Several months ago in my former senior high school class, students were introduced to the ideas of illiberalism. When discussing this issue, students are faced with how governments will apply laws and acts during times of crisis, as well as everyday life, that would limit or suspend civil liberties of any individual or group.
One issue that always stirs up discussion is civil rights regardless of country or government. Trying something new, I introduced the era of Jim Crow in the United States. Students were introduced to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction era, all the way up to the Civil rights movement and the hindrance of the Jim Crow laws used against the African American population prior to and during the civil rights movement. Students were concerned about the “loop holes” made in the laws during the Jim Crow era that allowed African Americans to be denied voting rights, due process, segregation and the use of extremism associated with the era.
When Discrimination was Legal
The association between the Jim Crow laws in the United States and the Nazi-Germany Nuremberg laws in 1935, was quickly pointed out by the students creating discussions that ranged from eugenics, isolation of communities and the laws that allowed this. It is often clear that some laws, in some countries, at some time are unethical.
When faced with doing the “right thing” a law can make it extremely difficult for a person to help, support and rely on the moral character of their governments. Given the discussion and the challenge of analyzing and comprehending the many ideologies my students were asked to choose an ideology and create a propaganda picture that, with limited words and relying primarily on imagery, responded to actions, laws or beliefs of another ideology.
In effect, why is their chosen ideology opposed to another based on their current study and understanding? My students were also asked to consider: Why do governments that reject totalitarian and or authoritarian governments sometimes justify laws in their own governments that appear to be or are as hindering to members of their own society?
Students provided many different messages. Several portrayed the Residential school systems imposed on First Nations peoples in Canada; some portrayed the ideological differences of Stalinist Russia and the Nazi Party. Woven in many of the pieces was the indication that the marginalized members of society: the scapegoats, the minorities, the struggling are targeted, forgotten and largely unheard. One thing that has always resonated with students, and a question that is frequently posed by so many historians and so many survivors: How many doctors, who may have had the cure for cancer were killed? How many civil rights lawyers? How many teachers? Diplomatic leaders? Singers, poets and, writers? And beyond that: How many people were killed, only because someone said they had to die? The list goes on and on. So many lives, so many contributors to humanity lost because of the laws of unethical men and women. Students’ were conscious that while laws change and adapt to represent the time, historical and contemporary issues remain intertwined and forever a concern.
Connecting the past to present
Despite where you are in the world, we are all aware of terrorism, the issues of the LGBTQ community, negative rhetoric regarding women, people of differing religious practices; unclean drinking water for First Nations and Native Americans; the list is endless. Students are all too aware of these issues or at least becoming aware of them. It is important for students to be aware of the resources available to them about the past. The Visual History Archive of USC Shoah Foundation allows students to hear testimony from 54,000 voices who witnessed genocide, connecting the past to the present.
With the recent Olympic games in Brazil, many students were unaware of the Nazi propaganda used in Berlin in 1936 to quiet the criticism of some who wanted answers to the anti-Jewish policies that emerged due to the Nuremberg laws. While no two situations are the same, when students hear the testimony of African Americans who participated in the Olympics in Berlin, as well as Jewish athletes who were excluded, it does make them aware of the sweeping racial policies and pseudo-scientific beliefs of the Nazi party of inferior races.
Lessons of Testimony
It is also very present today, that one must be careful of rhetoric spoken. When students are given access to the testimony of survivors, they can become aware of how “looking past” certain statements that are potentially dangerous to citizens, can in effect often lead to shock and realization that those statements were in fact, true.
It is important for students to know that these resources are available to them. Survivors of genocide, terror, crime and hate speech, while clearly traumatized by their experiences, sacrifice their emotional selves for all of us to understand and to learn. We need not repeat the mistakes of the past, especially when testimony is so readily available to us. While ideologies may clash, reject each other even there is always a choice in how we respond. Learning is one of the first steps. The hope, is that students walked away knowing that the wisdom of those before us can help us to pay attention.