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sign60509More than just about any other single value, I want my kids to get the importance of dissent. I want them to be willing to voice a reasoned minority opinion and to encourage the same in others.

When we moved to the red-state South, I knew (blue to the core as we are) that at some point we’d end up taking our lumps from one majority or another. No big brous-haha so far, just some minor fish-out-of-water moments: Laney having the occasional Huxley-Wilberforce in the school cafeteria; Erin coming to terms with her evangelical cousins; Connor’s outrage when his (beloved) seventh grade Life Sciences teacher assured the class that evolution is “just one guy’s idea”; Becca, in her first week as a full-time Georgia teacher, having one of her first graders say, “Mrs. McGowan, are you a Christian? ’Cause I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?”; and my early palpitations over imagined church-state issues. Peanuts, really.

Now we’ve had our first somewhat chilling incident—not over religion, but politics.

Becca and I support Barack Obama. Thursday night, after his convention speech, we put an Obama yard sign under the tree in our Atlanta front yard. By Saturday morning it was gone. An hour after noticing it missing, we found it chucked in the street several houses down.

I’ve spent enough time dissenting from majorities to know what it gets you, so it didn’t ruffle me. But Becca, bless her Anne Frankness, is always thrown when people aren’t good at heart, or fair, or tolerant. I love her for being repeatedly surprised by that.

I also know that the occasional kook is rarely representative of the majority. I used to think pointing this out was about being nice, but eventually came to realize that recognizing that fact changes my world.

We hosted an Obama house party last month and put flyers in 200 neighborhood mailboxes. Fourteen people came. Six other neighbors mentioned it approvingly at the pool or the bus stop, including some who differ politically. And we received two scrawled notes in our mailbox informing us that Obama is a Muslim, that “the terrorists want him to win,” and that “you are helping to destroy the foundation of this country.”

It’s easy to generalize the nastiness in your mind, until every silent house on your street seems to harbor a family that wants you strung up. But then we remembered that the tally I just described was ten thumbs up for every thumb down. And as Louise Gendron (senior writer for L’Actualité) reminded me last year, angry people are at least three times more likely to make their POV known than happy or indifferent people. If she gets three angry letters for every one happy letter after an article runs, she assumes the reader response was about even.

By that logic, perhaps 3-4 percent of the folks in our neighborhood are likely suspects for the angry notes. But our limbic response pictures the reverse, and two pissy letters become the tip of a 96 percent iceberg of hate.

I found myself falling into the same dark assumptions during my dissenting year at the Catholic college where I taught. I naturally began to assume that every silent person I passed on campus was wishing me hives. I found out later that the opposite was true: the majority were either indifferent or were silently cheering me on. (Note to self: DON’T SILENTLY CHEER PEOPLE ON. DO IT OUT LOUD. Knowing how much support I had would have changed everything.)

I was also extremely depressed at the time by the angry criticism I had received for my activism (which, btw, I will write about soon). It took (philosophy professor and later PBB contributor) Amy Hilden to point out the obvious to me–that the goal is not to avoid making people angry, but to make the right people angry for the right reasons. If everybody loves you, you probably aren’t doing anything of real significance.

So I had expected the minority opinion in our front yard to provoke somebody into doing something stupid and rude. And I knew that the silent majority, even those who disagree with us politically, would not condone that stupidity. But I also knew my kids would feel violated, angry, and afraid. Their own attitudes toward dissent are being tested and formed.

So we did what we do. We talked it through.

[On to Part 2]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.