Dear Decaturish — There are contexts in which symbols of oppression are necessaryDecatur High School. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Editor’s note: This letter is in response to a letter written by CSD Equity Director Mari Ann Banks regarding a recent production of “The Sound of Music” at Decatur High School.
In this letter, I offer my personal answer to Dr. Banks’ question in her recent editorial, “If even one person is injured, is it really too much to ask that we remove that horror [a depiction of a Nazi swastika] from a place of prominence, such as the stage of our production of the ‘Sound of Music’ in response?”
My personal answer is, “yes, it is.”
There are, obviously, standards to which any production hosted in a public school must adhere. But that standard cannot be based exclusively on whether it does injury to any one potential viewer. Doing so, I believe, unreasonably restrains the expressive spirit of one party to the sensitivities, regardless of how genuine, justified, and intense they may be, of another.
In her letter, Dr. Banks’ highlights the experiences of someone who is deeply disturbed by the sight of a Nazi flag. An activist formerly active in Utah, Lex Scott, feels the same way about the American flag, and its bloody history of slavery, oppression, and injustice. By Dr. Banks’ own logic, “why would we resist” acknowledging Scott’s traumatic associations, and therefore remove the American flag from stage productions?
To debate the relative merits of these comparisons — how comparable are the horrors perpetrated under the American flag to the horrors of the Shoah under the Nazi flag — is to miss the point. My point is that while I believe that Ms. Scott and the person mentioned by Dr. Banks both genuinely react in this way to these respective flags, the reality of those reactions is not a basis for a policy on whether “symbols of oppression are never acceptable in any context,” to quote Dr. Fehrman’s original statement.
I believe that there are contexts in which symbols of oppression are not only acceptable, but necessary.
As artfully demonstrated in their own recent letter, the representatives for Decatur Performs highlight why, from a creative, artistic, and historical perspective, they believed that the prominent display of a Nazi banner was integral to their dramatic vision. I will not attempt to summarize their excellent points here, but will state that I agree wholeheartedly with their explanation of the function, value, and perhaps even necessity of including Nazi imagery when contending artistically with the legacy of National Socialism and its atrocities.
As I said, there are standards to which we must hold school productions, and I would not attempt to dictate those standards based on my opinion. I also understand that neither Dr. Fehrman nor Dr. Banks are proposing their opinions as district policy. But I hope that as we, as a community, determine the standards to which school-sanctioned artistic productions are held, we do not apply an untenable, blanket approach that will not only unnecessarily quash free expression, but will also almost certainly fail in ensuring that not even one person is injured: I sincerely doubt that there is any work of art that contends with historic horror might not, potentially, injury someone.
I hope that we will work together to develop an approach to symbols of oppression that allows our students, within a reasonable and appropriate framework, to contend with these symbols in whatever context proves instructive, valuable, and meaningful to them.
I close by saying that this discussion is in no way helped by tacitly or even unintentionally equating a thoroughly considered, nuanced artistic decision with the off-hand use of a racial slur by a teacher in front of a student. I echo again the assessment put forward by Decatur Performs that Dr. Fehrman owes the cast of “The Sound of Music” an apology, if she has not already done so.
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