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Juan Williams, Bill O'Reilly, and Critical Thinking

Critical thinking lapses, Islam, and "censorship".

Let me begin by saying that I do not have a particular political axe to grind. I've been a registered Republican, Democrat, and Independent. My motivation for writing what follows has to do with the need for sound critical thinking in society, especially when it comes to our discussion of social and political issues.

Last week on The View, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar left the set after Bill O'Reilly made the comment that building a mosque near Ground Zero is inappropriate because Muslims killed us there. His argument is that since it is common knowledge that Muslim terrorists were the perpetrators, he didn't need to be more specific. It seems that his point is that given the context of the discussion, he didn't need to add the descriptors "terrorists" or "extremists". But is he right?

In one of my current courses, we're discussing some basic principles of logic and argument using the book Critical Thinking. Consider the following point related to the need for precision in how we use language:

"Words are overgeneral if the information they provide is too broad and unspecific in a given context." (p. 88)

With this in mind, O'Reilly seems to be claiming that he's not guilty of overgenerality, because given the context of 9/11, we all know that it was Muslim radicals/extremists/terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. However, he is mistaken. The context of the discussion in which this all took place was whether or not it is appropriate to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Unless the purposes behind building the mosque are radical/extreme/terroristic, he is guilty of overgenerality because he's lumping together the 9/11 attackers and those who want to build a mosque at the controversial site. Moreover, there are unfortunately many people in our country who equate "Muslim" with "Muslim extremist/radical/terrorist", and given that context, what O'Reilly said was overgeneral and irresponsible.

This brings us to more recent events concerning now former NPR commentator and current Fox analyst Juan Williams for expressing his fear of being on a plane with persons dressed in Muslim garb. I'm not interested in entering the debate concerning whether or not NPR should have fired Williams, or whether it was right or wrong of him to express this fear. What I want to focus on is the claim I've heard repeated in several places that this is "censorship" and that his freedom of speech is being violated.

These claims are ridiculous. Williams is guest-hosting O'Reilly's show tonight, and now has an expanded role at Fox News. If censorship is defined as "the suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body," then the first amendment rights of Williams have not been violated, that is, NPR is not guilty of censorship. In the same book on critical thinking mentioned above, the importance of precise definitions is underscored. I think that the above definition is a good working definition of censorship. NPR is a media outlet, and part of their reason for firing Williams is that his speech was obectionable, harmful, and insensitive. However, NPR has not suppressed his speech. Rather, they've made the determination that he violated their ethical policies.

I'm neither defending nor attacking their decision. I am saying that if NPR is guilty of censorship, then why are we hearing so much from Juan Williams?

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