At times, Deerfield Academy may feel like a bubble, isolated from the rest of the world and all of today’s current events. Due to our tight-knit community and rural location, Deerfield students may occasionally forget to check the news, or not realize the gravity of a certain event when too wrapped up in a research paper or Deerfield gossip.
But some current events affect our small community. For example, the fatal shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner hit many students personally as they watched our country struggle with racial tensions.
More recently, the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, France, sparked controversy. Following the attack, several students posted a series of Charlie Hebdo posters on the Amnesty Board and around the Main School Building. One poster read in French, “All is forgiven” with a cartoon figure of Muhammad crying holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie.”
The conflict lies mainly with the depiction of Muhammad: the prophet with a provocatively-shaped head and a tear down his cheek. Some people became infuriated, believing the poster mocked the Islamic religion, the terrorists being radical Muslims. Should these types of images be displayed in a close community like Deerfield Academy? Is it morally permissible for offensive yet important messages to be on exhibition for all people to see? These types of questions floated around our community as people reacted differently to these posters.
English teacher Joel Thomas Adams said, “I think this incident brought out the best and worst in our community. There are a lot of people who fear controversy and confrontation, and there are also people who are eager to engage in issues even when it is hard. This issue was never about a cartoon. This issue was about religious fanatics who murdered people for drawing cartoons.”
He continued, “Putting up a poster is not an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo or the content of Charlie Hebdo. It is a defiant response to this murder, and it is in solidarity with its victims. It was a defiant image that we will not be silenced. One of the great sacred values of democratic society is to speak your mind, but of course that means we are all going to be offended sometimes, since we all have different opinions.“
He believes that situations like the poster incident are key to a purposeful education. According to Thomas-Adams, as Deerfield students, we should experience conflict and controversy to develop a stronger understanding of the world and our future. Our world is not perfect. We live in a place full of criticism and free speech. Obstructing certain images only undermines our experiences as well-rounded students; instead, we should embrace these images as learning tools.
In retrospect, Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life Jan Flaska said, “The magazine covers were provocative; they were intended to be. Out of context, they’re quite shocking to people who don’t understand what kind of emotion those images of the prophet Muhammad cause for people of the Muslim faith.”
At lunch, Flaska reminded the community, “Don’t forget how frequently we put the concerns of others ahead of the freedoms to which we are entitled.”
He continued, “Deerfield provides us a lot and we give up a lot to be here. There are freedoms provided by Deerfield Academy, and it is up to us to affirm those freedoms. It is not about the self, but about the community. Often, we must align with giving up some of our freedoms for the benefit of the community. We are not forced to be here. We chose to be part of the community’s values, to be ahead of the needs of the individual. And because we chose that, we serve as an obligation to act with respect to others.” According to Flaska, we should not spark hate, only respectful conversation.
Although both Thomas-Adams and Flaska differed on point of view, they agreed on one point: we need to find more time for discussion about current events.
Following the controversial Charlie Hebdo incident, many members of our community have expressed interest in making change, and putting more emphasis on current events. For example, Martin Luther King Day was a success; the committee held workshops and discussions to bring the community together. In the future, we may see change in our school dynamic—as long as our community keeps working for it.