That’s not funny

“Racism isn’t funny and Hitler isn’t cool. Not by a long shot.”

I love my job, and I particularly enjoy my freshman class this year. But sometimes there are days when I find that I have to say things like this. And these are days, well, when education is hard. What do you say when a 14 year old kid offers up an offhand comment to the class that “Hitler was pretty cool” to a class? Well, the above is what I started with… All-in-all I said lots of things, and maybe I did just jump on my soapbox and dominate the discussion. About five minutes later my lecture ended, and unfortunately I didn’t feel much better. Even worse, I’m not sure the class learned much except that the teacher did not approve of such a comment. In education circles, this could have been a “teaching moment” (a term that kind of amuses me because shouldn’t most moments in classrooms be teaching moments?), but I think I blew it.

I know the average household doesn’t sit around and talk about historical events from 65 years ago, but just a general conversation about empathy for human suffering is a starting point. What is it that this kid knows or does not know that would compel him to joke about something like the Holocaust? I guess what really hit a nerve with me is just the complete disregard of what a statement like that means. We have so many young people who believe terrible events to be so far removed from them that it is okay to joke and laugh about them. Since it didn’t happen to him, then it wasn’t any big deal.

I know, I know… he’s only 15 and he hasn’t had time to learn. But I disagree with the assumption that his youth excuses him. He had 23 other classmates who weren’t laughing, but they were silent. It would have been 1000x more effective if one of his peers would have set him straight. As I write this, now I realize that was my teaching moment. Rather than respond myself, I should have asked his classmates to comment. It would have been interesting to hear what they have to say.

I read a very interesting article recently by Tony Judt in which he explained that the most hideous of evils do not begin big like the Holocaust eventually became. It starts as little things. The most dangerous evil is banal–hardly worth mentioning. It is dangerous because every time we turn our heads when we see it (because it’s such a little thing it’s not really worth fighting), or keep silent when we hear it (because it’s such an ignorant statement it’s hardly worth arguing), it gets more powerful. And it grows. And pretty soon the evil is permissive, passable, even promoted.

Parents, we have to teach our kids about compassion, injustice, empathy. We have to demonstrate, for the sake of our children, our abhorrence for any evil that forces others to live in terror. And if we do not feel such abhorrence, then we are on a track for history to repeat itself.

I wish with all my heart that in our society we could have more open and honest discussions about issues like race, class, poverty, discrimination. But everybody is so afraid of saying something offensive. I include myself in that everybody. My heart tells me that we must find a way to be brave enough to talk about these issues head on, without flinching, doing our best to understand each other and ourselves. If we don’t, we’ll continue have young people who do not recognize the danger in a statement like “Hitler was pretty cool.”

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