I was between buses after work, so I stopped at the library and was browsing through the History shelves when I heard an almost familiar sound of a human voice in a halting manner reading something aloud. It was vaguely familiar because I often see literacy tutors working with pupils in the library, but it's never the same twice because the tutors use different texts.
At first I simply processed the sounds like more background noise, but because words are often very carefully pronounced, the meaning of the lesson soon impressed itself on me. The pupil read aloud about an evil scientist creating a race of devils, the white man, who lived in caves and walked on all fours, but were given rule over the earth to commit great crimes for a period of years. His tutor was indoctrinating him with the mythology of the Nation of Islam.
I paused in between shelves and listened. Part of me wanted to walk to the table and tear the sheet of paper from the pupil's hand and tell the tutor how rotten it was to fill the kid's mind with that garbage, but the stronger part of me didn't want to create a scene. That part acknowledged that, while the library is a public place, these literacy lessons were really private transactions between tutors and pupils. What the tutor used to get the kid to read was none of my business -- or was it? That couldn't be entirely true, or else I wouldn't be writing about it now. It's obviously my opinion that teaching Nation mythology does no one any good; if someone needs to believe something like that in order to feel pride about himself, we ought to question the value of pride. But was it my business -- let's leave out the commercial metaphor and ask -- was it my duty to speak out against the indoctrination? Was the right question whether I had the right, or whether I have an obligation to stop the spread of bad ideas? Why not question my own motives? I've heard tutors teaching standard Christianity and Jehovah's Witness doctrine in the library, and I didn't feel the urge to intervene that I felt tonight. Did I object to foolish doctrines or only to someone stirring up the black man? But I was no less certain that Nation teachings were objectively bad, so could I speak out against them if I dared if I wasn't equally willing to challenge any teaching I considered wrong?
Let's face it: my biggest fear was getting into an argument with a black man and getting thrown out of the library. I'm not proud of that, but I honestly don't know if there was a correct course to pursue apart from using my private piece of public space right here to express my views. My gut feeling, with a little bit of brain feeling behind it, is that there are plenty of necessary debates that don't happen because we're reluctant to get into each other's faces and we're not supposed to impose our opinions on each other. But if we are political animals, than we can't help imposing opinions on each other, and probably ought to be doing more in that line. It's bound to be messy and scary and actually dangerous sometimes, but we probably ought to reach out more often and slap some sense into each other -- metaphorically, most of the time. Whether it's worth getting thrown out of a library to stall the poisoning of one mind is a fair question, but it shouldn't be the only question we ask.