that the people who we imagine should be there for us are not there when we need them. When bystanders (or even worse, relatives and friends) have reason to doubt our story because they’ve never heard something like it even exists, or when they’ve heard repeatedly that people like us lie, or are stupid, or brainwashed, or bitter, or [insert other negating descriptive term here______________] they won’t help us. They’ll go on their way, do something else that they are more sure about, try to hush it up so everyone can move on.
Let me just say that I don’t necessarily look down on the bystanders or judge them for this. They are generally overwhelmed, unsure of the facts, and reluctant to get in over their heads or do the wrong thing. I think that because of this, there needs to be a safe space for curious and concerned bystanders to access information, discuss the issues, and connect with people who are involved and trying to do the right thing. I believe that if you build it, they will come and be allies, bystanders no longer. I personally think Libby Anne is creating such a safe space on her blog.
That’s why the kind of discounting and rejection that Vander Hart engaged in, loudly reframing things and quietly denying people with personal experience the right to be heard, is such a problem. Maintaining untruths (after being corrected) all the while engaging in an effort to outright redefine what happened or is happening, is some of the most disgusting human behavior that I think can exist. This stuff is also sneakier, more widespread, and often more insidious than the stuff done by people who engage in outright violence. This kind of behavior is what props up the people who actively treat other human beings as property, as a means to an end.
So is Vander Hart an uninformed bystander or a perpetrator? Can you see him going “Man, this is hard – Libby Anne’s pulled together quite a lot of facts! Why not post a few
lies ‘uncorrected mistakes’ and an eye-catching headline instead?”
Libby Anne obviously understands what someone like Vander Hart does not. When you start to blog about these issues you are a bystander no more. If you choose to publicly speak out on an issue (and that’s what blogging is) you are suddenly in the thick of things. You have weighed in. You lose that bystander status. You now have a higher level of moral responsibility and often considerably more power (as I have also recently found out, realizing that I have helped start discussions and reframe an alternative narrative about the issues in homeschooling these past few months). What you choose to do with that power and that platform, how you handle the trust and respect given to you by readers and listeners, says what kind of person you are.
Trying to silence people who have been or are being victimized and disparaging the people who are advocating on their behalf is a terrible thing to do. You might not agree with a conclusion that someone like me or Libby Anne reaches, but trying to prevent people from even learning that some former homeschooled children have reached such conclusions based on our own experiences and research is seriously screwed up stuff.
Anyway, now that I’ve sounded off on censorship I have to ask – have you called Governor Branstad’s office yet to ask him to do that line item veto? If not, here’s his number: 515-281-5211. We will not be shut up or shut down and we can go help the homeschooled children of Iowa.
Update: After confronting Shane Vander Hart on Twitter, he approved the comments, said that because they had links in them that they’d gone into moderation and he hadn’t noticed it.
Mr. Vander Hart also said that he would edit his post to reflect that Libby Anne was a K-12 homeschool grad. Anyway, I’m glad that this was a positive outcome where interpersonal dialogue solved the primary problem at hand and I thank Mr. Vander Hart for correcting the issue.
I would also like to reiterate for other bloggers that when you are blogging about such serious issues, it is very important that people who have been victims of a certain system or are advocates for victims be allowed to share their experiences and knowledge. Approving comments in a timely manner is key (even if the comments annoy you, even if you love that system yourself, and even though your life may be very busy) because allowing those voices to be heard is the responsible thing to do.