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.
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.