Monday, February 14, 2022

Committing Atrocities In The Name Of Absurdities



Eight-year-old Evelyn was arrested because she wanted to wear a cow hoodie in class.

Seven-year-old Malachi was arrested after a shoving match with another child who had teased him about one of his drawings.

The low-end estimate is that we arrest 130 children between 5 and 9 every year, although the number is probably much higher. Black children make up 43 percent of those arrested even though they only comprise 15 percent of kids in that age range. I don't have data on this, but I expect that autistic children, or children who are otherwise neuro-atypical, are also over-represented in those arrests.

There is never a reason to arrest a child. Ever. Even if they bring a gun to school. Even if they make threats. The criminal justice system will do nothing but harm. 

Kaia's grandmother says that since the arrest she has been watching her granddaughter die "bit by bit, day after day." All of these children have suffered from post-traumatic syndrome, been in therapy, and are fearful of both school and the police. 

I do not blame the teachers. I do not blame the police officers. I blame all of us, you and me included.

We live in a society that enshrines words like "freedom" and "liberty," but our institutions, like schools and the police, are focused, like lasers, on compliance, especially when it comes to children, especially when it comes to Black children. Especially when it comes to children who perceive the world differently. 

Who cares if a child wears sunglasses or a cow hoodie? But of course it wasn't about those things. It was about children who stood their ground, who opted for freedom or liberty over obedience. In other words, they behaved as our myths about ourselves as a nation would have them behave. And for that, the adults in their lives felt they must crush them. 

And I blame myself. I do not work in those schools. Indeed, I have spent more than a decade here as a critic. I am not a cop. I have never called the cops, even when I arrived to find transients sleeping inside the school or on the playground. Even when one of them threatened me with a stick full of rusty nails. I didn't call the cops because I feared what they would do in the name of compliance. I have marched in the streets against the excesses of the police. Yet I still blame myself because I live in a society that explicitly values obedience over freedom. 

We are so sick with this that we arrest five-year-old because they feel more comfortable wearing sunglasses indoors.

We are so sick that Kaia's teacher insists that she would never have a child arrested, yet her student was arrested. We are so sick that the officer who handcuffed Kaia objected that she was a "baby," yet this baby was arrested.

French philosopher Voltaire once said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Arresting young children, handcuffing them, forcing them into squad cars, booking them, taking mugshots -- all of it -- is an atrocity. And our culture of obedience, of compliance at all costs, even when it's just about sunglasses, cow hoodies, or even a shoving match, is the absurdity that we believe.

I'm certain that some people reading here have already manufactured, in their minds, a way to blame these children or their parents for the arrests. I'm sure that some have thought, "maybe they had it coming" or that sometimes the only thing that works is the companion absurdity of "tough love."

Most of us, I hope, are outraged by the idea of arresting "babies." It's an easy, extreme thing over which to be outraged, but we should be equally outraged over children being required to ask permission to use the toilet or compelled to walk in straight lines through the hallways or to sit quietly in their seats while a teacher drones on about irrelevant things. We should be equally outraged by the assembly line mechanisms by which we process our children, standardizing them through tests and ranking them by grades. We should be equally outraged by a culture that cuts down all the tall poppies, hammers down the nails that stick up, and values classroom management over anything else.

But how will we ever teach the children if they don't first learn to obey? That is the absurd question that leads to atrocity. Arresting children is the fruit that grows from the soil of obedience.

Freedom, liberty, autonomy: that is what must come first. It must be the highest value if we are to ever become self-governing people. This is what history, science, and experience have to teach us. It will only be when we, as a society, can learn see children as free people that we will finally understand what it means to be free ourselves. Until then, I'm afraid, we will be doomed to commit atrocities in the name of absurdities.

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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