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Beyond Reaction

by Molleen Matsumura

On Non-Issues, Honesty, And Making A Commitment

Some years ago the students at Berkeley High School wanted to invite Louis Farrakhan to speak at their graduation, but the administration nixed the idea. Outraged students, faculty, and local citizens complained that Farrakhan's freedom of speech had been suppressed. This was untrue: Besides expressing himself in speeches to his followers and through his own publications, Farrakhan was getting plenty of coverage in the mass media, speaking very freely indeed. Besides, the school was not obligated to invite him or any other speaker. In this context, Farrakhan's freedom of speech was a non-issue, and a distraction from real and interesting questions about the rights and responsibilities of students.

In the same way, Ken Marsalek and Don Evans' call for editorial "responsibility" does not raise free-speech concerns. Choosing a particular editorial direction doesn't necessarily violate anyone's free speech, or even stand for disagreement with any one view. It simply tells readers, "This is the spectrum of information and ideas you will find represented here." It isn't censorship when the Wall Street Journal leaves alien-abduction stories for supermarket tabloids, when Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine leaves erotica for Libido and Yellow Silk, or when Secular Humanist Bulletin leaves op-ed pieces by Ralph Reed for others to print. There is also plenty of room for discretion and choice in publishing humanist views; after all, contributors to Secular Humanist Bulletin can and do write for other publications, and even produce their own publications.

Setting an editorial direction involves many choices. Merely posing the question "To bash or not to bash" distracts from other important questions (and has different answers in the context of those questions): Should we see SHB as one of many publications presenting humanism to the world at large, or as an internal "humanists only" publication? Both? To the extent that we view SHB as one of many humanist publications, should it occupy a particular niche, covering some subjects that others do not, and leaving some subjects for others?

There are many subjects that could be covered in SHB. What would you choose from the following list and what would you add? Should some of them receive more coverage? How many should be covered and in what proportions?

  • Humanist perspectives on issues of the day (for example, the "Parental Rights" legislation, environmental controversies)
  • News of activities of humanist groups, with opportunities to share information about successes, disappointments, and challenges
  • Humanist perspectives on aspects of daily life - the kinds of questions humanists discuss in social settings

In comparing "bashing" or any other form of criticism to the above questions, we can ask, "How important is criticism compared to constructing and offering alternatives?" The answer isn't obvious. And, in fact, criticism is important to some people, and not others. After years of involvement with humanism, I'm bored by all the variations on the generic comment, "If their deity loves them so much, why did lightning strike their church?" And blasphemous humor doesn't give me the thrill of the forbidden that some people enjoy. I also know that my attitude might be different if I lived in a rigidly religious family or community; then being able to say such things can be very liberating. The point is, there is a diversity of interests and needs among humanists, and we can ask how even a small publication like this one can serve the interests of a full spectrum of readers (and perhaps, too, develop a consensus about limits of taste as Marsalek and Evans suggest.)

But that's not all. "Bashing" doesn't imply merely "harsh" criticism, to use Norm Allen's word. It also implies indiscriminate and at times inaccurate criticism, and whether we view SHB as a medium through which humanists face the world, or one through which they face each other, the face it ought to present is one of intelligence, accuracy, and honesty. We must honestly ask what constitutes accurate criticism, and what should be the subject of criticism. How much and what kind of criticism in the editorial mix of the Bulletin would actually contradict the affirmation in Free Inquiry that, "We believe in an open and pluralistic society..."? What do we mean by "religion" anyway, and what aspects should be criticized? Do we mean people, institutions, or values? Do we want to criticize the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for sharing our commitment to women's rights at a time when clinic workers are in danger? Do we want to criticize those religious denominations that publicly defend evolution education, at a time when state legislators are again proposing bills that attack it? Do we want to criticize those Catholics who resist their church's condemnation of homosexuality, at a time when some groups are promoting laws to oppress homosexuals? Those of us who answer "yes" need to explain just what we would criticize. Surely it isn't those particular stands, or the underlying values of self-determination and free inquiry! The disadvantages of broad-brush criticism are grave: worse than the risk of underestimating valuable allies in the "culture wars," is that we deny ourselves a full, historical appreciation of just how widely and deeply humanist values have in fact penetrated our culture. (Anticipating critics who would ask whether I'm suggesting that the Bulletin should devote precious space to positive statements about religion I answer, "No. Because religious publications can do that; because I was in fact referring to the positive effects of humanist thought on some religious thinkers; and because have other things to talk about - take another look at the examples I gave.")

If readers desire and encourage it, SHB can deliver more depth and more diversity. I invite people who want change to make a commitment: Send news, comments, suggestions that can help SHB do an even better job.

Molleen Matsumura is Associate Editor of Free Inquiry and Contributing Editor of Secular Humanist Bulletin.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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