Today PZ reported on a valedictorian at a Florida high school whose message to the audience was largely that the godless among them would be heading straight to hell unless they opened their hearts to Jesus. My wife and I had a spirited discussion about the incident, the details of which are somewhat vague in the media report. My wife was convinced that the student performed a typical conservative Christian stealth move and switched the speech without notifying the administration or teachers; I don’t know…I didn’t see any indication of that in the news article and would have thought it might have been a major issue to report had it gone down that way. I actually don’t know anything about the rules governing valedictorian speeches, and I suspect they vary from place to place, but I have a feeling the speech might have been given with full knowledge of the immediate administration. My wife was under the impression a teacher review panel must have reviewed here speech for appropriateness prior to graduation, they gave the OK, and that they were culpable for the offensiveness of the speech, not the valedictorian.
Regardless, the valedictorian was clearly using the opportunity to preach to a captive audience. I don’t think that’s an ethical thing to do (and it speaks volumes about this student’s lack of character that she would willingly force others to listen to her personal belief system) but I tended to side with PZ on this: it’s her speech; let’s not have any undue constraints on what she wants to say. My wife, on the other hand, emphatically felt that the content of her speech was inappropriate for the event: again, a captive audience forced to endure Christian proselytizing.
My take on it stems from something I have maintained all along: don’t censure it…compete with it. Obviously, it is a bit tough to directly compete with a valedictorian at the event itself (“And now for our anti-valedictorian, Ms. So and So, who will now have fifteen minutes to respond….). People could get up and walk out…turn their backs…have some universal symbol of anti-conservative Christian protest (a raised fist like the Black Panthers?)…lots of ways to express your opinion in protest, even without being disruptive.
Of course perhaps the best counter protest is to help make it easier for a Buddhist, Muslim, or (god forbid!) an atheist valedictorian to give a speech centered on their own personal belief system. The hurdles in front of such a student getting to be valedictorian are currently beyond comprehension; and the courage it would take for a non-Christian student to do their own proselytizing at the podium hasn’t been seen since the 1770’s. Not likely at the moment…but then again it just takes one to start the ball rolling…
But I wasn't dwelling on these issues. I was really contemplating what this says about our Floridian student. Well, she’s not very courageous…telling an audience made mostly of conservative Christians that the godless among them must find Jesus takes about as much courage as asking a grocery clerk where you might find a head of lettuce. She’s very afraid of the world and needs others to agree with her in order to be safe. She certainly doesn’t have any respect for anyone who doesn’t agree with her. Therefore she has no demonstrated ability to communicate with others in their own terms, or even respect their own cultural contexts. In a future of global communication, travel, and information and cultural exchange, she will have no ability to advance society to future prosperity, security and peace. She’ll probably make a good engineer or “medical mechanic” like Dr. Egnor – stuck in her own world of “application” where her culture can be maintained without challenge. From here she can take potshots at those of us concerned with the broader philosophies of human existence that are the driving force behind human capacity and capability; and have been ever since people used cave walls to demonsrate an ability to ponder the human condition beyond the necessity of having a sharpened Levallois point.
In short, it is doubtful that a 12th grade proselytizer will have anything useful to contribute to the betterment of the human race.