Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

Jaime: Did you see the Republicans just endorsed the right to bully in schools as long as it’s done in the name of religion.

Kelly: They did not.

Jaime: Yes. They did. They perversely added to anti-bullying bill the right to bully as long as such bullying was based on “sincerely held religious or moral convictions.”

Kelly: No, that provision of that law specifically distinguishes that the anti-bullying law is not to be construed as a violation of first amendment rights. It reads: (8) “This section does not abridge the rights under the first amendment of the constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian. This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely helf religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil or a pupil’s parent or guardian.” Basically it is only protecting whatever would be protected under free speech rights and saying that does not qualify as bullying. Not that any statement made by a religious person is not bullying.

Jaime: That’s religious privilege! And a “how-to” guide for bullies! All they need to do is claim that what they are doing is expressing their religious beliefs or couch their abuse religiously and they are off scott-free!

Kelly: No, it’s not only religion that is being protected, it is all free speech and it is all expression of sincerely held moral beliefs. This equally protects a student who tells another student that her religious views are harmful to gays as it protects a religious student who sincerely believes being homosexual behavior is wrong from voicing that opinion. And the word “sincerely” is specifically included, which should account for your concerns about bullies insincerely using religious language as an excuse to bully.

Jaime: But who is going to be the judge of sincerity? This is a loop hole they can drive a truck through.

Kelly: Well, a sincere expression of religious or moral belief should not do all the things that the law explicitly prohibits: it should not interfere with students’ feelings of safety or their abilities to be educated without disruption, it should not have “an actual and substantial detrminetal effect on a pupil’s physical health or mental health causing substantial emotional distress” or substantially interfere with the operation of the school. Allowing that sometimes people can say things that are controversial and it not be misconstrued by the hyper-sensitive as bullying is not the same as condoning words and actions that cause actual emotional harm, actual threat, and actual disruption. You can allow students to express their views on religion and morality without allowing them to do it in ways that are demonstrably harmful. This provision you’re so worked up about just distinguishes between the two different things. I would think you of all people would appreciate its inclusion.

Jaime: I would? You would expect me to protect the right of religious people to threaten children with hell for being gay and then be able to plead religious privilege and get away with it?

Kelly: No, I would expect you to protect free speech more generally. I would expect you to want the first amendment reaffirmed clearly so that people do not construe your moral criticisms of religion as bullying. You say a lot of incendiary, accusatory things about the dangers of religion. Do you want the law to confuse that for threatening, disruptive, and emotionally distressing behavior by religious people? Or do you want it to be clear that as long as you are only expressing sincere religious and moral convictions that you are within your rights and should not be confused with threatening, disrupting, or emotionally bullying anyone? You were quite worked up about precisely this point the last we talked.

Jaime: Look, that’s different, attacking religions is attacking ideas and institutions, it’s not attacking people. It’s not as personally threatening and demeaning as what religious people want the protections in that bill for. They want protections in that bill so that they can send their kids into the schools to carelessly fuck with vulnerable gay kids’ minds. They want their kids and Christian teachers to be able to tell these isolated, confused, unjustly embarrassed gay kids that they are sinners, that god hates them the way they are, that they need to stop feeling their natural sexual emotions, and that they must become Christians–or they will go to hell. Threats of hell directed at you for what you are are emotionally fucking distressing.

Kelly: Well, if they’re—

Jaime: The epidemic of gay suicides in our country is appalling and it is sincerely held religious bigotries which perpetuates it by giving a green light and a morally encouraged vessel for anti-gay bullies to torment gay people as much as their hateful hearts desire and still feel a holier-than-thou conscience at the end of the day. Even after the kids have killed themselves they can wash their hands clean and take the suicides as “proof the kids deep down knew they were perverted”. We have seen the consequences of letting “sincerely held religious convictions” go unchecked in schools. Kids die. Ashamed and alienated for no good reason besides prejudice.

Kelly: But there’s a difference between—

Jaime: And it’s no less prejudice if it is a prejudice based on unjustified religious beliefs than if it were based on unjustified racial beliefs or unjustified xenophobic beliefs. You wouldn’t let kids “sincerely state their religious or moral conviction that blacks were inferior to whites” would you? Or to use the n-word based on that “sincere” conviction, would you?

Kelly: Look, we could swing the door the other way. Religions are identities, not just ideas or institutions as you want to conveniently only acknowledge. People associate their religious identities deeply with their families, their most cherished and life-orienting values—

Jaime: But they shouldn’t—they are just ideas and they should be open to criticism. And a prejudice is a prejudice, even when it’s someone’s “life-orienting” value. Should the son of a klansman be allowed to go to school in a white KKK hood because that’s an expression of his family’s “life-orienting values”?

Kelly: Are you done now? Or are you going to let me talk.

Jaime: I’m sorry, I just can’t believe you’re defending these bullies.

Kelly: I just wish you would see how hypocritical you are in bullying me here.

Jaime: Bullying?? I’m just “sincerely stating my religious and moral convictions”—I thought that was okay with you no matter what they were.

Kelly: So, by your sarcasm I take it you’re admitting you’re being as bullying and obnoxious about your beliefs as you accuse the people you want to silence as being about theirs.

Jaime: So, now in your book it is not bullying to threaten vulnerable, cognitively-still-developing kids with eternal torment for their natural budding sexual feelings. But it is bullying to say that the tormentors should stop tormenting. How Orwellian! I thought you were an atheist, Kelly. I thought you opposed the theocratic fundamentalists.

Kelly: I do oppose them. I also oppose acting like them as an atheist. So stop twisting my words around and let me explain myself.

Jaime: The floor is yours. Give me your “sincerest” religious and moral convictions.

Kelly: Look, what I hate most of all is when one interest group gets governmental power to impose its vision of the good life on everyone else. We often think of this as the religious using the government to force everyone into their religion but it could go the other way too. There have been atheistic regimes which have been equally discriminating against religious consciences as theocracies have been against irreligious ones.

Jaime: But those states weren’t acting in the name of atheism—

Kelly: I don’t care who or what “name” they were acting in. They oppressed people. That’s enough! The government should not be deciding the good life for people. I think the philosopher John Rawls is especially helpful here. The government should provide laws which we could all agree on behind a “veil of ignorance”. Imagine us all not knowing who we would be in society—gay or straight or bi, religious or irreligious, from a majority religion or a minority religion, transgendered or cis-gendered, an immigrant or native born, poor or wealthy, white or black, female or male, etc. Imagine we did not know any of that stuff. What sorts of protections would we want? We would want as much latitude to pursue each conception of the good life we might wind up having without interfering in too burdensome a way on each other conception of the good we might have. So we would want the right to be religious, but not to the point of infringing on the right to be irreligious, and vice versa. Were we not to know in advance of living in society, which pair of shoes we would wind up preferring, we would want to be as maximally free if we were in either pair of shoes. Does that make sense?

Jaime: Yes.

Kelly: So, if we belonged to a religion and thought the good life entailed adhering to that religion strictly and obediently as a matter of identity, the law should allow that as much as possible without infringing on the rights and well-being of others. And if we were gay we should be able to pursue the correlate good life for ourselves, also as much as possible without infringing on the rights of others to pursue their own conceptions of their own good lives. And this would go if we were both gay and religious too or straight and irreligious, etc., etc. Is that agreeable?

Jaime: Yes.

Kelly: So, behind the veil of ignorance, we cannot choose that all religious expressions be classed as prejudices and prohibited whenever they are founded on beliefs in holy texts or deference to tradition, etc. That begs the question of whether or not such an approach to life is immoral. It basically rules out religious beliefs legally.

Jaime: No, they can still believe harmless things. But when their beliefs are racist or homophobic there can be reasonable restrictions on their expression or their forms of expression in places where they can harm vulnerable people, like children.

Kelly: Sure, kids should not be forced to endure being called the n-word or “fags” or any other abusive terms but I think this law covers that kind of thing. But you wouldn’t want religious kids to be legally protected from other kids telling them their religion is wrong or is stupid, do you?

Jaime: No, I think it is great that kids should be able to debate healthily. Otherwise they may never learn to think for themselves. There should be more openminded discussion among kids with their peers about religious ideas because otherwise some will only ever hear what their church and family has to say about anything, and never be challenged to form their own opinions.

Kelly: So then how can you want to silence all statements of sincerely held moral and religious objections to homosexuality. Isn’t that also part of kids learning to deal with moral issues by robustly debating them? Wouldn’t it be unfair to have the school impose a set of values–”gay is good” and a priori rule out the other half of the country’s opinion that it is not. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I vehemently support gay rights and homosexuality being acknowledged as fully morally equal to everyone else. But if we are to be fair can we try to use governmental means to end the debate, to make it so the other side cannot even speak or that kids can never hear the other side out—even if only to discover the vacuity of its arguments? Why not win this in the sphere of debate, instead of through legislation?

Jaime: Because it is too demanding to ask gay kids, who are already at risk for incredibly unfair and unmerited confusion, alienation, and shame, are not in a position to debate from a fair equal footing. They are more likely to doubt themselves over flimsy arguments made against them. They are in many cases unlikely to get emotional support at home to back them up. A devoutly religious kid who gets challenged by an atheistic kid is usually going to have a tremendous amount of familial, religious, and communal support for her beliefs. She comes from a privileged class (the religious) and likely plenty of preparatory indoctrination. Gay kids don’t have that. They cannot take the assaults on their identities. They are not only as firmly formed yet but they also do not have the kind of emotional and communal support religious kids get. Plus, religious beliefs, no matter how much a matter of identity, are changeable when shown false. I don’t know of an epidemic of religious kids killing themselves over atheists telling them there is no God. Sexual orientation is deeper. It’s not changeable. Kids giving other kids misinformation and moral and religious threats can cause a lot of avoidable psychological pain. And what is especially problematic is the teachers being allowed to tell kids their sexual orientiation is immoral. This seems really invasive and potentially damaging. Where is the conscience clause that atheistic teachers can tell students there is no god or that some particular religion is inferior to another. There is not one in most schools, I think. The idea is that whether or not such would be protected free speech out of school, it’s an improper use of authority over young minds in school to proselytize.

Kelly: But presumably you would affirm teachers being allowed to give kids pro-gay messages and tell a gay student that it is natural and ethical to be gay, right? Or should the school be neutral entirely? And if the school should be neutral entirely, then what if now a gay kid has lost the only shot at finding an adult in his life outside his church and family who might have been able to help him. Do we really want to clamp down on free speech to that extent?

Jaime: Well, maybe this is a limit of Rawls and the “veil of ignorance” then.

Kelly: How so?

Jaime: Some conceptions of the good life, if adopted by everyone, would destroy open, liberal democratic society itself. We have to be able to say that you can pursue your own conception of the good life whatever it is, but that nonetheless there is a minimal conception of the good life that we all need to recognize if we are to be an open society. If everyone’s private conception of the good life became authoritarian, for example, then everyone would vote for authoritarian policies and it would be the end of open, liberal democratic government, and then no one laws would be made with the veil of ignorance’s respect for diversity. Similarly with racist conceptions of the good life. They turn into racist legislation that undermines the “veil of ignorance”. This means either behind the veil of ignorance or in addition to it we need to find a space for laws to vigorously play favorites in favor of autonomous and inclusivist conceptions of the good life over exclusivists. This means that it is okay to sometimes, in some places—like schools—an open and democratic society needs to prioritize speech which encourages inclusion of all races, religions, and sexualities, and place careful restrictions on speech which encourages unjust discrimination. Otherwise the veil of ignorance approach to justice will itself be endangered and it would be foolish, behind the veil of ignorance to affirm that.

Kelly: So, no atheist talk in schools then? Since it might whip up hostility against religious people?

Jaime: But it would not if it was just expressions of disagreements over ideas but did not involve name-calling or harassment or threats or alienating people, etc.

Kelly: But sincerely and earnestly stating that one thinks that being gay is immoral is equivalent to name-calling, harassing, threatening, threatening, and alienating gay kids.

Jaime: From teachers that’s quite damaging to gay kids. They are in a uniquely vulnerable position.

Kelly: What about not from teachers. What about from other kids?

Jaime: I think even from other kids, it’s tantamount to bullying. Kids should be left alone on that subject or included. I would never approve of black kids being forced to hear out racist kids, I cannot approve of gay kids being forced to hear out homophobic ones.

Kelly: But religious kids would have to hear out atheistic kids?

Jaime: Well, not in unwanted phone calls or by being forced to participate in debates that make them uncomfortable. But statements of atheist kids’ views, mutually and freely participated informal debates on the topic between kids with no teachers involved, exposure to the existence of atheist kids—that’s all fine and, even necessary. Atheist kids need to be allowed to express themselves equally with religious kids. And religious kids deserve all those same rights to informally be able to advocate their ideas as long as they don’t cross the line into harassing individuals. It’s totally different to give atheists and religious kids both equal right to defend their specifically atheistic or religious beliefs than it is to give homophobes equal opportunity to express themselves as gay kids.

Kelly: And when the religious kid is a homophobe, she has to omit that part of her beliefs? But an atheist kid does not have to omit her support of gays from hers?

Jaime: Right.

Kelly: And that’s not a double standard?

Jaime: I don’t think so.

Kelly: I don’t know. It still sounds like one to me. And a standard which would be applied to atheists in ways you wouldn’t like as soon as “blasphemy” starts getting counted as a form of “bullying”.

Your Thoughts?

Prior Debates Between Jaime and Kelly:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

Atheist Fundamentalism?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cafiorello catherinefiorello

    I’m with Kelly here. Speech is not bullying. The answer to offensive speech is more speech–not censorship.

  • kraut

    “Speech is not bullying”

    Is there no difference between attacking ideas and attacking the person?
    I work as an atheist in a company where one of the bosses is an evangelical fundamentalist Christian, other co workers are members of various churches.
    They all know I am an atheist – I was never shy about it. When we discuss any topic, I am not attacking him for holding the beliefs, I am questioning the validity of the ideas that are part of his beliefs.

    There also is a difference between attacking a person for being a homosexual and threatening him or her, and a discussion of the laws regarding sexual behaviour or questions in general regarding the “morality” of any expression of sexuality.

    Bullying is the attack of the person, and if a person holds beliefs or engages in behaviours not condemned by law – what right of free speech does the bully have to such an attack?

  • penn

    Karen is just wrong when she says

    Basically it is only protecting whatever would be protected under free speech rights and saying that does not qualify as bullying.

    Firstly, a state law can’t contradict the state or federal constitution anyway. I don’t know if that sort of languange is common CYA material, or what. Secondly, she’s ignoring the fact that there are two completely distinct clauses in the part of the law she quoted.

    1.)This section does not abridge the rights under the first amendment of the constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.


    2.)This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil or a pupil’s parent or guardian.

    Those are two very different clauses. 2 isn’t just clarification of 1. It’s a distinct addition. The first amendment does not give you the right to state any sincerely held religious belief. For example, I cannot tell someone to go stone that adulterer/homosexual/unruly child because the bible says they should.

    The whole “good speech is the best remedy for bad speech” argument is generally great. But we are talking about children. And children do not have the right to belittle and demean other children just because their religion say it’s ok. That’s harassment, and it should be illegal even if it’s justified by the harasser’s religion.

  • Bryony Vaughn

    I’ve had a few conversations with Rick Jones, the man whose, IMO designed to do “something” but still be ineffective, bill was amended. He’s a former cop. He swears up and down even without the amendment his bill would have protected free speech. He claims screaming, threatening, refusing to end conversations when requested, and such are clear forms of assault. He said the “senate lawyers” just threw that in at last minute. (I cry BS but that’s not my point here.)

    Now that house passed a different ineffective* anti-bullying bill, that one’s going back to the senate.

    (*Studies of the 47 states with anti-bullying bills show 2/3, like the version passed by the house, don’t decrease incidents of bullying or the ensuing truancy and drop out rates. The 1/3 of states that have enumerated protected classes do have decreased bullying rates as well as truancy and drop out rates. It’s not some gay/liberal agenda thing. School districts that enumerate LGTB, disabilities and religious issues see a decrease in bullying among classes NOT enumerated.)

    My concern has never been that someone answering a factual question about his/her faith would be punished for bullying. My concern is with the fundamentalists who hear this dog whistle will, whenever there is a question of hate speech, claim this amendment. A disturbing number of school administrators are clueless about the law but very tuned into the zeitgeist of their communities. Without this they might enforce anti bullying law but with this they won’t enforce much.

    When Senator Rick Jones says he’d negotiate over mandated reporting but not staff anti-bullying training and NEVER enumerated classes, I’m convinced we should look at his behavior more than his stated motivations.

    So, yes, I see the point of your article. I also think the specific technicalities of the law are of no interest to the people pushing it. They are invested in administrators wrongly interpreting it for the benefit of their religious right bullies.

    • karmakin

      That’s the thing, there’s a fundamental disconnect over the nature of bullying. An awful lot of people think that bullying is an individual act, it’s a one-off incident involving a single person. It’s not. Or at least, it’s not ALWAYS. When it is involving a single person it’s usually pretty easy to deal with it…and it usually is. (Think of your Nelson Muntz’s of the world)

      It really is all about the community. This is why mandatory reporting is ESSENTIAL. Generally speaking, when bullying cases get so bad that you see it ending in suicide, you’re not talking about one tormentor. You’re usually talking about several, usually many. As in, it’s often the zeitgeist of the local community to bully that individual to change them.

      It’s most common these days in terms of LGBT kids, but it does happen for various other reasons.

      This is why mandatory reporting is REQUIRED. This is why special protections for LGBT kids are REQUIRED. Maybe it would be better if they were not required, but I’ll just look at it as a “This is why we can’t have nice things” type situation.

      Frankly, the world makes a lot more sense if you keep that phrase in mind.

    • MV

      The idea of mandatory reporting strikes me as a good idea in theory but unworkable in practice. I have a rather broad concept of bullying and under that definition I’d have to report a significant portion of the middle school students in my school where I am a student teacher. Bullying is already unacceptable according to the administration. It’s so unacceptable that they mandate reporting, aren’t exactly clear on the definition, and they have resisted dealing with a clear case that was referred by my mentor teacher.

      This frustrates me. Mandatory reporting without real institutional support is worthless. Yet something needs to change.

  • barbrykost

    Fifty years ago I had a speech teacher who was a recent graduate of Bob Jones University. About once a month she would start class with a little talk about her sincerely held religious beliefs. One that I particularly remember was when she told the class that–contrary to what I learned in Sunday School–all men are not brothers. Anyone who has not properly accepted Jesus has aligned himself with Satan and should be shunned. At first I thought she meant me, but later I realized that it was the Catholic and the Jewish boy who needed to be ostracized. She treated them differently.
    So I say, sincerely held religious beliefs do not belong in school. If you can’t forget leave it at home, don’t get the job, and attend your parochial school.
    This is just my opinion.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes thedudediogenes

    Too bad those Christians who have the most odious views, and are most prone to bullying, would never accept Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance as a (hypothetical) ideal on which to base how society is organized, because it’s not centered on God or Jesus.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      indeed. so what’s to be done?

    • The Vicar

      Kill ‘em all. Let their non-existent god sort ‘em out. :)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      ha, that was last week’s post, Justice Scalia ;)

    • The Vicar

      How about this: since religious people believe that your body is just a sort of jumped-up version of clothing, they should have no problem with dying. So they should all be willing to kill themselves. Once that happens, there will be no more religiously-inspired bullying, so this problem would be as moot as the question of whether an escaped slave found in the northern U.S. should be returned.

      In fact, this would solve nearly all religious problems. Pedophile priests? Once those arsenic-coated communion wafers get washed down with a delicious 50-50 wine/cyanide mix (no one who has ever had a glass has ever complained about the taste, so it must be great), there won’t be any more — and no more choir boys to tempt them, either! Sunnis and Shiites don’t get along? Let ‘em go to Mohammed and one way or another their differences will cease. Can’t agree on the next Dalai Lama? Put it off until the next life!

      To say nothing of the sudden drop in overpopulation, resource use… why, the Great Self-Culling would be a secular boon as well. If only religious people would stop being so cowardly and follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion, how much nicer the world would be! :P

  • Patrick

    The quoted section does not only note that the statute does not prohibit that speech which is protected under the 1st amendment. I don’t know why people keep saying that it says that, it plainly doesn’t. There are two sentences in it- the second adds extra material above and beyond the protections already present in the first amendment. Basic literacy should stop people from making this error.

    What’s really at issue is this: genuine statements of deeply felt religious belief can also be a part of bullying. But most people are too cowardly to admit that this is true, so they try to drive some line between the “bullying” and “religious discourse” as if that were a coherent and rational thing to do, and not an ad hoc effort at avoiding an emotionally unappealing conclusion. See Kelly’s fourth paragraph for an example.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    Kelly’s falling down here again. Jamie has it right: religious beliefs, however “deeply and sincerely” held, are still your choice. Everyone is technically born atheist and then learns and chooses some beliefs and structure for morality and ethics. Some people stay atheist, some people choose a religion.

    But we simply do not choose our sexuality. Granted that some people have a more fluid sexuality than others do, what we get at birth is what we get.

    So we can debate one another’s deep and sincere choices all the live-long day. But it is unfair to debate something we didn’t choose and can’t change.

    It’s like saying it’s okay for teachers and other students to say that people with blue eyes are known to be stupid, as long as the statement comes from their sincerely held religious belief that blue-eyed people are stupid. It doesn’t matter if Timothy 2:47 says “And the LORD saith, All those with eyes the color of the sky are fools, because their heads are full of holes and the sky shines through the holes and lightest their eyes within.” It’s still wrong to tell teenagers with blue eyes that they’re stupid just because they have blue eyes.

    You cannot conflate beliefs (which are chosen and changeable) with inborn tendencies (which are neither). The religious beliefs exemption is exactly designed to let fundies off the hook for bullying gay kids. It doesn’t matter how sincerely held the belief is, and it doesn’t even matter if the teacher is actually trying to “save” the gay kid by sharing her religious beliefs. The gay kid can’t change being gay, and the gay kid doesn’t need to hear religious bullshit from teachers telling him he’s broken and needs fixing (or that he’s going to hell and can’t be fixed).

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I get concerned when the argument in favor of gay rights and acceptance starts to hinge on the fact that it isn’t a choice. In my view, even if it were a choice, the moral argument in favor of acceptance is conclusive. Placing the locus of the argument over the choice issue will cause problems when trying to solve other social issues which are a choice.

    • Lauren Ipsum

      “Other social issues which are a choice” may need a different method of defense. Can you give me an example to discuss?

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I think about how we discuss sexual ethics more broadly, for example how having a number of romantic or sexual partners is stigmatized (even though it is not morally reprehensible) – this is obviously a choice, but that isn’t the salient moral factor. The salient question is “what good is the practice doing? What harm?”

      Drug taking might be another example.

      The argument that homosexuality isn’t a choice is an important reinforcer of the argument that harm is done to gay people when they are expected or encouraged to change, so it is in my view a useful weapon in the argument for change in social attitudes. But as for why homosexuality should not be considered immoral, I think the question of choice is irrelevant. Homosexuality and gay sex are ok because they don’t harm anyone (indeed gay sex, as all consensual healthy sex, is a moral positive). So even if it were a choice to have a homosexual orientation, we should support that choice in the name of human freedom.

      Another way to think about this: imagine we did find a way to change people’s orientation. Would it change the moral calculus such that we should then be less in favor of gay rights? Should we discourage people form switching from gay to straight? I would say no – the choice aspect is not the salient moral consideration.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I completely agree, and often like to stress myself, that gays should not have to prove “they have no choice” in order to be able to defend having gay sex or being in gay relationships. For people inclined towards gay love, it’s a positive morally encouragable good.

      Nonetheless, I think that there are some distinctions that come out when something is a matter of deliberate choices and not unchangeable psychological nature. Since religious or irreligious beliefs, for example, are matters of decision and not just identities and not identities in an immutable sense, they can be called into question a little more vigorously and assessed with more rational distance. Choices that are morally approvable and yet still debatable (like drugs, like promiscuous sex, etc.) should be open to rational debates without fear that people would feel “bullied” to hear their choices challenged. How can they ever reexamine their choices or extoll the benefits of their choices to others if we clamped down on freedom of speech so hard? I don’t see who benefits from that.

      But if sexually oriented towards members of the same sex is something too deep to be argued out of even were it less than ideal (and I don’t think it is less than ideal except for the unfortunate situation gays are in with respect to having genetic children from their coupling, but that’s not a moral problem), then it would not matter if it were less than ideal, gay kids would be gay kids and would need to work within being gay kids. Again, I don’t think there’s anything “non-ideal” from a moral standpoint about being gay. But even were there, if it couldn’t be changed, we would have to work constructively with reality the way we did with other people’s immutable characteristics.

      But were total sexual fluidity an option, then we could discuss the pros and cons of gay sex and bisexuality and heterosexuality, etc., on any number of metrics, just as we can presently discuss the pros and cons of promiscuity or S&M, etc. Who knows, maybe we’d come to the conclusion, under such a circumstance that everyone should be bisexual to have the maximum range of love and sex possibilities. Such debates would not be inherently stacked in favor of heteronormativity, just because they would be opening issues up to investigation about optimal outcomes.

  • Jeff Dale

    I think it misses the point to say that pro-gay speech should be allowed in schools because it’s positive and inclusive, but that anti-gay speech should be disallowed in schools because it’s negative and exclusive.

    It’s two things, neither of which seems to be mentioned above: [1] There’s no (non-religious) reason to ascribe moral properties (negative or positive) to gayness, any more than to blue-eyedness. And [2] students have to be at school, so they’re a captive audience, which is why schools have power to restrict speech more than what would be the case in public places.

    So pro-gay statements are fine, because they don’t hurt anyone. (That is, generally speaking; we could construct possible but unlikely counter-examples.) By contrast, statements expressing anti-gay moral sentiments are both *false* and *hurtful* (two key points) and at school, they can’t be avoided by the other students (the other key point).

    Religious people who want to utter their false and cruel condemnations of gay people can do so in public places (where gays and others can walk away or talk back, as they wish) or in their own homes, or on their blogs, or in private conversations. They can’t do so in schools, and they mustn’t be *allowed* to do so given the demonstrably severe consequences.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    “Speech is not bullying”

    Tautology much?

    Of course in the way people use these words they are mutually exclusive. “Bullying isn’t just ‘speech’.” is something that we say all the time, but that doesn’t tell us where, precisely, bullying ends & speech begins since both involve the use of words.

    Also – Jaime shouldn’t be afraid of saying this is a double standard. It is, in the sense that it’s two standards. The question is whether or not it is reasonable to have two standards for these two classes of statements, is it reasonable to draw a moral distinction between the classes? Or are they, despite being distinguishable into classes content-wise, morally indistinguishable?

    This is what we’re doing here, the exercise in which we’re engaging. And we shouldn’t have any problem admitting that this is the project. It is only debatable whether this is a double standard if, in using that term, you insist that it includes only unfair double standards. Double standards for assigning work to pregnant and non-pregnant employees, employees on vacation when the assignment is handed out and not on vacation at the time are among the very common double standards. And, depending on whether the assignment is long or short term, career enhancing or career neutral, enjoyable or not, different people object from different sides for different reasons. In such a situation, it seems clear that double standards exist. The squabbles are over whether such distinctions are unfair, given the totality of the circumstances.


    As for my opinion on the points of contention, I think that it was earlier said that people are unwilling to admit that sometimes sincerely held beliefs are used as part of a project that could be called bullying. This is exactly the problem.

    I think that a reasonable statement to be made that should protect people would be:

    “Statements of sincerely held beliefs that are nonetheless opinion and unsupported by fact are not necessarily bullying even when offense is taken by others. Statements made as part of bullying are not exempt from punishment merely because such statements also include sincerely held beliefs, supported or unsupported by fact.”

    How would that work for people? How would that change the conversation between J & K?

  • Gordon

    I read all of Kelly’s “points” wearing a Silverman WTF stare!

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    “Wouldn’t it be unfair to have the school impose a set of values–”gay is good” and a priori rule out the other half of the country’s opinion that it is not.”

    Not at all. I think this is the key point. Public schools are not there to express majority opinion. They have specific civic purposes which are essential to their democratic legitimacy. As Jeff Dale points out, schools are compulsory (let’s leave out for the moment the minute fraction of people who are homeschooled, and talk about private schools later). The fact they are compulsory, and that we allow that infringement on the liberty of young people, and parents (and it is a very serious infringement which we simply have become desensitized to), means they have responsibilities they must meet or lose their right to compell attendance. These responsibilities also limit the freedoms of teachers.

    The absolute first thing schools and teachers must do is ensure the safety, psychological and physical, of all students. Think about it – how can an institution be both compulsory for children and yet unsafe for them? This is simply evil – and yet it is the case for many – MANY – gay kids. That responsibility alone necessitates the absolute and total banning of racist, homophobic and other demeaning language from schools, secular or religious. Imagine a black kid in the class of a white supremacist teacher, whose expression of white supremacist views was protected explicitly by law. Even if those views never targeted that individual student, there is an immediate threat to the psychological safety of that student in that class.

    Second, schools exist to provide for the positive and healthy development of young people. Again, this is their responsibility to us. Therefore, they must be prohibited from engaging in practices which threaten that development. The evidence regarding the developmental impacts of growing up in a gay unfriendly environment is utterly conclusive. It must be prohibited within a public school, or the school is ignoring its fundamental responsibilities.

    Schools cannot be value-neutral institutions. No institution can be value-neutral. Schools should be epistemically responsible, in the sense of ensuring that every intellectual argument gets a hearing. But they should be uncompromising in favor of inclusion and mutual regard for all members of the school community.

    That is non-negotiable.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      The really interesting situations arise when the second responsibility and the first collide. But that’s a long argument…

  • King of New Hampshire

    It really doesn’t matter what our first amendment offers bullies in the way of free speech. Children, when attending school, are considered a captive audience. As such, as the Supreme Court has already ruled (I forget the case), those students lose their first amendment rights to not hear statements. This is why school prayer, the Pledge, and Bible studies, in all public schools, in unconstitutional. You cannot have free speech in a captive audience situation.

    Therefore, Kelly’s argument is moot. Sincerely held beliefs are not part of the requirement. The only speech protected in schools by the Constitution is fact based verifiable speech.

  • Anri

    I wonder if a greater clarification of ‘bullying’ isn’t what’s actually needed. It might make the distinction between ‘bullying is ok, if you really believe what you’re saying’ versus ‘bullying is not ok, even if you really believe what you’re saying’.

    I’m not really concerned if the kids shoving a geeky Jewish kid down a flight of concrete steps – to the tune of months of facial recostructive surgery – are doing so from some sort of deeply held belief or not. Would you suggest they be treated differently based on their reason was “Well, he was Jewish” versus “Well, he was weaker than us”?
    Either pushing the kid down the staris like that is acceptable behavior or it isn’t.

    Likewise, either harassing a gay kid until he kills himself is acceptable behavior or it isn’t. If the former, beliefs don’t matter because no explaination is required. If the latter, beliefs don’t matter because the point is the violation of the rights of the victim.
    In neither case does a statute against bullying recuire any reference to beliefs, sincerely held or otherwise (how would one distinguish in any case?)

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    While I am enjoying the discussion thus far quite a bit (and, am quite grateful for all these thought provoking points of view), I would really love a definitive clarification for all those who oppose Kelly:

    1. Are you saying that all statements of moral or religious disapproval of homosexuality should be treated as instances of bullying, even when not accompanied by any threatening behavior or behavior maliciously or indifferently intended to cause a gay student harm? Is the statement “I believe homosexuality is wrong” to be classed with “I believe black people are inferior” as inherently bullying?

    2. If you say yes to question 1, does this only apply with children or are all adults, even otherwise sympathetic and intelligent people who engage in no threatening behavior, inherently bullies if they express the judgment that homosexuality is wrong religiously or morally?

    3. Is there any relevant distinction between forbidding teachers from denouncing homosexuality and allowing students to do so? These two issues seem to be lumped together in most responses and I would be interested if people would see this as a relevant distinction.

    4. Is there any way that if you do not allow students to voice skepticism about the morality of homosexuality that you can consistently permit them to voice skepticism about the truth or morality of each other’s religions—which are also matters of identity and potentially quite sensitive to kids?

    And to opponents of Jaime/defenders of Kelly, I am interested in at least one question off the top of my head:

    What, if any, speech restrictions you would place on students or teachers in expressing abstractly formulated racialist (or even outright racist) views in class? Would you treat them as different in kind than homophobic ones? Why or why not?

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      For me (educational theorist, former high school teacher) a lot hinges on question 3. Schools all have implicit or explicit value sets which guide them public schools, as I have argued, must have an explicit commitment to the safety of all students, which means that teachers should be prohibited from expressing anti-gay views in their professional capacity, just as they can be expected to withhold from airing racist views. They of course keep their constitutional right to express such views – they just are not allowed to do so and expect to retain employment in a public school.

      Students have different responsibilities. They cannot be expected to fully represent or buy into the values of the school, necessarily. They are also in the position of developing and growing into their own value sets. In the context of a class discussion on sexual ethics, I think it is important that students be able to voice different opinions in a moderated and respectful manner. Thus, if a student argued, in the course of such a discussion, that gay sex is immoral, that should be allowed. But it should be accompanied by an explicit reaffirmation by the teacher of the school’s official position:

      “I hear that is your view. We will discuss that view, and why you take that view. But I want to announce at the outset that this school, as a matter of policy, welcomes and affirms our gay students and does not consider them to be worthy of any less respect and consideration than any other student, and any comments that are personal, demeaning, disrespectful will be disallowed.”

      Note that amcoompanying the explicit reaffirmation of the safety/welcome ethic there is a requirement that statements of disapproval of gay sex (or whatever) be justified. This is key. Students must learn that simply asserting their position is not enough – all positions must be justified by arguments, and those which cannot be justified must be abandoned.

      In this way prejudice and misunderstanding can be brought to light and sensitively deconstructed, without a blanket ban of discussions of sexual morality in schools.

  • Brad

    Let me say first that I REALLY like the “Jaime vs Kelly debate” format, it really shows a deep understanding of the issue from both sides.

    Larger than just the school context, I do know that there is a tremendous amount of concern in the Evangelical community of legislation like this, which they fear will remove their right to discuss what they believe to be religious truths. The most-cited example is Lund v. Boissoin, where a Canadian preacher was found guilty of “hate speech” and ordered to pay a $5000 fine after he wrote a letter to the editor concerning his views on homosexuality (the fine was later overturned on appeal).

    In the specific case of this bullying legislation, though, I think the potential misuse of this loophole by bullies who become aware of it is probably an overriding concern, especially since the first amendment issues are already taken care of by the prior clause.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    The issue, I think, is where the bill defines bullying as, in part ” … causing significant emotional distress”. If that’s used as a defining quality, then my simply expressing my own beliefs may well do that for some people. But this law shouldn’t in any way restrict that sort of expression, either for those who are expressing religious views or atheist views or whatever. Where the difference comes in is when your intent is not to state a belief, but to in fact CAUSE emotional distress. Then free speech and these clauses ought not, as far as I am concerned, come into play as a defense at all.

    This, in some sense, is why to me Jaime does come across as holding an unacceptable double standard; in the previous debate, he wanted to be able to express his views even if it caused significant emotional distress as long as, one presumes, he was just expressing it, but expressing genuine beliefs if one is religious is something he wants to curtail. It smacks of “You can express the views I agree with and not worry about emotional distress, but not the ones I disagree with”.

    Which leads to your question on racism. I’d say that if all they are doing is simply expressing their own view and potentially arguing for it — no matter how bad those arguments are — it wouldn’t count as bullying and should be protected under that clause, and it is right to do so … even as I consider the view to be horribly wrong.

    Note, BTW, that teachers are a special case since there are many cases where their job actually does preclude them from expressing their personal opinions, so a lot of the controversial cases with teachers are likely covered there and not under bullying.

  • Puzzled

    We used to believe that children are still learning, trying things, and so on. Today, though, there is a rush to criminalize behavior by children, in schools. It is absurd that schools will settle debates between students by calling in the police, which is what this bill will compel.

    That aside, the answer to bullying is not laws stating “do not bully.” The answer is a society where we adults don’t set such an example. Our nation bullies others, we bully drug users, we bully those who wish to employ the services of a prostitute – how are we going to teach our children not to bully?

  • Carlie

    Why not “don’t comment on other people’s sexuality” as a general rule at school? That would pretty much eliminate the whole shebang. There really isn’t any subject taught in school that involves discussing your own opinion on other people’s sexuality. Even history class talking about Stonewall wouldn’t need to involve “and how do YOU feel about it?” questions.

    Really, it’s part of basic etiquette as well. Just because a guy says he went out with his boyfriend last night isn’t an invitation for you to tell him he’s going to hell for it. The proper response would be something like “Oh, did you have a good time?”, or if you don’t want it to go further, “That’s nice. Do you think it’s going to rain today?” By the same token, any Christian wouldn’t have to feel like they’re being forced to support something they don’t believe in, because the “don’t comment” rule holds for everyone equally. In that case silence isn’t assent to the situtation, it’s assent to the rule.

  • quantheory

    I think there are three relevant distinctions regarding the anti-bullying law.

    Firstly, there’s the issue of speech by teachers versus speech by students. When teachers are acting in their official capacities, they are limited by their job requirements. Requiring teachers to “approve of homosexuality”, by expressing a personal belief that it is OK, would be an illegitimate job requirement. Requiring teachers to treat their students equally, to address all forms of harassment and bullying, and to not use their moral authority to promote homophobia, those seem like acceptable job requirements.

    Secondly, there’s a distinction between speech that is disruptive to a school’s goals, and speech that is not. The First Amendment does not give students the right to spontaneously start ranting about Jesus during math class, nor to form a mob to taunt the Jewish kid during a free period.

    Thirdly, there’s a distinction between speech that can be legally regulated because of the harm it does, and speech that does not. I can’t stalk, harass, and threaten people who I disapprove of with impunity, regardless of why I disapprove of them. Students shouldn’t be able to do so either.

    The problem with the bill, as I see it, is that it doesn’t make clear whether it is simply affirming people’s pre-existing First Amendment rights, or carving out an exception for religiously motivated students. Does it affirm that religious teachers and students can sometimes say “I believe homosexuality is wrong?”, a right they already had? Or does it make an exception, where harassment that would otherwise be considered “bullying” is suddenly protected as long as it contains normative moral content?

    On a more general subject, I also want to point out that the current focus on bullying tends to pass over another, potentially more serious problem, which is that of gay kids with homophobic parents. For one, these kids are more vulnerable to other stressors (including bullying) possibly because they have fewer resources available to them to deal with those problems. For another, the parents themselves can act in abusive ways or disown their kids. It’s a poorly kept secret that, in many cities, young LGBT’s (and particularly those who are in racial minorities) make up a hugely disproportionate number of homeless people under 25.

    Of course, you can’t make it illegal for parents to tell their kids that they think homosexuality is wrong, and child abuse is already illegal. But it seems strange that what seems like a potentially much bigger problem gets so much less attention than bullying.

  • freemage

    1. Are you saying that all statements of moral or religious disapproval of homosexuality should be treated as instances of bullying, even when not accompanied by any threatening behavior or behavior maliciously or indifferently intended to cause a gay student harm? Is the statement “I believe homosexuality is wrong” to be classed with “I believe black people are inferior” as inherently bullying?

    The level of distress created does matter, as does context. A student giving a response in a proper situation could stick to basic ‘statements of belief’ (FREX: in a debate class). However, a student who marches up to a gay kid in the hallway and loudly declares, “Homosexuality is wrong!” is acting in a manner disruptive to the school’s purpose, and should be punished appropriately.

    2. If you say yes to question 1, does this only apply with children or are all adults, even otherwise sympathetic and intelligent people who engage in no threatening behavior, inherently bullies if they express the judgment that homosexuality is wrong religiously or morally?

    Not if they are addressing other adults, no. They are bigots, but not bullies (at least, generally), because an essential component of bullying is a power-differential.

    3. Is there any relevant distinction between forbidding teachers from denouncing homosexuality and allowing students to do so? These two issues seem to be lumped together in most responses and I would be interested if people would see this as a relevant distinction.

    In the case of adult staffers at the school, then I would absolutely say there is a difference–specifically, as an authority figure, the adult’s responsibilities to NOT bullying are far, far greater than any given student’s. Thus, I would not only disallow such negative statements, but would actively push for teachers to be required, if they cannot bring themselves to reassure gay students themselves, to direct those students to a gay-accepting staffer–and every school should be mandated to have at least a few of those.

    4. Is there any way that if you do not allow students to voice skepticism about the morality of homosexuality that you can consistently permit them to voice skepticism about the truth or morality of each other’s religions—which are also matters of identity and potentially quite sensitive to kids?

    Yes. Specifically, the “truth” bit. One reason that Kelly’s position falls apart is that anti-gay sentiment has, at this point in time, largely been proven to be without merit.

    If a religious position is being stated as a matter of historical or (especially) scientific truth, as opposed to merely a moral opinion, then another student should have the right to counter that with evidence. Now, he should not, for instance, have the right to deride the believer student personally; you can say, “There’s no geological evidence of a world-wide Flood in the alleged time Noah would have been alive,” but you can’t add, “And anyone who thinks there is is a dope.”