Sunday, November 16

Tolerance fails T-shirt test

"Tolerance fails T-shirt test" is the title of a column written by John Kass for Thursday's Chicago Tribune. I'm not an avid reader of Kass because I often disagree with him or he annoys me, but I do appreciate his forthright view of things.

In this particular article, Kass related the experiment by Catherine Vogt, an 8th grader at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. The school is in Oak Park, IL, which is a very nice Chicago suburb. Anyway, as Kass tells it, Vogt had heard about Obama's message of inclusion and consulted with her history teacher before conducting her experiment prior to the election.

So one day she wore a T-shirt to school on which she had written the words "McCain Girl" in red. She was vilified. She was told she was stupid; there were death threats. She did not engage in conversation, she did not try to defend her position; she simply wanted to see how people would react. Students and teachers alike reacted badly. Only a few students pulled her aside to whisper they agreed with her, so there were a few closet McCain supporters who were afraid to express their opinions.

The next day she wore a T-shirt with "Obama Girl" written in blue. Catherine regained her senses, wasn't stupid anymore, teachers relaxed. Some people accused her a being a flip-flopper; that she couldn't be for one candidate one day and the other candidate the next. [Apparently it's not possible to change one's mind about anything ever and not be labeled a flip-flopper. We have the media to thank for that.]

Kass reports that they "asked the teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, whether it was ironic that Catherine would be subject to such intolerance from pro-Obama supporters in a community that prides itself on its liberal outlook." The teacher said they discussed that irony in class and she believes the 8th graders understood what they claimed to believe and how they behaved. Yes, well, call me cynical, but I can understand why they would say that in class but remain as clueless as they were when they responded to Catherine's T-shirt messages. There are adults who would know enough to say they understood but still, at heart, be unwilling to relinquish their hate, their disdain, or whatever label one might want to put on their ignorant behavior and attitude. But then you have to ask, and I mean you have to ask, where did they learn to think and behave that way? Were they following the majority in their school because we know what peer pressure can do? Or were they mimicking the behavior of their parents?

In Kass' follow-up article on Friday, he reported she had done a round of TV and radio interviews. Kass notes that Catherine learned a lot; that she, the child of a liberal Democratic mom and a conservative Republican dad, learned that kids most definitely learned their politics and their patterns of behavior from parents.

But with glory also comes some responsibility and consequences. In the aftermath of her experiment, kids and adults were nervous Catherine had named names, but her experiment seems to have been an objective one. No one but Catherine and the speaker knows who said what and I'm guessing they are just as concerned about the fact that Catherine knows and probably remembers what they said to her. There are certain phrases and tones that become seared in one's memory; all of us have experienced that. And then the parents got involved, being all outraged that she didn't follow some protocol but probably mostly being embarrassed that they were called out by the behavior of their children.

There is a lot to be learned from Catherine's experiments. Keep in mind she conducted her experiment before the election. In the aftermath of the election, the Tribune did report that Republicans who had supported McCain were being vilified for their stupidity or were being laughed at because they backed the loser. Grown-ups.

Ours is a culture obsessed with winning and losing. Only in America can we have successful TV shows with titles like "Biggest Loser" because the people who win have lost the most weight. But we watch competitions hoping our team will win and cheering against the losers. And when our team loses, we trash talk about the winners while the winners gloat over our defeat. So why are we surprised when that trash talk demeanor shows up in politics, as it has for generations. This is no big surprise.

By extension ours is also a culture that seems to be obsessed with being right or wrong. There are those who are already carping about how the Obama-gogues who are worshipping at the altar of the liberal and inclusive Democratic Party of Obama are not so liberal nor inclusive, but I can only imagine how very finetuned their scale of measurement might be.

If we take giant step away from politics, we'll see that this same behavior exists in far too many people about far too many issues and on both sides of the issue. Part of that seems to be because we don't want to engage in discussion or dialogue but an intervention because someone who disagrees with us must be wrong (or stupid).

Those 8th graders at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School probably really didn't know what they meant when they claimed Vogt was stupid for alleging to be a McCain girl. I'm not sure they would have been equipped to ask her why she supported McCain rather than resort so quickly to name-calling, but I wonder, too, if the parents of those or any other 8th graders would have been equipped or willing to discuss the issues rather than resort to name-calling.

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