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Where Anthea Butler went wrong: An unbalanced MLK Day

anthea butlerIt seems that our recent MLK Day celebration at our liberal arts college came with a heavy dose of “liberal”. Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the keynote address. Butler is a frequent guest on the Melissa Perry Harris Show on MSNBC and unsurprisingly a supporter of the Democratic Party.

While I personally agree with most of her keynote address titled, “Martin Luther King Jr. and America’s Bad Check: America’s Poor in the 21st Century”, there are some statements that I feel should be addressed.

First, Butler’s insistence that the prosperity gospel is one of the key factors perpetuating income inequality is simply overblown. The prosperity gospel is a philosophy where preachers promote self-promotion and a material lifestyle. Our current tax policy and social safety net impact large groups of high and low-income people in a way that a preacher’s message saying you can possess material wealth cannot.

Butler’s critique is centered exclusively on church-going Christians, which is problematic. Many different groups of people from many different backgrounds contribute both positively and negatively to our income inequality problem in America and it is not fair to call out one group, specifically a group that often promotes large amounts of charitable giving, as responsible for income inequality.

Even if the Christian Church has become a place where serving others is no longer emphasized, an assertion that I disagree with, that does not mean we should demonize religion and individuals for our problems with poverty.

Butler continues to blame individuals with her statement that our rhetoric is derived from an “Ayn Rand philosophy.” Saying that the majority of Americans believe that people are poor because they want to be poor is simply not true. There may be some of this rhetoric from the far right fringes of our political discourse, but you did not see Romney or Obama saying anything similar to that philosophy during their political campaigns. Many Americans, both liberal and conservative, give heavily to charitable organizations that alleviate poverty.

There might be a moral obligation for individuals to alleviate poverty, but the practical obligation falls into the hands of the government. The government should expand our social safety net and promote programs like education and healthcare, but it is not the fault of an individual if the government fails to take action.

Butler has also made disconcerting statements on free speech in the wake of the Benghazi Embassy attacks.

A tweet from her account reads, “When Sam Bacile would be arrested?” Bacile was the fake name of a filmmaker who made the controversial film Innocence of Muslims which had multiple scenes that are offensive to Muslim viewers. There were riots over the film at the time of the embassy attack in Libya.

Butler says Bacile should be arrested because, “As a religion professor, it is difficult to teach the facts when movies such as Bacile’s are taken as truth and propaganda.” So essentially she is saying that when an insensitive film makes it hard to teach, then it should be censored.

Butler then goes on to say that she values free speech because she is a tenured professor. This is ridiculous, as having more education then someone else does not mean that you get to be the arbiter of when the First Amendment is applied. Butler uses the argument that the army felt the film was a serious threat, so therefore its creator should be jailed. I can think of many places where the army determines who goes to jail, and I would not want to live in those places.

I know I have been critical, and it isn’t because I disagree with the larger point of Butler’s message: we need to do more to fight poverty in America. It is because there was not an opposing viewpoint offered on campus during MLK Day.

If we have two keynote speakers that can articulate their opinions on a heated issue like government responsibility to its poor, then we can actually partake in a discussion of the issues that is engaging and beneficial for the entire campus.

We also have a responsibility to listen to opposing viewpoints, and it seems that there are members of the Bates community who do not wish to do so. One event that does involve a discussion of the issues from both sides is the annual MLK Debate, and there were multiple members of that audience, including some staff and professors, who felt the need to boo and hiss at the team from Bates defending less government intervention for the poor.

Even though before each of their speeches the debaters reiterated that they did not personally agree with the side they were defending, people still decided to give them a hard time. This is problematic because a lot of issues that a vast majority of Batesies agree on are issues that are contentious debates in other spheres. We need to be willing to listen to the other side of that debate.

As a college that was founded on embracing all viewpoints, we need to have balance in the viewpoints that are presented on campus, especially during a well-known event like MLK Day.  Bringing in a second keynote speaker can potentially stir a greater discussion of the issues that this year’s program lacked in some respects.

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