Discernment: South Park, Presidential Politics & College Curricula

“No… I’m pretty sure Columbus was an asshole” was the first thought my sixteen year old self had immediately after hearing my Sunday school teacher confidently spew apologetics about the famous explorer who thought that the Caribbean was Asia. “Has she never read any history about this OG conquistador?” While I tried to mentally convince myself that there was no way she couldn’t know, she prattled on about how ‘noble’ and ‘righteous’ Columbus was, even going so far as to claim that Columbus only found the West Indies because God sent a flock of birds to help. With each passing moment, her face became more serious and emotionally paralyzed as she noticed that I wasn’t the only one up in their heads over what she was saying. Suddenly, my friend Andy’s internal debate found a voice and crawled out of his mouth in the middle of our teacher’s diatribe, “but, uh, wasn’t Columbus kind of mean to the Indians?” Besides the fact that his question was an understatement of continental proportions, Andy was right: Columbus was an asshole to West Indians, and that’s still a generous description. Our stern faced teacher took a breath and closed her eyes as if to calm herself, then shot right back with “Well, I think you should question the information that you are taught at school.” Ignoring the context of excusing genocide, our Sunday school teacher was right about this one thing: we should question what we are taught… everywhere (including everything in this article!). In asking his question, Andy was doing exactly what our Sunday school teacher was encouraging and now all of us within ear shot had to make up our own minds. Who was right?  Our teachers at school who taught us that Columbus treated native populations as commodities with historical evidence, or our Sunday school teacher who knew through personal spiritual perceptionthat Columbus was a ‘righteous’ explorer whose actions were backed by divine authority? As Andy and I discussed afterwards, we thought it was clear that our Sunday school teacher was either in denial, or insane. (In hindsight, I think she was just a world-class compartmentalizer.) However, a few of our other classmates overhearing our conversation challenged us, essentially saying that God wouldn’t allow for an unrighteous man to do such things and even if it did happen, there was probably a good excuse (see previous mentioning of compartmentalization). We all arrived at different conclusions despite being the same age, in the same church and being taught in the same schools. For all intents and purposes, we were as similar as you could get in a sample size but completely differed on this subject. This difference of opinion boiled down to the use of a single skill: discernment.

Discernment is the astute use of judgment after critical analysis. It’s giving consideration to as many opinions and data points as you can find, regardless of how ridiculous they may seem, and then making a decision based on the merit of all angles.  Proper use of discernment helps you understand that Onion/Clickhole articles aren’t actual news (some don’t understand, see: literallyunbelievable.org), that Jonathan Swift was not seriously suggesting eating babies to fight famine in “A Modest Proposal,” or that any author that states that science has “proven” something is almost certainly not a scientist. It can even help point out telling contradictions in society. Like when everyone was “outraged” at a baby dolphin dying due to selfie takers, a philosophy graduate student friend of mine at UNC-Chapel Hill pointed out “I wonder what the overlap is between people especially outraged by this kind of event and people who are not outraged by stuff like industrial animal farming.” In all of these cases, discernment saves you from making false conclusions, or more colloquially, saves you from looking like a fool. Back in our Sunday school class, Andy & I discerned that our teacher was either outright lying/in denial while our opposing classmates discerned that either Columbus didn’t do what the historical record states or God said it was okay to commit slaughter (wouldn’t be the first, or last, time, see: organized religion).  In my Sunday school class, we arrived at opposing conclusions yet both sides thought they were right even though there is empirical evidence of only one conclusion. As I said before, the difference can be chalked up to the application of discernment. Whether they are in denial of history or just wanted to excuse behavior, those revering Columbus in my Sunday school class focused on how they felt rather than what the evidence was before them. Today, some of them are now like our old teacher, valuing emotions over validated data (or at least that’s what their social media posting habits are broadcasting) including a boycott of “The Book of Mormon” because the foul-mouthed creators of South Park couldn’t possibly have anything impactful to say about their religion… or so they feel. 

When the construction-paper fourth graders first showed up on Comedy Central in 1997, almost everyone focused on the language. In fact, the very first New York Times review of South Park was entitled “In ‘Southpark’ [sic], the Adventures of Foulmouthed Tots.” Granted, the first season was not rife with boundary pushing satire as it is today, social satire was an obvious presence and the seeds of what South Park has become were planted in that first season. Less than one year after that original ‘ho hum’ review of South Park in the New York Times, the newspaper printed an opinion piece by Frank Rich in which he said, “''South Park'' is neither politically correct nor incorrect; it's on a different, post-ideological comic map altogether.” Rich saw the language as only adjacent to the central point of the show, social satire, while the original reviewer, Anita Gates, decided to emphasize the crude language. Just like in my Sunday school class, Rich and Gates discerned very different conclusions after analyzing the same material. Sure, the kids of South Park Elementary use foul language as if they hold a grudge against Standards & Practices, but that’s just the vernacular of the medium (as well as a somewhat accurate representation of adolescent language). And just like in any medium, an unfamiliar vernacular can make some ignore the subject, or worse, be outright dismissive. Gates discerned that because of the language, the show was “juvenile” and moved on without much further analysis. Today, article after article are being published (including in the aforementioned New York Times) praising the biting commentary that South Park delivers on modern subjects such as faux outrage with characters like PC Principal ("We are at war, but the only way to win this war is to be as understanding, non-biased and politically correct as possible!”), and gentrification with places like SoDoSoPa (“The City Part of Town”). As of today, the foulmouthed creators of South Park are only an Oscar away from the famous EGOT, and they were nominated for an Oscar, so that counts, right? But your opinion of an adult themed cartoon on basic cable hardly seems like a topic where lack of discernment is of big consequence, in other subjects, it’s of ‘yuge’ consequence.

It still seems like far out space nuts that the ignominious businessman Donald Trump and openly democratic socialist Bernie Sanders are serious contenders for their party’s presidential nomination. Trump is the embodiment of Tea Party Republican confirmation bias and just a few steps away from Idiocracy’s President Camacho. He has implied that undocumented workers from Mexico are committing inordinate amounts of crime, said that Muslims should either be on a national registry or not allowed in the country, promoted the idea of internet censorship to silence his critics and probably wants to have sex with his daughter (shoutout to The Daily Show and the 1st amendment for that last one). Whereas Trump’s Democratic counterpart is an oddball conglomeration of economic idealist/gun rights advocate and is connecting quite heavily with an age group that are barely older than his grandchildren. With these two vying for the most powerful political office on the planet, you can see how shrewd discernment in voting carries more weight than trying to appreciate a TV show. The best way to discern anything is to ask questions and only accept concrete answers. In this case, these answers cannot be political platitudes written specifically to make you feel good about the candidate, therefore reducing your want to criticize them because you like them. In Trump’s case, you should ask questions like “how are you going accomplish registering every American Muslim?” Luckily, someone did ask him that question, and his response: “Good management.” Without a plan to accomplish his goal, he is just spouting common political clichés… and racism. Trump’s answer says he doesn’t even know how he would accomplish his own goal because he has not internalized the question, “Yeah, how would I register Muslims around the country?” This absence of internalization shows that Trump lacks self-criticism and thus, good discernment. While Trump himself seems to lack discernment, in Bernie Sanders’ case it’s more likely the voters’ own discernment that is in question.

We all want free college. Who the hell doesn’t? However, Sanders stating he wants tuition-free state universities should make you think, “how would tuition be free?” The quick answer from the Sanders campaign appears to be taxing financial securities, or put into platitude form, ‘going after Wall Street.’ But as platitudes are unacceptable, we must be more critical. In short, Sanders’ plan is to levy a small tax every time any stock, bond or derivative is traded in order to raise the billions necessary to indeed make public universities free. The best part is, it might work. The worst part is, it might work. I want it to work. Yet getting on board means that I have to be comfortable with Sanders’ plan even though it doesn’t seem to account for rising tuition costs or what could happen if trading volume moves overseas. It means that I have to hope that the financial system doesn’t change so dramatically that it begins to affect the 99%’s retirement contributions. My real concern is that I haven’t been critical enough to be confident, and correct, about my decision and I want to do everything I can to gain more confidence in this choice. I doubt my own discernment. My vote, just like all others, will come down to my own personal ability to discern and honing that ability is not so easy.

Discernment is undoubtedly informed by logic, but at its foundation, discernment is creatively connecting pieces of logic. And just like creativity, discernment is not something that can be directly taught, it can only be shaped and reformed. This brings up the obvious conundrum of how to teach people to be better discerners when you can’t really teach discernment. In a way, discernment can be honed by studying logic and logical fallacies but that still won’t help in knowing how to apply these concepts to your everyday life or career. For example, it probably isn’t the case but, in no uncertain terms, any university student should be able to explain what a straw man argument is (setting up, and refuting, a misrepresented version of an initial argument). But without an applicable example to a field that you are individually familiar with, the concept can be easily lost. For instance, in the context of biology I could say “I support stem cell research,” a straw man argument refutation would be “supporting abortion is reprehensible.” In my hypothetical argument supporting stem cell research, I never said I support abortion (which I do) but the opposing argument put forth that I did support abortion through supporting stem cell research.  Now I can only speak in the field of biology as that is my wheelhouse, but try and apply it to your own field. It’s as easy as referencing the material from that one class that you took in applying logic to your career… oh wait, that class isn’t offered, but it should be.

At some point in every college student’s education, there is that one class that you have to take that you really don’t want to. I’ll spare you a list of examples because you are all thinking of what that class is/was for you right now. You may begrudgingly admit that that class may have helped you appreciate the subject, hell, you might’ve even extracted a few anecdotes to tell at parties. However, you most likely took it all to the mental garbage dump the second you turned in the final. Outside of making you a more ‘well-rounded person’ that class often has no direct benefit to your life. It seems silly to force every single college student into this situation regardless of major or career path. Why do we cling to the compulsory, and archaic, ideal of ‘well-roundedness’ in the university setting meant to train us for a career? It has no definite utility in the job market. University administrations should take the advice of Virginia City’s most famous alumnus, Mark Twain and not let “schooling interfere with your education;” another option for that class should be given. If you so choose, in its place could be a class that is updated every year in which controversial subjects are selected by the faculty from each field and students must present their opinions based on principles of logic to a class of their peers. By doing so, the goal of creating more discerning citizens/employees/people is done at the same time that students get a taste of what common criticisms are likely to be in their chosen career path directly from the mouths of their peers. In the professional world, no one will ever give you a multiple choice test on a subject outside of the one in which you work but you will have to present information to your peers/superiors and if you’ve never learned how to present relevant material based in logic to a critical audience, that could be a deal breaker for lots of potential employers. The best part is this new class benefits both kinds of students that make up of a majority of the student population, by making them better discerners.

Keeping it 100, there are two major, often overlapping, categories of student on any college campus: those looking for a better pay day, and those looking for more knowledge. Regardless of whether you feel like you just fit into one, or both, taking the class on applying logic in your field will directly help you be better at any future job as well as making you a more discerning citizen and person. You can start to learn how to recognize logical fallacies outside of your field in things like selecting a candidate to vote for, or which companies to support, and yes, even in understanding when and why your Sunday school teacher is justifying genocide.

Back on that Sunday afternoon, I took the cowardly way out by keeping my questions in my head. Instead, we should all be like Andy: discerning that something you’ve heard is most likely wrong based on evidences and then present those evidences to the person you disagree with. In again following Andy’s example, do it in question form, don’t just jump out and point out why someone is wrong! Don’t you know all those people that have changed their minds because of a dismissive comment someone made about how they think?... By asking a question, you avoid projecting a confrontational tone and cues the listener to internalize the question. Hopefully, the listener will indeed internalize the question, discern their answer and give a logical response. If they don’t, well, that tells you that you might be listening to someone that just tried to pass that annoying class at school and lost their education and ability to discern in the midst of their schooling.

© 2016 Insight Magazine