The Emperor’s Social Clothes

Too busy performing in Salvador, Brazil, to argue.


In September of this year, Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported an incident in which a Muslim cleric was viciously beaten by a young woman after he publicly berated her for what he deemed her immodest dress. As the story spread virally, the Internet erupted into virtual Schadenfreude over the poetic nature of the cleric’s comeuppance in a part of the world, going beyond the Islamic states, where the oppression of woman is institutionalized and often enforced through homicidal or sexually violent means. Even though a minority of commentators deplored the specific manner in which it was effected, the act was widely viewed as a bold assertion of basic human rights in the face of unjust laws.

Which invites the question: would these same commentators defend with equal fervour a young African-American male in Florida, or Arkansas, or Albany GA or Jackson MS who responded in the same manner to a citizen demanding he pull up his pants, in accordance with recently enacted state or civic ordinances? There are more similarities than differences between the real Iranian and hypothetical (for now) American scenarios: both involve long-oppressed demographics, targeted by discriminatory legislation. And as offensive as the sight of underpants may be to American (or Canadian, in my case) eyes, the sartorial statement of “saggy pants” clearly fails to meet the local legal definition of public indecency, or there would be no need for further statutes.

In case you are fortunate enough not to know what I’m talking about…

It’s a question of values, ultimately, but also the parameters we place on them. Our society imposes values, or demands adherence to particular social norms and expectations that may differ or even conflict with those of others living within it. Even if we attempt to find a respectful balance, no entente is ever possible that satisfies all parties: we accept conditions that may not be to our liking, such as taxation or gun control, in the interests of a communal social contract manifested primarily in the law.

But the process of distilling collective values is neither simple nor easy, and often becomes reactive and controversial, as the “saggy pants” issue shows. Strangely enough, the question of whether the sight of underpants in public is acceptable is in many ways symbolic of the most pressing social problem in modern American: it isn’t the plurality of existing values, but the ongoing efforts of what are essentially two major factions to impose their specific morals, often well-intentioned in their own right, on the remainder of the population through law. The fact that the words “under God” within the American Pledge of Allegiance remain hotly contested demonstrates just how sensitive the issues are in this nation.

This is why I grow extremely uncomfortable when I hear Sistema programs choosing to address so-called “social values” through conversation with students. It’s an extremely dangerous game to play, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. Discussion of concepts as ostensibly laudable as democratization, equality and consensus-building may run entirely counter to cultures or family traditions that demand unconditional respect for and obedience towards authority and the elderly. Even preaching a mantra of respect for the law can be problematic, since laws are clearly not always just – but conversely, advocating civil disobedience can be construed as sedition.

Beyond determining what, or rather, whose values to preach, the other pressing question is whether Sistema programs have any right at all to discuss values with students beyond those necessary for maintaining a productive teaching environment, or those that can be modeled unspoken within the ensemble setting. Even if the act of learning an instrument is morally neutral, as Sistema nay-sayer Toronyi-Lalic claims, the decision to teach music is itself one of moral significance: in deeming music a subject worthy of the expense and effort of instruction, we simultaneously ascribe to it a degree of human and social value exceeding that of many other disciplines. The justification for this act of what is essentially arrogance is that the same rationale underlies all public instruction in any subject, although the problematic nature of democratic validation is further demonstrated by the absence of fractions from the Mississippi state curriculum, or the inclusion of Creationism in the Kansas… and the omission of music from many others. Having professed one set of values by teaching music, is it necessary or even appropriate to verbalize others?

And finally, trumping any consideration of rights, moral authority, or social necessity, is the sheer treacherousness of the political waters to be navigated when teachers choose to talk about values. The longevity of the Fundación and its consistent level of popular and governmental support derives in part from its strictly non-denominational and politically-neutral stance – despite the fact that its founder is a man of profound faith, and that many governmental economic and social policies entirely undermine the organization’s mandate. While conceding that my sample is relatively small from a statistical perspective, I never once heard any teacher in any núcleo I visited lecturing the children about acting like a community. They focused on making music. Social action through music, not through talking.

And no one objects.




8 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Social Clothes

  1. Thought provoking as ever, Jonathan. Thank you.

    The key for me, as far as Sistema inspired programmes are concerned is ‘walking the talk’, leading by example and modelling what we espouse in the way that we act.

    Ultimately I hope we support the next generation in coming to their own informed views about how they wish to live their lives rather than imposing any values. Young people should be able to make informed decisions based on the best possible information available.

    If we all start off by taking personal responsibility for our own actions and have consideration for others we shouldn’t go too far wrong.

  2. Thank you Jonathan for an interesting and thought-provoking post – and a very problematic one.

    To continue on from Richard’s point, which is basically about empowering young people, we need to be clear that music inevitably models values, so the question is not whether to aim for a “politically-neutral stance” (which is an impossibility) but whether to involve young people in the discussion and be open about the political implications of every decision about musical education and organization. Do you impose values in a paternalistic fashion (“here you go, you’re going to play in an orchestra, it’s good for you”), or do you make the process more transparent and engage students with the issue? Do you make explicit the fact that different kinds of music making model different kinds of values, or do you exclude children from this kind of reflection? Do you, as Richard put it, enable young people to make informed decisions based on the best possible information available, or do you make that decision for them by deciding what kind of music they’re going to play, in what kind of ensemble, with what degree of reflection, etc?

    The problem with “social action though music, not through talking” is precisely that it leaves students totally unaware of this whole rich and important topic, unaware of the values they are being instilled with and unable to participate actively in the process. That is not democracy – that is authoritarianism.

    It is clear in writings ranging from Ancient Greece to Paul Woodford’s Democracy and Music Education that there is no democracy, and indeed no education in the full sense of the word, without participation in reflection and deliberation. Without this, what you have is authoritarian training, not democratic education.

    You cannot educate children to be actively participating citizens if you do not encourage them to participate actively in discussion.

    Jonathan, you end: “And no one objects.” Do you mean that no one has any objections, or that El Sistema does not create spaces for people to express their possible objections? “Social action though music, not through talking” of course implies the latter.

    (The idea that El Sistema is politically neutral, by the way, is very misguided: the program encodes all kinds of strong political and ideological positions, and the fact this is not readily visible illustrates precisely its power to naturalize these positions – in other words, its political power. Abreu was a politician long before he was a youth orchestra conductor. If we’re serious about researching El Sistema, then we need to unpack these processes, not cover them up with a gloss of political neutrality.)

    1. I have to own up to being ‘old fashioned’! Perhaps it is my age.However, as I was mentioned in Geoff’s reply I would like to respond to Geoff, Jonathan and Glenn in what I hope is a helpful way.

      I won’t be contributing further to this debate through this medium, not because I am not interested, but because I find it so difficult to communicate effectively and meaningfully – my problem, not yours! My view is that very quickly, in order to have a meaningful debate, that doesn’t make potentially false assumptions or attribute positions to people that they may not have, we have to move to the old fashioned route of communicating in person – ideally face to face.

      It is true, as Glenn suggests that this could be a public debate, but in my view, better still to have this discussion in private first. I have found that we often have more that unites us that divides us. We just need to get past ‘first impressions’.

      I look forward to attending a seminar by Geoff in London shortly and learning from that.

      Social media and communications are brilliant in making the world a smaller place and enabling us to communicate with and learn from each other. Skype enables this to happen face to face too at little or no cost.

      But I have to express, and continue personally to use, great caution in engaging with social media for ‘conversations’. Too often, I have experienced words or phrases taken out of context or misunderstood (accidentally and occasionally deliberately in order to promote other agendas). The result is that instead of moving things forwards and helping, the outcome is divisiveness and seen by those not so passionately involved in music and education as in-fighting amongst ourselves.

      If we can communicate and find the highest common factor instead of the lowest common denominator maybe those of us interested in this field can help inform our own sectors as well as finding common ground when discussing issues with those who make policy and find the funding for this sort of work to continue?

      If you continue to exchange views through this medium I will continue to watch and listen with interest but please forgive me for not participating. It is not lack of interest. If any of you wish to take more time to explore things more deeply off-line I am happy to be contacted at or +447850634239

  3. Jonathan and Geoff- How about this. Let’s define the problem, declare sides, have a real debate. Perhaps we could have a winner, and make a real contribution to whatever cause we represent. What are the two sides of this debate and which one are you on?

    I’m a strategist, not a critic or commentator so forgive my directness. (You know I love you Jonathan) What is the value of standing on the sidelines and criticising? Or is this not a battle for the lives of millions of children? A real battle against poverty, ignorance, suffering, neglect, abuse?

    The real stakeholders have not asked us to be the referees, (necessary in chess and cricket) so just what role do we play in this discussion? Whose interests do we represent? Our own perhaps?. If indeed our children are at stake, lets get the question on the table, argue the point and make a real contribution.

    If on the other hand this is meant to be like a music critic’s forum, something like the NY Times sells for the Sunday Edition, the in the words of the TV Show “Shark Tank”- I’m out.

  4. Glenn, thank you for your directness. Let me respond in kind.

    Almost everyone in the world of education and development thinks they are doing good work. Some are right, others are wrong. You can’t tell which by common sense or measuring the amount of good will or conviction involved. Some development projects that look wonderful have been demonstrated to have negligible or negative effects.

    Throughout human history, good people have sometimes unwittingly done bad things to the people they are trying to serve. The only way to avoid this is to analyze deeply, carefully, and critically what is taking place. Any large-scale project has its weaknesses and can be improved – discouraging the probing of those weaknesses does no one any good.

    Children are not in a position to understand that they need referees. Adults are. If we fail to recognize and act on this, we are failing in our responsibility.

  5. Geoff & Jonathan- Perhaps there is a better time and place to explore my question which after all was not the question. So let me declare myself off point. Perhaps in another live forum we can debate the role and value of the critic or referree. I do believe that our value to kids is best manifest by choosing our cause and doing all we can with the gifts we have to move it forward.

  6. If overall education is the goal of Sistema, at least to some degree. Exp; math=to understanding a piece, historical/philosophical/scientific context of the time of composistion? Or is the Institution meant as a suppliment to institutionalized education? The human brain is not fully developed until age 25 on average. Hence the Tradition that got us to this point of Respect of Elders in general. If they go too far like the story of this posts title theme, then Bastille Day happens! If that happened every day We’d live in a ‘Mad Max’ world. First a load bearing camel to become a strong Lion, which can kill a Dragon covered in scales on which are written Thou Shalt! Scale at a time! Nietzche. Levels of increasing reasponsability/equality/democracy. Just like musical performance. I’ve never worked on a hot tar roofing job that was run by democracy! You have to be responsible for your part, and know that every one else is too! The Foreman/Master has to know he can say yes to each of us, cause there is know time to F around! People can be burnt badly, blown up, fall off roofs etc. You have to move fast, and efficiently as a team with 575 degree hot tar, if it cools too much after being mopped on, then your rolls can’t be placed right. It is a Ballet under the sky. And not a very Polite one either, but it’s not personal, and we all know that! As far as the pants example; if people want to wear clothing that identifies them as not being a part of decision making leaders of society, then so be it! But then don’t cry how know one will listen to then, because they won’t show them respect. They show they don’t respect the Elder society by how they dress. Freud would have a field day on this subject. Look at pre-industrial societies, and what is done to teens to make them part of the Adult scene! Again, what binds us, and what makes us different are equally important. Light/Darkness, ‘the silence between the notes is as important as the notes’ Beethoven. Pax! EAM

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