Window of opportunity

March 21, 2009 10:45 am
The controversy surrounding the production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” has created a window of opportunity for community growth and understanding. Presently, though, there seems to be more heat than light.

Although paling in significance if compared to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy of last year, there is one parallel that stands out: a highly divisive issue had the potential to derail the plans of an honorable man and his supporters, and to fester lingering social misunderstandings. But back in March 2008, something happened that turned the disturbing Wright incident into a moment of profound racial insight and human empathy. In a single speech, a candidate -— who saw beyond simplistic characterizations to the shared hopes, fears and common humanity of all Americans — showed us that power and compassion can flow when we truly respect the lives, the histories and the values of others.

Unfortunately thus far, the most obvious consequence of the play controversy has been to send both sides scrambling for the moral high ground. From these heights they disdain opponents by impugning motives and questioning enlightenment. The Censorship Card has been dealt, played, trumped and discarded daily. Sadly, we’re reminded of the previous administration’s “you’re either for us or against us” rhetoric rather than of President Obama’s February words to Congress (Democrats and Republicans alike): “Every American sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed.”

Can’t we start here by saying, “La Grande citizens love their community and want our children to succeed”?

Could those who decry censorship at least grant that everyone censors? By both state law and court decisions, certain types of speech and expression are routinely suppressed in public schools. Is there any question that certain language is so inflammatory that it should never be in a school play. Who would want a play with racial epithets (the n-word) or misogynous epithets (the c-word)? Aren’t some words so blasphemous, so degrading, so viscerally repugnant that they have no place in school events?

Could we also acknowledge that some people in our community feel very close to Jesus, may even feel Jesus in their heart; that to gratuitously take his name in vain might be hurtful to those citizens? That it’s possible a few fathers might feel uncomfortable sitting by their 14-year-old daughter and hearing the f-word or flippant remarks about premature ejaculation? Could those who blame Mormon influence take a quick look at the recent history of LHS to remember that its mini-renaissance — when ideas flowered most fully, when words flourished most frankly and dissent flowed most freely — occurred under the principalship of Roland Bevell, a Mormon bishop.

Could those who object to the play at least grant honorable intentions to play supporters — acknowledging that they, too, love our children and want them to grow, prosper and become good citizens? Is there any question that many students are comfortable with the themes and language of the play, that this play is a far more mindful endeavor than 90 percent of what students would see on TV, the Internet or at the Granada? Could we agree that those students involved in the play are thoughtful, bright and diligent; that they will gain valuable insights by their participation; that they will become productive and caring citizens; and that their involvement in this play will be a wonderful memory for years to come?

And please, could we agree on what was obvious to me for 27 years as a colleague of the director — that there is no one who takes the profession and mission of teaching our children more seriously or practices it with more profound discernment and penetrating understanding than Kevin Cahill.

Yes, censoring can be too heavy handed. Yes, we all censor. The kinds of things we each want censored differ, but these differences do not typically create a better or worse person. The c-word most needing eradication is not censorship, but contempt, contempt for those who disagree. To eradicate all forms of contempt and replace them with an effort at understanding our common dreams for children and our shared hope for the future is the best gift we can give our community and students.

Charles Jones lives in La Grande.