What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion? To be more precise, what would you say if a high school student complained about the alteration of an American flag? It was turned into a rainbow-colored flag and hung proudly in his school during a school-sponsored Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Day. He called that flag a disgrace! Would your initial response be he was expressing his hate for the alteration of Old Glory or he was upset about what the rainbow flag signifies?
This story was brought to my attention by one of my podcast listeners recently. He asked me to read more about it and give my thoughts. The event occurred in Kennebunk, ME on October 25, 2019, and was reported on by a local CBS news channel, WGME13. I’m including a link to the article for those who want to watch the video. The article is titled Kennebunk High School Parent Upset Teen Was Punished For Calling Flag Disgrace. The following is a brief summarization.
The parent of a Kennebunk High School student says administrator’s mishandled comments his stepson made about a flag on display during a recent event.
“He walked, not through the main entrance, but through the side entrance, and expressed loudly ‘That flag is a disgrace,'” father Sean White said.
Sean White is upset about what happened to his 17-year-old stepson.
He says the school had a “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Day” on October 25.
He says his stepson was not happy about one of the flags on display.
“He didn’t threaten anyone, he didn’t swear at anyone, destroy property he just stated that he was offended by a disgraceful flag, the alteration of our American flag,” White said.
White says his stepson was called into the office the following Tuesday and was told he will be serving a one-day in-school suspension.
“They’re telling him that he has a right to free speech, but he may have offended someone, so in that case, they have to punish him to relegate the fact that they’ve done something,” White said.
White says he, his stepson, and his mother met with school administrators Monday.
“Their stance is that had someone heard him, a student, a foreign person, a transgender, he may have offended someone which he hadn’t, he was heard by someone off-camera,” White said. “They had to go to video camera to even know that my son was the one who said it.”
He said the school apologized and said he will not be suspended.
“For him to care about what he cares about his patriotism, the flag, it’s good, it’s what we’re missing in America,” White said.
CBS 13 spoke with the principal, who says the case is closed, and they are not commenting further.
White hopes this situation brings awareness to First Amendment rights.
“Please don’t take this as an anti-gay or an anti-immigrant or anything other than what it really is, in which is protecting our rights as Americans to speak our mind in a non-threatening, positive manner,” White said.
Themed alterations to American flags are not uncommon or illegal and are usually considered their own flags, and not American flags at all.
This story is multi-faceted. On one hand, you have the student making the comment. He was exercising his first amendment right of free speech. He also evoked his love of country and the American Flag. Many feel just as passionately as this young man. Any alteration to that flag is considered a desecration and highly disrespectful to what it represents and for all of those who have fought and died for it. For many, the flag represents more than a love of country, it represents a way of life.
Next, you have the public school and its administrators. The leaders of that school decided to create a day to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is also a form of free speech. While acknowledging this student’s right to use free speech, they attempted to punish him because it may offend someone else even if someone wasn’t there to hear it and be offended by it. This is similar to a philosophical thought experiment I learned many years ago. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Finally, you have the guardians of the student, his parents. They know the child better than anyone. After discussing the matter with him they met with the school administrators who initially decided he should be suspended for his comments. After explaining that the child was not expressing an anti-gay or anti-immigrant sentiment the school apologized for their decision and reversed the one-day in-school suspension.
Those are the three main players in this story. While it may initially appear to be an isolated incident in a small town in Southeast Maine, the situation represents a human and political struggle on a larger level. That is, should diversity, equity, and inclusion be promoted at all costs? If yes, what happens when that promotion interferes with the first amendment rights of others who are opposed to how that message is promoted? In other words, they may not in some cases be opposed to the struggle; more so are offended with how it’s represented like the alteration of the American flag.
Evelyn Beatrice Hill was an English writer who wrote under the name Stephen G Tallentyre. In her 1906 book, The Friends of Voltaire, she wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” Those who march in support of the first amendment and the right to free speech have expressed that sentiment in a similar fashion. The school administrator’s attempt at punitive compliance with the overall goal of diversity and inclusion whole-heartedly infringed upon the student’s right to speak out against it.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are defined differently depending on who you ask. When asked what is diversity, equity and inclusion the University of Michigan gives the following response: “Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party. “Equity means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. “And inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.”
On a national level the push for diversity, equity and inclusion represents several demographics. They range from race, ethnicity, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and gender preference. While on the surface those groups should have little to do with public schools they are a symbol of a political push by members of the ruling class and those who have strong opinions and religious beliefs whether they be for or against them.
Seeing as how the student was attending a public school it is safe to assume the school administrators were of a mindset that they wanted to make all of the students feel welcome regardless of who they are, what they look like, immigrant status, and what their sexual orientation/preference is. After all, the last thing educators want to be accused of is offending anyone of anything.
The push for diversity and inclusion can be summarized by one word: struggle. No one can doubt the internal and external struggle a gay or transgender person experiences. The decision on whether or not to come out as gay or commit to a sex change is deeply personal and unique for each individual. Historical acts of violence and ostracism, past and present, against the LGBTQ community, are well documented and still ongoing. The basic human right to pursue happiness and love who you want regardless of your pronoun or sexual preference and being acknowledged of having that right is what this group strives for. While few if any theocracies support their life choices those same dogmas preach the common phrase of all us being created in the image of our makers. If God is perfect and makes no mistakes, detractors of this group cannot deny their right to equality.
Race and racism have also been included in the diversity and inclusion debate. While the incident at the high school was not focused on race or racism it has been lumped together along with illegal immigrants to signify the challenge that many groups face. While racism against others is rooted in hate immigration is an entirely different matter. Many feel migration is a human right. Others believe we are a nation of laws. Compassion for immigrants is universal as many of us are only a few generations removed from being immigrants ourselves. How that legal status was achieved is where there is a divide. While some feel no human is illegal others will say you don’t have a country without borders. Children brought to this country that are currently without status are those that are included in this debate.
The altered flag that caused the ire of the student was an American flag with rainbow stripes. The rainbow is the chosen symbol of the LGBTQ community and can be found at nearly every event promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. For those that are highly religious and believe homosexuality is a sin, this flag is a symbol that represents everything their faith has taught them to be against. While at the end of the day a flag is just a flag and a rainbow is a grouping of colors, feelings of intolerance and immorality are how those who are for and against it equate them.
Intolerance is an interesting word. When used as a noun it’s defined as an unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviors that differ from one’s own. Similarly, immorality is defined as the state or quality of being immoral: wickedness. If the student truly was disgraced by the American flag being altered to have rainbow colors the proponents of that flag and event should have expressed tolerance of his views. After all, that is the very definition of the word. For people who are sickened at the sight of the rainbow flag for what it has come to represent and claim it represents the wicked, hate is also a virtue of the wicked as well. You would be hard-pressed to find any religious passage that preaches hate over love. While none of us are perfect and we live in an imperfect world what we can do is listen and learn from one another. If our first instinct is to punish someone for not agreeing with our beliefs that same punishment can be cast upon us for not agreeing with theirs. In a world of seven continents and seven billion people, opinions and beliefs will vary from one culture to the next. While the message of diversity, equity and inclusion is one that is meant to encompass everyone it’s incumbent upon those who promote that message of tolerance to not be intolerant of those who feel otherwise. If you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties this line from one of my favorite TV shows, Different Strokes will bring this subject home. It summarizes this debate the best. “The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you may not be right for some.” Suspension for not liking a flag… “What’cha talking about Willis?”