When I pulled my minivan up to the curb of the school sidewalk, my daughter, instead of saying the customary prolonged goodbye to her 4th-grade classmates while I look on rather impatiently, approached the van door without the slightest hesitation, waving a bright yellow paper. As soon as she opened the door, she exclaimed excitedly that a day-long field trip to a local college was planned and all I had to do was sign the permission slip so she could go. I asked her what they were going to do at the college. She hesitated for a second as she looked down at the paper in her hands and said that they were going to learn about bullying awareness. Since there had been many incidents of bullying at the school during the past year, I was hardly surprised to hear this. And I was relieved that the school was trying to address the problem.
That evening, when my daughter was doing her homework, I looked at the permission slip again. Just to make sure that the program would be appropriate for my 9-year-old, I decided to investigate online the organization that was running it. I soon discovered that the college’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender student group co-teaches one of the programs for middle-school-aged children, and that this program also happened to be advertised on the site of a prominent national gay-rights activist group. I have nothing against organizations working with other groups in order to determine how they might best approach school problems like bullying. In fact, work needs to be done on many fronts to prevent school bullying, which can result in alienation, depression, or even suicide among our youth.
But this bullying awareness program claimed to do something else: to celebrate diversity. Upon further investigation, celebrating diversity turned out to be a celebration of moral relativism: the shallow and self-satisfied yet insidious and contradictory sort of relativism that, while paying homage to “liberty” (read: indeterminate self-fulfillment), and “equality” (read: the leveling of all differences and distinctions including natural ones), undermines and replaces religious and other traditional views of morality.
Instead of being taught the necessity of distinguishing between noble and base or right and wrong, our children are told at a tender age to be equally open to all ways of life on the grounds that all values are subjective. I wondered if the real intention of the classes on diversity for students my daughter’s age was to prevent in the future any principled opposition to homosexuality: the organization was attempting to get children, once cast out in the murky waters of relativism and left stranded without a moral or spiritual compass with which to orient themselves, to blindly accept homosexuality on equal footing with traditional sexuality. Being taught that all lifestyle choices are conventional and acceptable and based on an individual’s right to self-definition and self-expression would likely confuse my daughter, either sapping the strength from her own religious and moral convictions in the future or, even worse, preventing them from ever taking root.
I do not want my daughter to be exposed to a worldview that, with regard to moral truth and virtue, breeds indifference at best and contempt at worst. In fact, I would like to teach my daughter a very different lesson about bullying prevention, namely that the inviolable worth and dignity of all people is an objective moral principle, and this principle provides us with a basis for how we treat other people. And it is through moral conduct (e.g., just treatment of others and concern for the common good) that we express our good character and sound judgment and exercise those virtues that, at their peak, lead to honorable and noble achievements and human excellence.
So, with these concerns in mind, I told my daughter that she could not participate in the bullying awareness program. She said that she was very upset with me because she didn’t want to be the only student who was not allowed to attend the field trip. When she asked for an explanation, I discovered that I had no idea how to talk about these issues in a way that would be appropriate for a 9-year-old. Anxious to reassure her and explain things properly but, at the same time, fearing I would make matters worse, I told her how important it is for me to protect her and do the right thing, even if doing the right thing is sometimes very difficult. And I asked her to put her trust in me, even when I cannot always explain everything to her because it would be inappropriate to do so. As I was reconsidering this “explanation” and trying to anticipate her response, my daughter said that she wanted to tell me a story about her best friend, who is Muslim. I wasn’t sure if this story would have anything to do with what we had been discussing, but, for the time being, I was relieved to be off the hook.
My daughter said that last spring her best friend was not allowed to go on the class trip to the pool (a class trip of which my daughter was particularly fond) because she cannot wear anything that shows her bare legs. Apparently my daughter’s friend was a little upset when she witnessed the excitement and eager anticipation of all her classmates as they were being shuttled onto the bus that was departing to the community pool. Nevertheless, and much to my daughter’s surprise, her best friend compliantly, and only with a small sigh of resignation, accompanied her mother to the school parking lot and got in the car that was to take her home. Then my daughter asked me if her best friend obeyed her mother without any objections because she knew her mother was trying to protect her modesty.
I was a little surprised that my daughter used the word modesty in the context of how one dresses, for we had never talked about this at home. My daughter explained to me that her friend sometimes discusses with her the inappropriateness of dressing immodestly and chasing boys. (Now I knew why my daughter had previously asked me about the difference between playing tag with boys and chasing them because you “like” them.) But what surprised me the most was not that my daughter seemed to understand on some level my very inadequate explanation as to why she couldn’t attend the bullying awareness program, but that she took some comfort in knowing that she was not alone, that there was someone else’s mother in her school who also made unpopular moral decisions and a daughter who sometimes felt a little disappointed and embarrassed as a result of them. A little smile appeared on my daughter’s face when I pointed out that this friend of hers would probably not attend the field trip either. My hope—and perhaps it is an unrealistic one—is that the friendship between the two girls will help my daughter gain a bit of confidence when her own beliefs are put to the test (as they inevitably will be in the near future) by a set of very different beliefs held by the majority of other children with whom she goes to school.
The next day when I considered talking about the issue with the mothers to whom I usually talk on the school playground during pick-up time, I felt oddly uneasy and hesitant, and after glancing in their direction indecisively, I quickly turned away and stood by myself for a few minutes. I felt a little out of place, and doubted if any of them would think the same way I did about the bullying awareness program, and so I decided this time to keep my opinions to myself.
Then I looked across the school playground and saw a Muslim mother, the mother of my daughter’s best friend, holding her headscarf in place with her hands as the wind blew about restlessly. I caught her eye for a moment and we smiled at each other. Before this moment, I had never thought that my situation in any shape or form was similar to that of a Muslim mother. And I had never thought seriously about talking to a Muslim mother about issues of faith or raising children in our community. But now I was beginning to reconsider. Perhaps our Muslim fellow citizens, especially those who are spiritually and intellectually confident in their ways of life, can challenge and inspire us to reflect more deeply on our own faith and morality, and perhaps in the process we might discover that we share some of the same moral principles and hopes and dreams for our children.
We always hear so much about the things that separate Muslims from Christians (and no doubt there are things that do separate us), and often these differences are expressed in negative and prejudiced ways. I wonder if our misunderstandings and misconceptions prevent some of us from trusting and forming spiritual bonds and friendships with those who are confronting some of the very same challenges that we confront. I live in a community where many of my moral views about sexuality, marriage, and the family are in the minority. Sometimes they are challenged (respectfully and disrespectfully), and every now and again someone agrees with them, but often they are simply dismissed. Like my daughter, I’m comforted to know that there is someone else with whom I share similar experiences (and perhaps a moral view or two).
In that moment we only shared a smile, but perhaps sometime soon I might try to strike up a friendship with her. Perhaps our very ordinary personal experiences have something to say about human connectedness, our attachments and loyalties, memories and traditions, and may help us to think about a truer, better, and more fundamental vision of diversity, one based not on individualistic or egalitarian expressions of relativism or an all-consuming tribal identity, but on a willingness to share with another those meaningful things that bring us together and permit us to enter into each other’s lives. Recognition of universal moral truths combined with a human desire to seek the good may be the best way to confront our prejudices. And our distinct individuality—religious plurality along with our competing and complementary traditions—may prove to be the best way to begin to understand our common humanity. Perhaps the tensions between unity and particularity, love of the good and love of our own, openness to transcendence and a connection to others, are integrated components of our human nature and are indicative of our fragilities but also our great possibilities.