A Thinking Alert

Can you be sure you're not a flat-earther?

Are you secretly a white supremacist? Do you unknowingly hold racist views deep within your heart? And—dig deep now—Do you believe the earth is flat?

It's very likely that the number of flat-earthers in the United States is much higher than the number of white supremacists. The flat-earthers are certainly better organized. They hold meetings, conduct experiments, maintain web sites, and so on. But we don't require our politicians to regularly denounce flat-earthism. We don't make public policies designed to root out and re-educate suspected flat-earthers. HR departments don't hold employee seminars on recognizing signs of flat-earthism in ourselves and others. We don't hold school assemblies requiring students to recognize that they may have flat-earth tendencies despite how vehemently they deny it. We don't even censor flat-earth speech online.

No, we just recognize that some people have mistaken beliefs and we go on about our business. If we could do the same with "white supremacy," life in the United States, particularly in our schools, would be much less fraught with manufactured racial tension.

Some people are racist, it's true, just as some are sexist, impolite, unhygienic, or generally unpleasant to be around. Many hold mistaken or superstitious beliefs. This is a fact of life that cannot be changed. It would be terrific if absolutely everyone were pleasant, kind, and well-informed, but this will simply never be.

Once upon a time, schools focused on getting children to the well-informed part, along with socializing them to become pleasant and kind as well. Most children are reasonable enough to absorb these lessons and go on to become decent, productive citizens. Recognizing that this will happen is a sign of a confident society of adults who have faith that children acculturated with good values—provided by moral institutions like churches, families, and community-organized schools—will grow into responsible citizens.

Why would we continually force children and adults to denounce a view (such as flat-earthism, or, say, racism) that is universally thought to be mistaken and harmful, refusing to take their word that they do not hold it? It's a sign of deep distrust of both humanity and our own ability to transmit our values to the next generation. A confident culture transforms savage children (all children are born savages) into decent adults. A culture of anger, suspicion, guilt, and denunciation cultivates savagery and produces nasty adults.

When society is structured to reward those who are decent and reasonable, the benefits to being both are obvious. But our society now rewards the aggrieved, the aggressive, the indecent, the unreasonable, and the distrustful, obscuring the benefits of virtue. Even worse, those aggrieved, aggressive, distrustful people have been rewarded with positions of power. They are now running the show and claiming to have the magical ability to unearth the mistaken beliefs hiding deep in the hearts and minds of children and adults.

Susan C. Olmstead is a freelance editor and preschool teacher in Cleveland, Ohio.

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