The Risk of Talking Back
I was born in the South and grew up in a small city, but my parents came from rural Georgia and most of my uncles, aunts, and cousins still lived on farms. Poor and uncouth as we were, our children were taught basic politeness. A central rule enforced by adults was that children should never back-sass.
I just looked that term up in my online dictionary and it was not there. Sassing was defined. My term, so characteristic of old-fashioned Southern lingo, is not considered current.
It’s time for people to be reminded — by seeing the classic Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke (1967, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts). The movie describes life in a Southern road gang, what we called a chain-gang. White prisoners found out what it was like to be an African-American in the South as they had to show subservience at all times. Officials were spoken to with deference — “Yes Sir Boss.” Any behavior not properly subservient — asking a question, trying to explain oneself, or stating an opinion — got you knocked down or worse for the sin of “back-sassing the Boss.”
The most famous part of the movie was the Captain’s response to Luke. When the Captain talked about how he tried to be nice, even though he handed out severe punishments. Luke said, “I wish you wouldn’t be so nice to me Boss.” After a brutal punch, the Captain complained about how his generosity failed to get desired results. Pointing to the fallen Luke, he said, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Communication to him meant victims never questioning the rules or the right of authority figures to require obedience without question.
The Necessity of Obedience
Parents know that obedience is necessary for children because their immature judgment requires adult supervision to keep them safe. As children grow older, teaching them manners becomes important, especially courteous response and obedience to adult authorities like teachers and police.
But even the authoritarian needs when dealing with children must be tempered with appropriate explanation and the opportunity for self-expression. As children grow and assert natural independence, they must be able to communicate without suppression and feel that adult authority figures listen to them.
The problem is that many societies and very old-fashioned families insist on extremely authoritarian compliance without question. The United States is a democratic society operating within a constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression. Even so, there are religious, education, and political groups that hold up authoritarian standards for belief and behavior. At church, school, and in public debate democratic speech that challenges “sacred cows” can meet suppression and force that prevents open communication.
Talking Back is not Back-sassing
Part of the discourtesy of back-sassing, as viewed in the South of my youth, was an impudent tone associated with it. When I titled my book of Bible studies Talking Back to the Bible, several people told me their first response was to expect an attack on scripture. Traditional Protestant belief emphasizes the “Word of God” found in reading the Bible. Reverence and obedience are the expected response to “eternal truth” found in scripture. People also expected a book with that title to favor “historical criticism” which many Protestants view as intending to discredit the Bible.
Talking Back, as I see it, means “speaking up” — an attempt to establish genuine communication that goes both ways as opposed to suppression as communication goes only one way. Marcus Borg described the authority of the Bible as being the “primary ancient conversational partner” for Christians (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time).
As a teacher, I try to encourage interaction in the class room to engage students — engagement is a major emphasis at Georgia Gwinnett College where I teach history. When students begin to speak up for themselves, they inevitably challenge the teacher’s presentation, giving an example that can encourage others to speak up also. The students I worry about are those who will not talk in class. They remain passive in spite of all efforts to bring out their views. They also resist efforts to get them to ask questions. As a result, passive students don’t read directions for assignments carefully and don’t perform well.
My personal experience of teachers over the years was that when I found one who encouraged me to speak up and talk back, we developed a relationship that invariably helped shape my life through the personal influence of the teacher as well as the subject matter being taught. I was fortunate in always finding such relationships at every educational level.
As a lifelong student of the Bible, I also found that challenging rather than merely obeying what I found in scripture led to a sense of relationship with God that has grown over the years. However, many of those I meet at church feel intimidated by this approach to scripture.
This article explains the philosophy of whatever you find on this blog. Our values are also explained under the About tab.
It is not possible to talk about American history, religion, and education without getting into current events — which leads directly to politics. I have strong political loyalties which will show, but my purpose is not to advance political partisanship. Pursuit of truth through honest exploration and open communication is our goal. After a political campaign and now a presidency increasingly built on spreading lies and fake news, the standards of professional history are increasingly needed. Basing opinions about religion, education, and historical debates on a search for accurate information in reliable sources, explaining them evenhandedly and with respect for honest differences of interpretation is increasingly in demand. This is the standard we will pursue wholeheartedly.