“It’s a free country!” If you spend some time on an American playground, you are likely to hear this, usually in response to another child saying, “You can’t say that!” American children learn early that they live in a free country where others can’t tell them what to say or think. At the same time, the retort, “It’s a free country!” often is used to defend a mean or hateful statement. E.g. Sam says, “Mrs. Crabapple (the teacher) is a big fat meany!” Sally responds, “OOOOO, you can’t say that!” Sam says, “It’s a free country!” Sam excuses his hateful comment by invoking the First Amendment.
I have been reflecting on the meaning of the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, especially in the context of what parents and schools should tell children about what happened. I must confess that one of my first thoughts on Sunday morning, August 13, was relief that I am no longer a Head of School who is expected to have the perfect response for parents, teachers and children in a particular school. However, the events of mid-August in Virginia strike me as a supremely ‘teachable moment.’
What should we, as Americans, teach our children about freedom? We want to preserve our freedom: it is a great privilege to live in a nation that protects our right to independent thought, belief, expression, and culture. We also want our children to be safe, no matter what their ancestry might be: we want our nation to live up to its promise that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, its promise that we live in a republic with liberty and justice for all.
Schools in a democracy have an obligation to prepare children to be informed and thoughtful voters. Parents have that same obligation. We need to help our children understand the evolving experiment that is the United States. The history of humans is one story after another of one group of people fighting another group of people for resources, for land, for power, for status. The United States was founded by European immigrants who wanted land, power, and status. They were willing to kill the people who were living here and to steal their land in order to acquire that. They were willing to fight Great Britain to keep it. They were willing to kidnap and enslave other people to sustain it.
But something extraordinary happened. Those European immigrants created a democracy, with rules that said the people would govern themselves. The rules said that the government would allow people to worship as they wish, that people would have the right to speak their minds. They even declared that all men are created equal.
During the past two hundred years, the people of the United States have expanded that original statement from meaning that all white men are created equal, to meaning that all humans are created equal, no matter where their ancestors lived. Americans fought to ensure that slavery was abolished. Americans gave women the right to vote. Little by little, our country has expanded the definition of men to include all kinds of people. We are still in the process of learning how to build a country where all citizens have equal rights. It is a bold and noble experiment in the history of the world. One of the great strengths of America is our diversity; we are a nation of immigrants with the capacity to love and celebrate each others’ differences.
The United States Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech. That means the government cannot prevent any citizen from speaking their opinion, especially if the opinion is in disagreement with the government. The First Amendment does not guarantee citizens a right to threaten to harm other citizens.
When Neo-nazis and white supremacists gathered to demonstrate in Charlottesville on the weekend of August 11, were they engaged in a lawful assembly to express their opinions, or were they engaged in an act of aggression toward American citizens? Perhaps they were doing both of those things. However, when someone says, “We plan to kill all the Jews,” that is a violent threat. So how should we be talking about this event with our children?
I might start by returning to my original example, despite the fact that the elementary children in my example are not yet adults and are subject to school rules. If Sam were an adult, he WOULD have a Constitutional right to say that his teacher is a big fat meany, despite it being rude and disrespectful. Sam would NOT have the right to say he plans to kill her. That would be a violent threat. Since Sam is, say, eight years old, he’s not going to be charged with harassment, although he will probably face some kind of disciplinary consequences if the adults at school find out he stated that he plans to kill a teacher. (He may even be asked to apologize for unkind name-calling, as his school may still believe that civility is important.) Fortunately, Sam is still a child who can learn how to engage in dialogue that is respectful and who still has time to learn that you can’t threaten to kill people you don’t like. He has time to learn how to be an adult before he becomes one.
I know that there are active racists in the United States. I also know that they have the same rights under the law that I have, so long as they don’t threaten others. The First Amendment protects their right to speak their opinion, whether I agree with it or not. It does not protect their right to threaten violence against others. I understand that the Antifa are mobilizing to fight back against these racists because they are concerned about protecting the noble American experiment. I am still pondering the question of when we are called to use violence against violence. My philosophy of life to date has been to avoid violence and work toward understanding. In fact, I feel called to use peaceful means to support our democracy. We must start from where we are today, with all our flaws and past mistakes, and do our best to live up to our American promises.
If I were asked what to teach children about the events of August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville, I would suggest that parents and teachers could explain to children that it is not a person’s race or religion or ancestry or sexuality or gender that make him or her better or worse than anyone else. What makes a person better is the capacity to be honest, to be kind, to be generous, to be hard-working. My message to children remains: humans have the capacity both for goodness and for evil, and how we act today strengthens that trait for the future. When we practice evil — threatening, insulting, hurting, demeaning — the capacity for that grows in us. If we wish to grow up to be good people, then we must be honest, kind, generous, and hard-working today.