What I learned at the Spectacle

The Spectacle of Toleration project is pretty much wrapped up. In the fall of 2015, we will have a volume of papers from the conference, and we are working on a video component, but the day-to-day work of thinking about and organizing on this topic is complete.  I am now reflecting on the work  —  in part because I have to for the funders, but also because I find that this project has changed my focus and my thinking for the Newport Historical Society and myself.

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, one of the most extraordinary results of this project was the way in which it highlighted how much the young academics who participated were hungry for an opportunity to reach the public with their ideas and their research. We, on the public history side, had been worrying about how much research in the humanities is happening in academia that the public knows nothing about. That research — and many facts new to me — were on display at the Spectacle conference last October. The conference revealed to us many things that folks should know  —  should know because they make a difference in how we think about the past  —  like the fact that many of the immigrants to the 17th century American colony of Jamestown (first permanent settlement) were neither English nor Protestant. 

Because of this, the NHS is now explicitly saying in its strategic plans that it intends to help create bridges between academia and the public. This is important because we must make the case that history matters, and indeed that ideas matter. Which I suppose is a central tenet of the humanities generally — that thinking about and attempting to understand human thought and behavior doesn’t just happen in the sciences — it also happens through the study of the vast database that history, anthropology, law, philosophy, religion, language and literature studies provide us.

The importance of understanding ideas and their impact was highlighted for me in the discussion that followed the recent Supreme Court decision ruling that opening city council meetings with sectarian prayer does not violate the U.S. Constitution. These discussions happen for the most part for non-academics on Facebook. Which is a little embarrassing, but here we are. For many people, this decision was taken as an endorsement of the basically Christian culture of Greece, New York. Which it sort of wasn’t, but I wonder how many of us carefully read and fully understood this decision.

In fact the Court majority suggests that listening to the prayers of another faith does not coerce or in any way harm an individual in a civic audience. Which would be true if we were all tolerant pluralists. But when one does the thought experiment of flipping the equation  —  if, say, most of the City Council were Wiccan, and a prayer to the Goddess started each meeting, how would you feel?  —  the general response ranges from discomfort to outrage. Such an experiment in practice led to the disturbing Christian disruption of a Hindu prayer in the U.S. Senate. It makes me wonder how much the Court really understands religion.

Which brings me to the next thing that I learned from the Spectacle project. We are many of us woefully unaware of the tenets, intellectual underpinnings and cultural attachments of even our own religions. The Spectacle project taught me to think about the words evangelizing, proselytizing, and fundamentalism and the distinction between them (you could look it up).  What does it mean when you believe that you know the truth about the universe, that this truth is tied to a series of practices, and that God needs you to bring everyone into the fold? What if you believe that there is only one path to righteousness, and that any other expression is not only false but dangerous?

You’d be in pretty illustrious company if you felt that way — think of Cotton Mather calling Rhode Island’s religious diversity a sewer, and contagious. But think, too, of how this idea could lead to Puritan comfort generally with burning witches and hanging Quakers. Roger Williams, on the other hand, believed that because there are competing ideologies, each one certain that it is the truth, it is in fact the case that some folks have to be wrong. And  the only way we can be sure it is not “us” who are in the wrong is by talking to and interacting with the others. Which is hard to do if you have already killed them all. Williams, as an older man, famously rowed from Providence to Newport to debate the Quaker George Fox. He was sure the Quakers were wrong, but supported their right to exist, and hoped to persuade them of their error. Williams and others brought that vision of self-interested tolerance to Rhode Island and influenced the world.

But we are not talking much about the idea of tolerance now, and I think we must. Because if we are not anthropologists enough to step outside our own world view and see things through the eyes of others, and not philosophers enough to understand and examine the ideas and values that underlie these views, and not historians enough to use the history of conflicts past when we think about how we want to behave today, then we will continue to have trouble living together.

Knowing that we cannot all be scholars at all times, and that thoughtfulness and deliberation  are sometimes at odds with our instincts, what can we do? It seems to me that the practice, the habit, of tolerance can be established in a community, as it was here in Rhode Island long ago. This habit was created through a shared world-view that suggested that people had a right to think about, and interact with, the infinite on their own terms. This view did not eliminate fierce opinions, deep faith, or prejudice and conflict, but it did provide a baseline of acceptance of our right to differ.  Many of us feel this view is part of the founding legacy of this Nation. Others disagree. How we might approach a discussion on this issue here and now, vastly diverse and inter-connected as we are, is a complicated question.  One that history can inform.

Ruth S. Taylor, Executive Director, NHS


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