By Ruby Montana
The dispositional optimist in me tends to believe that most people are inherently good and capable of reason in matters of morality, politics, and especially life and death. However, that optimism has dwindled, largely in part of what I experienced recently on a personal level, and what I am continuing to observe in our country on a daily basis.
One of the many issues of dissent in these times of the pandemic is whether to reopen businesses. Several “Reopen Protests” have erupted across the country, with attendees using their First Amendment rights to spread a message that could sicken or kill thousands of people, deceitfully cloaking themselves in patriotism (and often the Confederate flag, as was evident even here in El Paso).
While I can certainly empathize with those longing to go back to work or reopen the doors of their businesses and attempt to go back to “normal,” I do not empathize with their levels of antagonism, nor do I find any justifications for their complete disregard of scientific and medical facts.
I have the privilege to teach at all classifications at the collegiate level. Whether it is a freshman introduction to philosophy course, or a senior level special topics course focused on othering and oppression, all my courses have an underlying theme: a vigorous emphasis on critical thinking, especially in matters of morals and ethics.
It is now three weeks after phase one of the reopening of our state of Texas, and El Paso COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU cases continue to hit new highs. We are in a dismal situation with the curve not flattening, and unfortunately, Memorial Day gatherings this weekend will lead to more positive cases.
Additionally, a study by Columbia University was published that estimated the United States would have had 36,000 fewer coronavirus-related deaths had the country entered lockdown a week earlier in March. The Columbia University research also estimated that approximately 83 percent of deaths could have been avoided if measures had been taken just two weeks earlier.
Speaking out on TV
Knowing these alarming numbers and frightening facts makes what I recently personally experienced all the worse. Last month, I was shocked and angered upon learning of a “Reopen Texas” protest planned for El Paso. How could these people be so careless? How could they actively advocate for something so illogical, so blatantly disregarding of facts, and so potentially deadly?
One of the main organizers had been given a platform via local news. I took it upon myself to practice what I preach in my classroom and speak out against a grave injustice.
I contacted KTSM-TV and asked if they were also going to give a platform to the countless concerned citizens who were firmly opposed to the reopening of our city and state. In my 10 to15 minute interview, I offered statistics from other states that had seen a vast surge in positive cases after these protests, and I also cited the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases.
What aired was a snippet of less than 30 seconds that included a quote I offered from the great social and political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, in which he states that the only good reason for justifying the limiting of someone’s individual liberties is to prevent harm to others.
I braced myself for the dissent I expected would follow. Nothing could have readied me for the sheer malice immediately unleashed upon me. One source of the hostility was a well-known KTSM newscaster, who chose to comment on the KTSM Facebook post on the story that included my interview.
She questioned my credibility, my work ethic, made a sweeping generalization about educators never working a day in their lives, and called me “a threat to life.” I was appalled and flabbergasted. I shared her comments with the public. I asked any fellow educators who were offended by her attacks to reach out to the station. Well, reach out they did.
The same newscaster appeared at the reopen protest later that day. She said she resigned from her job, but she and her supporters are attempting to make her the victim in all this. They have continued to criticize me. All this for speaking on the side of reason, fact, and truth. Funny how those so eager to cling to the First Amendment are also just as eager to censor their critics.
Self-victimization and hypocrisy seem to be yet another hallmark of many in favor of reopening immediately. I have seen countless images of these protesters comparing themselves to the victims of slavery and likening themselves to those civil rights champions fighting for basic human rights and dignity. These analogies are false and grotesque.
Since the news story debacle has transpired, I have been asked if I have any regrets. My simple answer: no. The only thing I do regret is the loss of some of my faith in humanity. These people who vilified and demonized me are the same people who are proudly championing their “right” to not wear a mask; their “right” to put their own minor inconveniences as carrying more weight than human life.
The blatant ignorance and hatred have worn down my spirit. However, I also received an outpouring of support, not only from friends, family, and colleagues, but from countless complete strangers. That has been of utmost importance to me.
I will continue to teach my students to speak out against injustice. I will continue to favor logic and reason over ignorance and bigotry. And I will continue to loudly proclaim that while everyone has a right to their opinion and a right to free speech, that does not make all views right, morally good, or acceptable.
And, I still have faith in humanity.
Ruby Montana is an instructor at the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College. These views are her own and she does not speak on behalf of those institutions.
Cover photo: Protesters gathered near the El Paso County Courthouse on Saturday, April 25, to demand that local leaders lift restrictions that had forced businesses to close as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)