We all have our wells of ignorance that sit at the core of who we are. That well’s foundation is built by our family, by our school, our church, our friends, and society. The foundation is built many times from good intentions, an effort to keep us from perceived dangers and threats but those good intentions themselves come from places of fear and ignorance and suddenly we have not just the groundwork built but the walls are poured as well and this is all before we get into our teens. That well will only get deeper as we join cliques, as we take in entertainment and media, and as we age it becomes our friends and lovers who build that well and we are at their side, smiling all the while. By the time you reach adulthood you have two choices – you can choose to see the well you are in and start the long climb out or you can see the world hovering above your well and start digging down, down, down to hide yourself away from it.
Some of us choose a perception of safety by embracing ignorance.
Some of us choose knowledge in the hope that it will arm us against the world.
Either way, we all have a well of prejudice, and ignorance, and fear, and it’s up to us to figure out what to do with that well. We can never fill it in. We can never quell all of the whispering ghosts in our hearts. Even the best of us will have moments where we think ‘Well…’ as we meet someone, see something, or read about a moment in time. All of us are susceptible and we need to see that and accept it. That’s part of growing, seeing that you have faults and doing everything you can to overcome them.
The wells will always be there, but we don’t have to keep building bigger and deeper ones. We can stop.
If we want to.
A friend had posted on social media yesterday about the soul searching their high school was having as it addressed whether or not author Toni Morrison’s seminal The Bluest Eye should be taught in the school. This is an old debate that sadly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. What is appropriate for children? WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN is the joking battle cry of many who furrow their brow at the concept that the world can be sanitized and safety netted. We suffer under a collective delusion that we can make the world bend to our will and make it behave when we have children, and darn it if it won’t behave then we’ll hide our kids away until they’re ready, not realizing that all we’re doing is making it so they are never ready for the real world.
We don’t have to LIKE the way the world is but we cannot hid away from it.
Look at our politics, social and governmental, and that will tell you how well hiding from the world works out for us.
The world is the world.
We can fight it.
We can accept it.
Or we can become a part of it.
Art, any art, ALL art challenges us. From the most obtuse piece of art to the most commercial, it challenges us to give it meaning, form, and reason. It forces us to take it in and process it and decide what it is and whether it’s ‘good’ or not. Meaningful Art, IMPACTFUL Art is the kind that forces us to open ourselves up, to re-examine ourselves, and to ask ourselves why we see the world from the bottom of a well.
When I a kid I grew up in a small town with negligible racial or sexual differences and a world that thought ‘fags’ were funny and ‘trannies’ were gross. You’d playfully chant ‘fight, fight…’ knowing the racial epithet that came next. None of it mattered, and none of it hurt me because I was a white kid in a white household who never had to really struggle to survive. None of that isn’t to say that I wasn’t ‘sensitive’ to the world, because I was, overly so, but without anyone in my life to challenge my viewpoint I went with what the other kids thought and said. My family didn’t encourage this, and I never said the things around them I did when I was with my friends but that well was being built, stone by stone, and without knowing anyone who was gay, or black, or trans, or truly DIFFERENT I already had ideas of who these people were and what they were about. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to see the shameful and sad way I thought about others and spoke of them without even knowing someone who walked in that life. And it is that shame that I keep close to constantly remind me that I am not better than anyone. I am just different. The narrow world I knew wasn’t a true reflection but a funhouse mirror that showed me only what I was willing to see.
That changed as I got older and the world began to open to me slowly, like a flower revealing itself.
It was through books and movies that I saw that pain was universal, as was fear, and that despite the myriad differences between all of us that there are universal things that unite us, like hope and love. I saw the world through the eyes of people who I would never meet but who began to change me. I wasn’t able to physically travel but through art I was able to see and experience a world I scarcely knew existed. When I reached college that world was blown open. Suddenly I was around people I didn’t know, in a place that felt far from home even though it was only a half an hour away. I was surrounded by every race, every ideal, and every income. Without the baggage of borrowed bias I was able to see people not from the bottom of my well but as fellow humans. College allowed me to climb slowly up out of my well and the more I met people the wider my world got.
Were it not for the arts I would have gone into college with the same biases that I learned in school and the same baggage.
Art is meant to challenge us.
It isn’t meant to be safe.
It isn’t meant to be happy.
It can be both, but there is little growth in safety and little growth without challenge.
The more we fight against the word the more we shelter ourselves from a reality that we can either be a part of or be a victim of.
If we ban books, and films, and music and any Art that concerns or worries us than we’re simply giving in to the well. We’re going to end up romanticizing things that kids will then flock to and fetishize. And while that’s all well and good if it’s things like The Bluest Eye it gets dangerous when we hide them from the darker truths in the world because they will then flock too to that, curious about it and not appreciating WHY we fear those things.
Children will always need us to look out for them. To make sure that they understand the dangers in the world but it’s on us to teach them to swim before they end up in the ocean. We need to educate them and let them learn about the world and work to dispel some of the ignorance and hate in the world. Fear serves no master but itself, and the same goes with hate. While a healthy fear of some things can be good, to live in fear, especially of the people and the world around you can only limit your experiences in the world and ability to deal with the world itself. Hate does no good. It is a devourer that does no good. Knowledge is what dispels both of those things and the best way to teach is through Art. We forget how powerful art is, and how important it can be as a tool for teaching. We forget because some of us don’t like the way the world has gone so we try to block it out. We gnash our teeth at a PC world that is full of strangeness and change all while we feast on reality television and obsess over the cult of celebrity. It is easier to ban books, to ban Art than to ban the world but we do so at our own peril. We can block out the rest of the world and the worlds of words and images and sounds but it doesn’t make them go away. Better to guide our youth into the world through the safety of Art, where we can discuss themes and topics, scary as they may be, than to let them go into the world not understanding the difference between scorpions and frogs. So gleefully we forget what we did as teens, and what teens do now together in the dark. We want to pretend that our precious babies are innocent as they do just as we did and look at the world from the same wells we did.
We can do better by them.
We can help them to start climbing out of that well.
We can help them to see the wider world and explain it.
We can help them see that there is nothing to fear from people who are not like us, and that we are universal in more ways than we are different. Through education, and art, and science, and faith we can teach them how to live and survive and THRIVE in the world. We cannot change the world from what it is but we can learn to live in it and we need to teach kids how to do the same. You can take challenging and uncomfortable Art away but it doesn’t take away their messages, it just takes away the opportunity to discuss them. School is not meant to be safe and comfortable when it comes to learning, it is meant to challenge and broaden us. We have made schools into test factories with the only interest in passing the kids through to retain funding and get them into college so they can get six degrees and maybe, hopefully get a career. Maybe. Life is enriched by our experiences in the world. Not by tests. Not by jobs. By experience. We learn to experience the world the more we interact with it. Art opens the door to the world and shows us that there are things beyond our imagination just past our state lines.
All of this we are robbing children by regressing to the fear-mongering mentality that shoos away anything that might make us have uncomfortable discussions with our kids or, heaven forbid, may open our children to ideas that we disagree with. We do not own our children. We can never really control them. Let us then teach them to be whole people before they enter the world. Whole people who, while they have their own wells of ignorance to contend with they will at least have someone helping to get out of that well, out of those biases before they reach adulthood and those people will be their parents.
Those people will be us.