Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Rights of Error and the Death of Tolerance

That's the title of my latest installment over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”
– Bob  Dylan, “High Water (For Charley Patton),” 2001

Many years ago I was a guest on a national radio show to discuss one of my books. I forget which one, but I vividly remember an encounter I had with a listener who called the program. He was clearly upset that I was offering reasons for the sanctity of unborn human life, that I was explaining in some detail why I believe that the preborn human being has a personal nature and that abortion is unjustified homicide.

After some initial small talk, and my answering his question about human personhood, the caller asserted with obvious exasperation: “Dr. Beckwith, you’re just intolerant. You seem so sure that you are right, and that everybody else is wrong.” For someone like me, who moonlights as a philosophical comedian, this sort of assertion is almost too good to be true. It’s the type of clichéd, mindless platitude that has kept the book I wrote with Gregory P. KouklRelativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, in print for fifteen years.

I answered the caller by asking this question, “Am I wrong in thinking this way?” It is an interrogative response that Greg and I have employed on numerous occasions and have shared with many an audience. The caller replied, “Yes.” I then said, “Then, you’re exactly like me. You think you’re right and I’m wrong. The difference is that I actually admit I believe something is true. You, on the other hand, believe something is true, but act as if you really don’t.”

>>>continue reading

Monday, June 3, 2013

Riley Beckwith's Valedictorian Address

My niece, Riley Jane Beckwith, as I have already noted, was named a National Merit Finalist, earned a full ride to the University of Dallas (beginning in Fall 2013), and is the 2013 Dayton High School valedictorian. What follows is the text of her valedictorian address, which she delivered in Dayton, Nevada on May 30, 2013:
2013 Dayton High School Valedictorian Address
by Riley J. Beckwith

The title of valedictorian demands that I give some sort of wisdom to the rest of my class, which is, frankly, a little selfish of you all. I think the number of whispered “Hey, Riley! What’s number five?” that I so graciously responded to should exempt me from having to come up here. Honestly, I think I’ve earned some advice from some of you. But, since I’m the one standing here, I will try to produce a little more brilliance for you all. I have tried to remember all of your tips for this speech, including “don’t make it stupid.” We’ll see if I’m successful.

I’m going to tell you all about something I learned existed while in high school, and it’s something you all should be aware of. I call it (and this is its technical name) “Tinkerbell Syndrome.” You see, in Peter Pan, the fairies can only be one thing at a time. If they’re angry, then they’re going to be angry no matter what. If they’re having a good day, nothing could make them upset. They are one thing and that one thing is all they can be unless they change everything they are. And this idea that a person has room for one fixed thing at a time, and that change from that one thing must be absolute and binding, is something that I’ve seen all throughout high school.

In our society, any self-doubt, any confusion about who we are is seen as something that needs to be fixed immediately. It is bad to not know who you are or to not like parts of yourself. Especially at this time in our lives, it is so easy to buy into the idea that you are finally becoming who you are. As if people can be one type of person, and that discovering that person must be dramatic and all at once. You wake up one day and suddenly you know everything you’re supposed to be, and that’s just who you are now forever and ever. People aren’t like Tinkerbell, at least, not in that respect. They are a whole variety of things at once, and all those little pieces are constantly changing. You don’t need to decide that everything you are right now, sitting here, is all you’ll ever be.

Now, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you can be “anything you want to be.” However, you can be (and are) more than the one or two things you may feel like right now.  We try so hard to define ourselves when all we’re really doing is limiting who we can be. Who you are is going to change.  Accept that change. Be open to it, not because it is easy or it will always lead to success, but because it is what people were meant to do.

And speaking of success, don’t let your pursuit of it keep you from experiencing life. If you really, really want to try painting or take a science class but don’t because you’re not good at those things, then you’ve missed the point. And the point, by the way, isn’t the Hollywood favorite of discovering hidden talents or becoming great at something through sheer will power. Sometimes you simply aren’t good at something you happen to enjoy. And that’s okay. You can have fun, and that’s important in life. Some hard work and ambition is necessary.  But enjoying life should be about more than the things you can be the best at. And the class of 2013 knows how to enjoy life. Don’t lose that in an attempt to “figure out” who you are or be successful.

This class is diverse and funny and talented and it has been such a pleasure to spend my high school years with you. In all earnestness, this has been a special time in my life, and I have shared it with a group of people I am proud of and will miss.  I’ve had wonderful teachers who have encouraged me with their enthusiasm for their subjects and a dedication to making me a more thoughtful human being. My family must be thanked as well, from my parents who have always encouraged my intellectual growth, to my younger siblings who, for my eighteenth birthday, tried to dissuade me from going to college by writing “Please don’t leave us!” on a picture of me on a campus filled with criminals. They have brought laughter into every day of my life, and I’m truly lucky to have them.

Someone told me my speech should be “mediumish” in length.  I don’t know what that means, but I have done my best. Thank you, class of 2013, and good luck.