In light of events at Troppo over the last couple of days, now might be an opportune moment to post an extract from a post by the wise
but currently absent Don Arthur at his now-moribund blog:
A deeper form of civility asks us to make an effort to treat other people with respect. It is not possible to treat others with respect when we act in a way that says that who they are or what they believe makes them worthless or contemptible as human beings. This basic respect for other people and their beliefs about what makes life worthwhile is what liberalism is all about.
We don’t know how to resolve disagreements about whether a good life is one devoted to serving God or one devoted to enlightened self interest. We don’t know how to reach a consensus about which moral values are most important or what words like freedom or fairness mean in practice. It’s impossible to say that these are not important issues but it’s also impossible to reach agreement. People don’t disagree with us about these things because they are mad, ignorant, or stupid.
The liberal response to differences like these is to agree to disagree. We don’t give up our own beliefs, our own ambitions for society, or our own feelings about what others say and do. What we do is agree to respect other people for who they are and in return we ask them to respect us for who we are.
I imagine that just about all of us would agree with Don’s observations in the abstract. But the principles of deep civility aren’t always easy to apply in practice, as several recent comment threads on this blog demonstrate.
When we accuse an opponent of “self-righteousness” (as both sides have done in the lesbian student-teacher debate), there’s a high probability that we’re thereby exhibiting that same quality ourselves.
It’s also useful to keep it in mind when we’re discussing a topic involving values about which there is wide community disagreement. Like homosexuality for instance. I imagine many Troppo readers (including me) regard sexuality as purely a matter of personal choice/orientation, in respect of which people are entitled to equal treatment and respect in every way and at every level. But those are not values held by anywhere near the entire population, perhaps not even a majority of it. Most mainstream Christian churches, for instance, preach some variation of “love the sinner, hate the sin“. Presumably many of their adherents agree and want those values instilled in their children as far as possible.
The law in this secular society now insists (with some limited exceptions) that people may not be subjected to discrimination based on their sexuality. But it doesn’t require anyone to subscribe to a moral value that effectively says homosexuality is an equally valid/acceptable choice for themselves or their families, or to teach or permit that value to be taught to their children. So how do those principles interact? Where do we draw the dividing line? We need to keep reminding ourselves that there is plenty of room for intelligent people of good faith to disagree on such questions. And that sometimes even those with whom we most profoundly disagree may still have valuable insights and experiences if we avoid closing our minds and refrain from shouting at each other.
It seems quite clear, to me at least, that anti-discrimination principles must require, if they are to have any real meaning, that gay teachers are entitled to walk the streets with their partners and show them affection in just the same way as anyone else. And if their pupils happen to see them together and get curious about it, even religiously-minded parents have no right to object (or at least to have their objection acted on by school authorities). I can understand some parents attempting to press objections even to such behaviour, because the very fact of a respected authority figure like a teacher being seen with a same-sex partner tacitly conveys a value to the child that is inimical to parental values (that the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong). However, to that extent the parents’ right to choose the moral values their children are taught must give way to the teacher’s right to live her life as she sees fit without discrimination.
But once the teacher goes further than that and responds to pupils’ questions about her relationship, she enters more troubled waters. Arguably she is then no longer just living her own life as she sees fit, but actively (and unnecessarily) espousing moral values about which parents are entitled to choose. A wise teacher would simply have declined to answer pupils’ “who was that lady you were with, miss?” question, and would certainly have known that going any further than a bare response was fraught with danger.
Points made by Geoff Honnor about the victimisation gay children suffer at school, and their lack of support systems compared with many other victims of bullying, certainly make this issue more difficult. But my own view is that kids’ need for counselling and support must be kept conceptually and practically separate from what teachers teach their pupils. If a teacher becomes aware that a child in her care may have an issue needing counselling (including a sexuality issue), there are severe limits to how she may properly act towards that child. She can’t simply be indifferent or uncaring, but she equally can’t act as a counsellor or a role model to a gay student. A teacher who goes any further than taking the child to the school counsellor is taking a major risk. As far as I know, all teachers are taught how to deal with such situations (although that doesn’t make them any easier when you’re actually confronted with one in practice).
But of course there are other viewpoints one might perfectly reasonably hold. Some may observe that this post itself has a faintly self-righteous tone, and they might even be right. But I doubt it from the depths of my deeply civil, humble heart.