Monday, 5 May 2014
Content, in context
Anyway, to get back to my friend. When his teenage kids heard that ‘too many foreigners’ remark on the radio, they both exclaimed: “but he can’t say that … it’s racist!”
The context of the remark was completely lost on them. This was not because they weren't bright kids, but because -I'd suggest- that is how they’ve been taught to respond to anything even remotely connected with what has become a taboo subject. They have been trained to react to certain words and phrases with a mixture of horror and revulsion (with maybe a touch of righteous indignation on the side). You might say that this is a good thing and is at least an improvement on the societal and conversational mores extant in say, 1975, but there is a disquieting element to such a Pavlovian reaction. Of course, young people should be taught that racism is a bad thing, but surely it is more important that they are taught to recognise and interpret the context of a remark?
Last week, Donald Sterling -owner of Los Angeles Clippers basketball team- was banned from the National Basketball Association for life after a recording emerged of him expressing views that were perceived to have been racist. Mr Sterling was recorded asking a woman not to associate in public with black people; he didn’t use any specific racist terminology, but the content and context of his remarks made his views perfectly clear.
Let’s shelve for the moment the question of whether or not it was right that he should have received a lifetime ban from the sport. The point is that Mr Sterling managed to reveal his deep-rooted racism without using any of those taboo words and phrases, the words and phrases we’ve taught our kids to recoil from. He was condemned by an understanding (or at least an interpretation) of his content and context.
If we train young people merely to recoil at phrases like ‘too many foreigners’, we have failed them, no matter how good we think our intentions might be. A response to words alone is almost always inadequate, because context determines the meaning of things. It is the understanding of context (and the forming of an appropriate response to it) that marks out a thinking person. If kids are taught to respond to key words and phrases without thinking about setting, nuance, tone, or any of the awkward possibilities of context, we have opened the door to something quite sinister.
It’s been said a million times, but it’s worth saying it a million times more: we shouldn’t be teaching kids what to think, we should be teaching them how to think. Mere words are only part of the story.