A dialogue with fear

Posted November 28, 2018
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

What are we teaching kids about freedom of expression? Are we teaching them to use it or to be very careful around it?

Most of us spent time in school trying to figure out how to be liked, how to get along with others, and how to lead productive but uneventful lives. From an early age, children are taught how to be polite and how to curb their negative expressions.  But are we teaching our children and young people how to deal with situations where their expression turns out to be unpopular or problematic? I would like to look at three very different situations in which young people have been faced with negative reactions to their public expression.

In particular, I am concerned for developing artists and political activists who are taught to avoid transgressing the unwritten rules about what they should or should not express -- the kids who are taught early on how to chill their own expression. For every Emma Gonzalez or David Hogg in Parkland, Florida, there are hundreds if not thousands of students who agree with what they said but are frightened to say it themselves. The young activists may have won awards months following the massacre at their school, but the backlash and flack from the gun lobby they withstood in the days after they mounted their protests were not insignificant. If you look at social media, how many times did people tell them to shut up and sit down? How many of their classmates shrank from them? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know that schools rarely teach kids how to stand up to that kind of criticism. However, they had something important to say and the courage to say it.

While there are many complex reasons why people hesitate to or do not report abuse, particularly sexual abuse, one of the experiences that people have who do report is that they are shunned or ignored. Recently, a video of a group of boys sexually assaulting a school team member was circulated. It was not until the video was brought to the attention of the school administration that an investigation began. When the issue became public, other victims of this kind of abuse at the same school began to come forward. 

We know, however, that the school where the incidents occurred, acted with reticence. They said they were waiting for the victim to tell his parents. They expected a child to carry the burden of what may be one the most difficult kinds of expression possible – telling a story that implicates others in a criminal act. Could he be seen as being disloyal to his team? Not impossible. Had anyone thought to teach him and others the importance of this kind of expression – despite the difficulty? Freedom of expression means nothing unless you learn how and when to use it.

Amanda PL is a Toronto artist who openly admires and employs a style of painting used by the Woodland artists, a group of Indigenous artists of whom Norval Morrisseau is the best known. Amand PL is not Indigenous. When the family of the late Mr. Morrisseau, among others, attacked her work, saying that it amounted to cultural appropriation, her gallery cancelled the show. This was their right. I believe that Ms. PL is still creating art. I doubt she is asking permission to do so. This is her right.

All the forms of expression I mentioned above are difficult and fraught. All have attracted criticism and even anger. How can we prepare our youth to live in a democratic society that celebrates freedom of expression on one hand and causes people to fear employing expression on the other?

I believe we need practice. We need to give one another outright permission to disagree and to bring up difficult subjects. We also need to learn how to listen to expression we do not like. And here is the truly difficult part: after we listen carefully to those with whom we have a disagreement, we need to decide whether to change our minds or to stand up and claim our right to be unpopular. Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg found allies and continue to take on the massive US gun lobby. Students at St. Michael’s school are deciding when and whether to come forward with their stories, even though it may be deeply problematic to do so. And Amanda PL is likely to mount another art show.

Will people continue to debate and criticize these people and others like them? I certainly hope so. Will there be others who choose to remain silent in fear of repercussions for speaking out? Undoubtedly. But as educators in a democracy, we need to teach our children and students to express their controversial and unpopular views – and to make both courageous andinformed decisions when they encounter opposition.