Moms for Liberty: serving moral panic with a side of BASIC cannibalism,Aaron Rabinowitz,The Skeptic

It’s always a highlight of teaching ethics when the discussion inevitably turns to cannibalism. The disgust students express towards cannibalism is heightened when they realise that it’s difficult to support a moral objection to consensual cannibalism as anything more than an evolved cultural bias, or at best a hygienic concern. So I was excited when cannibalism popped up in the war over public schools that I discussed last month. The following appear to be flyers distributed by the groups ‘Moms for Liberty’ and ‘Parents’ Choice Tennessee’.

As discussed last month, the group names convey how this particular moral panic is wrapped up in a veneer of educational choice and greater parental control over curricula. We have the usual litany of CRT badness related to racial and cultural divisiveness, and the suggestion that this is causing substantial psychological harm to students. But the stand-out suggestion is that students are being taught the basics of cannibalism! What could that mean? They surely wouldn’t just throw in cannibalism to complete their BASIC acronym, so of course I wanted to know what they were referencing.

My first concern was the authenticity of the flyer. Between the overwrought acronym and the build up to cannibalism, I worried this might be an instance of Poe’s law. I’ve found other sources referencing the flyer, but they don’t seem to make any effort to verify its veracity. However, both the groups involved have previously accused teachers of presenting students with inappropriate material about cannibalism. Moms for Liberty hosted an event entitled “Let’s Talk Wit and Wisdom”, where they claimed that the K-5 curriculum (ages 5-10) was teaching everything listed on the flyer, along with things like “Critical Race Theory… gender fluidity, alcoholism, promiscuity, and torture”. This information was interspersed with pictures of students looking sad after supposedly having been exposed to the curriculum, which once again made me question whether this – or, indeed, anything – is real.

While none of the articles I found describing the event mentioned the specific cannibalism material, this video of MFL members speaking at a school board function posted by MFL does include four examples. One is a book called George Vs. George which describes how Native Americans who were fighting alongside the British would sometimes ritualistically eat strong enemies, in a bid to become more powerful. Amazon lists the book as appropriate for ages 9-12. Two of the examples relate to Greek mythology. One is a book called Gifts from the Gods, which describes the banquet of Tantalus, and the other is a book called Understanding Greek Myths, which highlights the common theme of eating children in Greek mythology. Amazon lists them as appropriate for ages 10-12 and 8-12, respectively. The final example in the video is a play called The Cannibal Monster from the book Pushing Up the Sky, a collection of Native American myths for children, which Amazon recommends for ages 7-10. Far from depicting or even discussing cannibalism, the myth is just an origin story for mosquitoes, where the moral is that violence only makes things worse.

Now, to me, these examples scream moral panic. Unless the next stop is accusing Amazon of rating books inappropriately, it seems that MFL activists are overstating the inappropriate nature of these materials. They’re taking materials that are appropriate for the high end of the K-5 age range and giving the strong impression that they’re being taught to the low end of the age range.

The content of the complaints also strikes me as disingenuous. Take the books on Greek mythology. It’s arguably impossible to have a book about Greek mythology without cannibalism, because the origin myth of the Greek pantheon involves Cronos eating his own children to try to stave off patricide. The way this material is covered in the texts in question seems particularly tame, which makes a complaint of indecency seem like excessive coddling – ironic, given the conservative chorus of criticism for today’s coddled, ‘snowflake’ generation. There’s also the irony in conservatives complaining about the use of these texts, while also accusing the ‘woke’ of removing “the classics” from the curriculum in favour of more culturally diverse texts. It seems like the desire is to only teach a highly sanitised and censored version of the classics, in a way that’s likely to bore students.

The Native American story strikes me as harmless, in keeping with its lower age rating, even if you had students acting out the play. The titular cannibal monster doesn’t violently eat anyone, they just get pushed into a fire and turn into mosquitoes. There are several scenes in The Lion King more graphic than anything in this book. It honestly seems like MFL saw the word Cannibal in the title and just went with it.

If the concern is not indoctrination in the ways of cannibalism, but simply the age-appropriateness of the descriptions, then the George vs. George book is the only one that even seems to qualify for discussion. What’s described is certainly disturbing, but is it inappropriate for 10-year-olds? There’s no easy metric for answering this question. We might glibly say “it’s no worse than what they see on TV”, but that ignores how American culture continues to glorify violence in ways that may not be healthy. How long do we go on teaching a student incomplete accounts of history to shield them from reality? For me, 10 seems like an appropriate age of development to start having more nuanced conversations, but then I tend to think we underestimate young people’s abilities to engage with sophisticated content.

What worries me more about the George Vs. George passage is how it may contribute to a history of portraying indigenous people as violent, backwards cannibals. Indigenous and Postcolonial scholars like Fanon, the sort that influenced CRT, have highlighted many examples where exaggerated and fictionalised stories of indigenous people as bloodthirsty cannibals were used to justify the “civilising” of those people. Some have argued that the accusation of cannibalism is “the most notorious process of colonial ‘othering’”, and that the accusations proved highly effective despite Europe’s own rich history of cannibalism. There is a whole subgenre of exploitative horror films, like Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, dedicated to stories of indigenous cannibalism against unlucky travelers. The accusation is so effective, Christians in general and Catholics in particular have faced accusations of cannibalism. The persistent antisemitic blood libel conspiracies that are at the core of the modern QAnon movement are also about the eating of human children as part of a religious ritual. The psychological punch that makes cannibalism a fun topic in an ethics class also makes it a powerful tool of propaganda, and it’s likely that the use of cannibalism in propaganda throughout history has helped shape the moral intuitions of my students today.

MFL aren’t even the first anti-CRT activists to use this rhetorical cudgel. One of the popularisers of the CRT moral panic, Chris Rufo, wrote an article as part of that project which focused on California schools teaching about Aztec religion. Rufo complains that students are encouraged to sing a song about the Aztec god Tezkatlipoka, which he points out they worshipped through “human sacrifice and cannibalism”. In keeping with his roots at the Discovery Institute, the creationist Christian think-tank, Rufo then claims that:

the chants have a clear implication: the displacement of the Christian god, which is said to be an extension of white supremacist oppression, and the restoration of the indigenous gods to their rightful place in the social justice cosmology. It is, in a philosophical sense, a revenge of the gods.

Once again, we see how claims of harm to children reduce down to fears that children are being indoctrinated into non-Christian culture, or taught a more honest account of history.

Ultimately, much of this content is a culture war sideshow, meant to scare white Christian conservatives so they’ll vote Republican and enroll their students into private schools. However, it does come at a cost for educators, who have to constantly field these spurious accusations and may be pressured to adjust their curricula just to avoid hassle.

These stories become points in narrative arguments that end with the passing of laws banning harmless books from the curriculum. These things won’t completely destroy our functionality as a society, but they do seem to eat away at it.

The post Moms for Liberty: serving moral panic with a side of BASIC cannibalism appeared first on The Skeptic.

While conservative groups like Moms for Liberty scaremonger about white guilt and cannibalism, their goal is to use moral panic to drive censorship
The post Moms for Liberty: serving moral panic with a side of BASIC cannibalism appeared first on The Skeptic.