A journalist was interviewing a Boy Scout troop leader on the radio. He was explaining the merit badges, and in particular, the one involving lessons in handling and shooting guns. The journalist began pressing the troop leader about the benefit of this. Was teaching young boys to shoot guns a good idea? And then she pressed harder: wasn’t the troop leader training the boys to be serial killers? The troop leader shot back: “Just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean you’ll become a prostitute, does it?”
Suddenly, the radio went dead. The producer evidently felt the conversation had gotten out of hand, and my friend said there was radio silence for 45 seconds. Forty-five seconds in radio time is an eternity.
In relating the story, my friend also said that the journalist “was going after the troop leader.” And my friend and my husband, who was also listening, both seemed to think that the troop leader was vindicated in his remarks to, as my friend characterized her, the outspoken and accusatory journalist. They had that “touché” look about them, and they both expounded on the importance of teaching gun use and safety to deter gun accidents and violence.
I, on the other hand, felt like the radio station – I just went blank. I heard myself say, “I need to think about this.”
It sounds reasonable enough for an interview subject to push back on a journalist who clearly is overstepping the role. After all, a journalist is supposed to be a neutral agent, asking intelligent questions that open up the ability to understand something. A journalist with an opinion isn’t an anomaly, but one that openly shows it betrays the journalist’s role. Using the microphone to berate and pillory an interview subject goes against what we expect of the Fourth Estate. Although, what’s considered berating and what is classed a tough question is certainly “in the ear of the listener.” But this wasn’t what was irking me.
To the point of who was right and who was wrong regarding the gun issue, that’s a matter of serious divide in this country. And when it comes to kids and guns specifically, Columbine brought sharp and heart-rending focus to this subject. (I wondered too, if the journalist meant to say “mass murderer,” which was what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were, as opposed to “serial killers.”) Is gun violence promulgated or diminished by teaching young people about guns? I cannot say that I know any statistics on this, but feel certain there are plenty on both sides. But nor was this, in my mind, the issue giving me pause.
What was tripping me up was making equivalent the insinuation that teaching about guns could mean someone would become a serial killer to the insinuation that having female sex anatomy would mean someone would become a prostitute. There was something about this supposed quid pro quo that disturbed me. In a social situation, with a couple of glasses of wine in me, I couldn’t piece it together. So, I bumbled about, raising the hackles of my dinner companions until I finally changed the subject.
It wasn’t until the following day, on the drive home in slow-moving traffic, that my clear mind could traverse the tricky terrain. What I felt instinctively problematic about this troop leader’s come back became crystal clear. Comparing a learned behavior (gun shooting) as causal for a primordially wrong behavior (serial killing) to an innate aspect of being (femaleness) as causal for a morally wrong one (prostitution) is deeply inappropriate. In other words, moving the conversation to aspects of a person that are innate – like gender, skin color, age – moves it to a whole different realm. While the journalist’s comment may have been inflammatory, the troop leader’s was sexist. Had the journalist been black, would the troop leader have resorted to a racial slur to
In his anger, the troop leader not only exposed his underlying thinking about women, he also escalated the conversation from one about the issue to one about the person. And this is where he crossed the line. Remember: the radio went blank not when the journalist asked about serial killers, but when the troop leader asked her about being a prostitute.
And now comes the really important part. As a Boy Scout troop leader, that is, as a
person who teaches and models behavior, values, and ethics to impressionable young boys, is this the kind of response, no matter the provocation, that we desire? I come down firmly on the side of no. Young men need models of men who can remain honorable and civil in the face of adversity. They need models for how to talk about the merits of gun knowledge with people who are vehemently, even emotionally, against guns as well as those who are for them, especially in this time of such polarity on the subject. And our young men need examples of how to address a journalist who may be overstepping her role without resorting to gender (or any other kind of) slurs.
In a time when the line between the issue and personal attack is very nearly gone, I applaud the radio station for choosing to end the conversation. But we need to go a step beyond silence. We need to create a merit badge for civility, with emphasis on the ability to express one’s views in the face of adversity without resorting to personal attack. This is really what we need to teach our children, remembering, children learn best from models.