Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Which Way To Go

On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani 15-year-old was shot by a Taliban gunman as she rode the bus home from school. Many of you probably know her story, but for those who don't, this was a girl who was already an internationally known activist, having started blogging in 2009 for the BBC about every day life under Taliban rule, anonymously at first. By 2011 her activism against the Taliban, and specifically its attempts to deny education to girls, inspired Desmond Tutu to nominate her for the International Children's Peace Prize. When the gunman boarded the bus, he asked for her by name, "Which one of you is Malala?" before shooting her in the head and neck. Presidents and prime ministers, rock stars and movie stars have celebrated her for her activism and courage. And she has only just this month turned 16.

Honestly, I was only vaguely aware of her story until yesterday. Most days, Malala and the Swat region of Pakistan seem far away, both physically and culturally. I knew that a girl had been shot for wanting to go to school. What I hadn't known was that she had already made an international name for herself as an advocate for education, children, and women prior to the tragedy, that she was no stranger to death threats, that she and her family had been standing up every day to the very terrorists that some of us in America, half way around the world, fear so much that we've been willing to sacrifice some of our freedoms.

I occasionally write here about my opposition to spanking or corporate-style school "reforms" or in favor of gun control and people write back to tell me how brave I am for doing so. I am not brave, not in comparison to someone like this. But it makes me wonder how far away we've strayed from our democratic ideals, how unskilled we've become in exercising our citizenship, how threatening the American version of the Taliban (backed not so much by guns, but rather by the equally brutish power of money) have become if what I do can be called brave in the same universe as this girl.

A friend made me aware of this speech (embedded below) that Malala recently gave at the United Nations, which is why I spent time yesterday pouring over her story. As I listened to her speak, I found myself crying, as I'm sure you will. I was moved by her words, of course, by her passion, and yes, by her courage, but I was mostly struck by the straight-forward simplicity of her words. I don't want to use the world "childlike" because of it's negative connotations, but it is childlike, in the best sense of that word, in its clarity of logic and purpose, un-muddled by the prejudice and doubt that too often characterizes the thinking of adults.

I learned that she once served as the chairperson for something called the District Child Assembly, a body, one of many I assume, set up to give children a voice in the Pakistani democracy. Watching her speak so confidently at the UN, seeing her surrounded by earnest-faced adults who applauded her, finishing with a standing ovation, a utopian vision came to me of a world in which assemblies of children made all the big decisions, painting in simple, broad strokes their collective vision, leaving implementation up to the adults, always accountable to the child assembly. Of course, it's only a dream, but I don't think a crazy one. Youth are usually at the vanguard of big change, seeing far more clearly, and with far less rancor, than the adults about such things as ending wars, equality, caring for the sick, and elevating the poor. Polls consistently show that children have far more compassion for their fellow man, far more tolerance, and a far greater belief in our ability to rise up from the muck in which adults too often wrestle. Call it the hopefulness of youth if you will, but I would rather be lead by this, than the cynicism of adulthood.

The word "utopia" has a double meaning, referring to both a "good place" as well as "no place," or an impossible place. When I listen to children like Malala speak, however, it occurs to me that a third meaning is possible: utopia as a direction. This is why I always really listen to children, not so much for the great oratory or brilliant ideas, but rather because they can reliably point me which way to go.

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