You would probably Lynch Socrates,
Crucify Jesus and Evict Muhammad
26 Semptember 2009
Yesterday in one of my Philosophy classes, we discussed Plato’s The Apology, the trial and defense of Socrates… One of my favorite books!. To demonstrate the feelings of Athenians against Socrates, I asked the class a provocative question. I asked them about their position against flag burning.
” If someone burns an American flag in public to express his or her dissenting political views what should be done? Those who burn the flag: (a) must get six months in prison; (b) must be banished from country for six months; (c) must publicly apologize and recite the national anthem in front of a flag and jury; (d) pay fine equivalent of the market value of the flag; (e) get no punishment. Please discuss your reason.”
Some students wished to impose penalties while others did not. I claimed that those who picked a punishment as their option were not much different than the jury members who condemned Socrates or the Pharisees that condemned Jesus to death or the Meccan mullahs that evicted Muhammad and waged several wars against him.
I dramatized my point by creating a scene, a frame in which they would hate to see themselves: “if you lived during those historic events, you would be among the mob that lynched and oppressed those brave philosophers.” Each mob had (and has) different idols, symbols, and sensitivities and they would not tolerate anyone who did not show respect to them… The idols and symbols might change but bigotry, oppression and suppression may not. Ironically, the victims of a previous violence of idol-worship may become the symbols of a new generation of idol-worshipers who feel justified to victimize others who may not respect their idols.
My provocation worked well, but some students got more excited than I hoped for. One student, Rachael M., whose father was reportedly a veteran, ended up crying. On one hand, I felt bad for allowing the discussion to end up with such an emotional confrontation among the students; but on the other hand, I am glad that I thought them through their own experience that they MAY NOT be much different than the people of the past that they feel at liberty to criticize. In other words, the color of some high horses were noticed not to be so white after all.
I asked them to never let their emotions and sentimental feelings to cloud their judgment and guide their actions. Never let the horses (emotions) determine the direction and speed of cart. I defended the wisdom of the US Supreme Court (though it was by a small margin) for not justifying penalty for burning flag. I argued that both consistency in theory of liberty and pragmatic/practical considerations should lead mature societies to tolerate fringe and annoying groups…
PS: About one year after this debate, the student who cried in the classroom contacted me via facebook and posted a message thanking me for opening her eyes. “It was the best class I have ever taken” she noted.