Issues without Nuance Are as Rare as Flawless Heroes

We often talk about teaching our students critical-thinking skills, but the fear of provoking controversy causes many of us to steer away from many, if not most, of the controversial issues of the day. So our students are left to absorb the almost always very selective and superficial talking points disseminated by public figures and by media commentators. They have no reason to look closely at the details that make each issue much more complex than one wishes it to be if all one is looking for is a simple example supporting some pre-packaged argumentative position. In effect, anyone who depends on sound-bite journalism for the shaping of their opinions is missing much more than the complexities in most issues; there is a very good chance that they cannot even recognize what the real issues are.

Remember Charles Ramsey, the guy who stepped in to help the three young women held in captivity in Cleveland by Ariel Castro? It turned out that Ramsey was a flawed hero—a person who had spent some time in jail for, of all things, spousal abuse. But Ramsey made no effort to conceal his past personal failings, and he was comfortable enough in his own skin that he expressed his opinions without worrying about whether how uncomfortable they might make anyone who was listening.

If you need a refresher, here are links three articles about Ramsey and the very ambivalent response to him that were published in the British newspaper The Guardian:


Charles Ramsey reminds me of none so much as … › Opinion › Ohio

The Guardian

May 10, 2013 – So when Ramsey emerges as heroic, humane, empathetic, funny, compelling, … I’m looking forward to getting used to Charles Ramsey.


Reactions to Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey show … › Opinion › Ohio

The Guardian

May 8, 2013 – Reactions to Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey show America’s race …. Donald Trump beware: apprentice Deez Nuts is top-polling independent … @Flawedlogic – Most people enjoyed the interview for the same reasons.


Charles Ramsey hailed as hero for role in helping Amanda … › US News › Ohio

The Guardian

May 7, 2013 – Ramsey was initially considered a lone saviour but neighbour claims it was ‘group … Charles Ramsey hailed as hero for role in helping Amanda Berry escape …. Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees … 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.


The authors of those articles in the Guardian focus on the fact that most of the consternation over Charles Ramsey’s being treated as a hero came from the Far Right, and the authors try to explore, if not explain, the broader social, cultural, and political implications of that consternation.

I remember thinking at the time that no one was really considering the alternative and patently absurd scenario that one might feel compelled to consider with the benefit of hindsight—the scenario in which Charles Ramsey feels inadequate to the role of hero and fails to step in to help the victims–the scenario in which he, instead, begins running through the neighborhood searching for a more worthy hero.

So, in this context, I know that I am opening myself to charges of inconsistency or worse when I reprint the following personal information from the Wikipedia entry for Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has been jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. (And, yes, she does already have a fairly detailed Wikipedia entry!):

“Davis is described as an ‘Apostolic Christian’ who worships three times a week at the Solid Rock Apostolic Church near Morehead. It is a congregation in the Apostolic Church, a Pentecostal Christian denomination. She experienced a ‘religious awakening’ in 2011, following her mother-in-law’s ‘dying wish’ that she attend church. Following her conversion, she let her hair grow long, stopped wearing makeup and jewelry, and began wearing skirts and dresses that fell below the knee. This was in accordance with the standards of her church regarding modesty and dress for women. Davis has held Bible study for inmates of the Rowan County jail.

“Davis has been married four times to three different men. The first three marriages ended in divorce in 1994, 2006, and 2008. She is the mother of twins, who were born five months after her divorce from her first husband. Her third husband is the biological father of the twins, who were adopted by her second husband, Joe, who is also her fourth and current husband.

“Joe supports her stance against same-sex marriage. One of Davis’s twin sons, Nathan, works in her office as a deputy clerk and has taken the same position of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”

I should add that Davis’ position as county clerk is an elected position and that before she held the position, her mother had held it for several decades. Oh, and irony of ironies, Kim Davis has run for the office as a Democrat—though one wonders for how long that will remain the case.

I want to be very clear that I don’t really care about the details of Kim Davis’ personal life—except to make the obvious point that if Charles Ramsey was not the prototypical hero, Kim Davis seems at the very least a somewhat dubious spokesperson for conservative religious convictions about traditional marriage.

I may be dating myself a bit with these references, but it is somewhat comparable to having Elizabeth Taylor or Mickey Rooney or some other somewhat extreme example of serial monogamy being the spokesperson for the sanctity of marriage.

To put it more simply, if she herself has held her current convictions for less than half a decade, why should she have the hutzpah—never mind any legal right—to insist that anyone else conform to those convictions.

I know that one of the central beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity is the power of forgiveness and redemption, but why is it that those who have so benefitted from that principle of forgiveness are so often so very unforgiving of those with differing sets of beliefs?

The problem is not just a black-and-white moral perspective that ignores all of the gray areas. The problem is a categorical morality that stresses the differences in systems of belief over any common ground among them. Indeed, such a categorical morality is based on the premise that there is no such common ground.

And because the longstanding separation of religion and politics has been eroded over the last four decades, this categorical morality has become quite central to our political debates even over such inherently complex issues as foreign policy. For instance, one can support Israel and recognize that Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorist activity throughout the Middle East while still being very uncomfortable with the notions that Bibi Netanyahu has the political equivalent of papal infallibility and that Iran is irredeemably and permanently an “evil” state.

For Christ’s sake (and I mean that more ironically than blasphemously here), I am sometimes tempted to think that Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards had a more nuanced view of the world.

By the way, I count it as one of the benefits of my liberal arts education that I have actually read Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World and not just Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” but also his Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.

And, yes, I count the experience of reading those works as a benefit even if that experience seems to prove that the university can be metaphorically likened not just to a state of limbo but also, without much exaggeration, to a sort of purgatory.


P.S. If Donald Trump has not already promised to name Sarah Palin or Mark Cuban as his running mate, some people seem to think that Kim Davis might be another possibility–if not over-qualified:

Kim Davis for President []



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