The Moral Value of Posters at Westminster High

The cross is probably the most ubiquitous symbol of human society. It’s held that status well before Christians began using it. It is simple, easy to make and to understand. From a swastika to a four-leaf clover, two lines crossing one another have symbolized innumerable gods, mysteries, theologies and political entities. There exists a cross with an anchor on the bottom and one with a head-like shape on top called an ankh. There is a cross with a star, a yin-yang symbol, a flame, a chalice, a dead naked man, a star of David, and even one that identifies an artist formerly known as Prince. Each of these diverse symbols holds meanings far greater than the simplicity of their design. Whole armies gathered around some of them and wars have been fought for them. Such is the power of a symbol.

Ask Christians if their cross is a symbol of torture and cruelty or a sign of love and peace. I’ll bet they choose the latter. If you ask those who endorse the stars and bars of the Confederate flag “What does it symbolize?”, you will likely get a muddle of opinions on the topic. I find it hard to come up with anything of a positive nature to say in its behalf; the connotations of slavery overwhelm any good it may represent. People fight hard to keep it part of their southern heritage in spite of this. Its significance regarding violence and oppression of vast cultures of people has caused its removal from many public buildings and schools.

New symbols appear in our midst all the time. From a protest march in Oregon to a classroom in Maryland you can see marvelous illustrations of a women of color asserting themselves in a poster series called “We the People” by the artist Shepard Fairey, the artist who made the iconic Obama poster. They speak of liberty and freedom and diversity. They have deep significance for the gender and cultures who are oppressed in our society. The symbols in these posters do not use the image of a cross. They are new, so they have no established place in our history as the Confederate flag does. They are simply portraits of confident minority women asserting themselves in our society. They represent the diverse multi-ethnic population of the United States struggling to survive. They connote an altruistic and moral point of view.

That school in Maryland, Westminster High School, has removed the posters from the classroom as if it were the same as the confederate flag. The stated reason for this is that the symbol was also carried in opposition protests to Donald Trump’s politics. The denigrating bias of Trump’s politics on women, minorities, poor folks, Muslims and people of color turns these symbols, the posters, into something tainted by politics. The posters provide support for these moral values that Trump has made too controversial for this school.

Steven Johnson, the school’s assistant superintendent for instruction told HuffPost. “The Confederate flag in and of itself has no image of slavery or hatred or oppression, but it’s symbolic of that,” “These posters have absolutely no mention of Trump or any other political issue ― it’s the symbolism of what they were representing. They were carried in these protests.”

So, by carrying a symbol in a protest, that symbol becomes invalid as a conveyor of moral concepts for society and our children? The symbol – the posters – expressed a moral significance so succinctly that is was used in opposition to an oppressive political ideology. The well-made symbols of clearly articulated moral ideals must be suppressed in schools simply because those symbols have also been used in political campaigns on the side of those who lost the election. What would Vaclav Havel say about this?

I’m sure he would recognize the technique from his time under Communist rule. He speaks eloquently about this very situation when he discusses, in a letter to then President Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia that his government had chosen “the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity.”

So, if that school deadens the brilliantly stated evocation of an ideal that happens to be part of its own mission statement which includes preaching “tolerance [and] acceptance of diversity”,  then there will be uniformity and compliance and consequently, inner decay. The richness of life will be replaced with clip-art posters of similar words and the homogenization of young minds will perpetuate blandness and complicity.

What about the Confederate flag? Doesn’t Steven Johnson’s equivalency of symbols argument hold true. Well, if they plan on using that argument there are a ton of images they will need to eliminate from the school in addition to those posters. They can start with any version of a cross that is not Donald Trump’s Presbyterian cross and any other religious symbols, especially Muslim symbology. They can clear out most of the art history department. The library can remove any literature, well, some can stay – pro-racist alt-right stuff. Get the point? They also marched with the American Flag, should that be replaced with a cartoon drawing too!

Look, the issue with the Confederate flag is that it is a symbol of oppression and domination and that it harshly reminds everyone of slavery. It screams its immoral history. On the other hand, the Fairey posters scream the morally valuable ideals of acceptance, diversity, equality, respect, and religious freedom. These are American values that belong to no single political party. There is no equivalency.

America needs to wake up to the subtle intrusion of inner decay. The purpose of school is not the homogenization of young minds. It’s not blandness nor is it complicity. Education is not about deadening life for the ease of uniformity. If educators, and all of us, do not learn to recognize it while it is happening and bother to stand up to this intrusion then we can expect decay.