It’s Not Fair!

By Tim GeerA brief news story on Alabama Public Radio recently discussed the delay of an Alabama State School Board vote on social studies textbook adoption because of some complaints that several of the texts demonstrated bias. The groups petitioning for the exclusions, including the Eagle Forum of Alabama and Act for America asserted that several texts contained anti-Christian and pro-Muslim statements. While neither group has presented many specifics to the general public, one of them linked to Citizens for National Security (CFNS), a group in Florida taking similar action. CFNS provides a lengthy report of the biases, which included equating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, making no reference to “jihad,” applying the term “Palestine” to the eastern Mediterranean, and associating terrorism with only “a few fanatics”.

This ideological position appears to be almost in complete contrast to the recent efforts in Florida and Oklahoma to add non-Christian displays and monuments to displays of a Nativity or Ten Commandments on public property. Yet, the call for fairness in both realms draws on a similar framework (built on the assumption of public/private distinctions). All of these groups suggest another group has an unfair advantage from public entities and desire to redress that advantage.

While they all call for fairness, each of these groups tends to see the other as exemplifying the problem. Those proposing and installing a Festivus Pole or Satanist monument generally confirm the concerns of CFNS that the way of life of the United States is under serious threat and needs to be defended. Similarly, those installing the diverse symbols often view groups such as CFNS as confirming their fear of governmental favoritism for particular understandings of Christianity.

Besides illustrating the malleability of fairness arguments, these structural similarities, at least in the fashion that I have constructed them, suggest that these public disputes demonstrate the ways ideologies constrain what their adherents notice (much as my colleague has asserted that theory, whether explicit or implicit, determines what a scholar notices). Because CFNS knows that Muslims are covertly working to gain power over everyone in the United States, they identify any positive statements concerning Islam as bias, and the addition of non-Christian monuments reinforces their sense of fear, of being besieged. Because the groups adding their own public displays know that certain forms of Christianity receive undue preference from the government, despite claims of neutrality, they see these displays and advocacy from groups like CFNS as examples that reinforce what they already know. Thus, the efforts of each group to push a fair result appear unfair to the other groups because what each group considers to be fair is constructed through their ideological lens. Efforts to arrive at a universally “fair” position are impossible. Rather than focusing on the rhetoric of fairness, we should analyze these stories as ideological wrestling matches between groups who see each other, through their own ideology, as a threat to the type of society that they want to inhabit.

[Photo by Tim Geers, Creative Commons License]

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