Lately in the news, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir Fun Home has been involved in some controversy. Some incoming freshmen at Duke University were assigned Fun Home as a summer reading assignment and one freshman protested reading the book on the grounds that he was bothered by the portrayal of homosexuality in the book. I read Fun Home last year, and as someone who is not gay, I appreciated that Alison Bechdel told such a thorough examination of the struggles a person goes through in their discovery of their homosexuality. I particularly appreciated learning about the different experience Alison had in coming to terms with her homosexuality and the struggle her father had in being at peace with his. It was enlightening to me.
I ended up getting in an argument on Facebook with some who disregarded the educational value of Fun Home and referred to it as “indoctrination” based off of its portrayal of homosexuality. This person, by his own admission, hadn’t even read the book, but he insisted that he knew the story well enough that he could infer that reading it for a college course would be a waste of time. The attitude of this person and the incoming college freshman that raised a stink about it in the first place is something I find deeply frustrating. The insistence of some people to stay in their bubble and refuse to learn about other people different from them and their perspectives is a mentality I find deeply troubling.
This Duke freshman’s refusal to open up his mind about what homosexuality entails hits a little close to home for me. To get a little bit personal, my middle school and high school years were in an environment and during a time when there was less acceptance towards gay rights. Throughout those years, the easiest and most damning way students (particularly boys) would insult each other is with homophobic insults. I don’t buy into the argument that people that use the F-word as an insult divorce it from its homosexual connotations because the kids during my middle school and high school years would use this word in conjunction with using “gay”, “homo”, “you like boys”, etc. as insults. My upbringing made it quite clear to me that homosexuality was something worth derision and ridicule. Even I often flippantly used the word “gay” as a negative descriptor for things during these years.
It wasn’t until college that I was exposed to openly LBGT+ people and I got to learn more about them and see their humanity. At this point in my life, most of my closest friends are people who aren’t straight. I dearly appreciate all the time we have had to bond and all the things I learned about their perspectives. So when I think about this Duke freshman that insists on maintaining his ignorant and dehumanized views of homosexuality, it really bothers me personally and intellectually.
On an intellectual level, I think back to when my ninth grade Language Arts teacher read my class Elie Wiesel’s Night. It was the first time I got a thorough explanation of the horrific things that were done to the captive Jews in Auschwitz. Was it a pleasant read? No, it wasn’t. It’s hard to keep a straight face when you hear about a teenage boy witnessing his family members dying or seeing soldiers place babies in incinerators. Am I much better off for learning about the extent that these people were tortured and killed simply for their religion? Is the world at large better off for learning about these things from Elie Wiesel’s book? Absolutely. Imagine the gall someone would have to refuse to read this book because they disagreed with Judaism or believed it was nothing more than Zionist indoctrination or something. Or imagine a school rejected it from its curriculum for the same reason.
It actually happened a few years ago at a middle school in Chicago. It didn’t happen with Night though; it happened with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. The school board banned the book on the grounds that its depictions of torture were inappropriate to expose the students to. Once again, imagine a school board banning Night on the grounds that his descriptions of what happened in Auschwitz were inappropriate. Doesn’t that sound insane? The banning of Persepolis is particularly troubling because this is within a context where the large majority of our mass communication dehumanizes Muslims and people of the Middle East, especially as our government keeps justifying perpetual war in that area.
This is Barefoot Gen. This is a semi-autobiographical comic series about a boy and his family who lived in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped. I didn’t read this series until I got to college. In my grade school years, I was taught that the US had to drop the atomic bombs on Japan because it was the safest way to end the war and that the Japanese Army would have never stopped and that the Japanese populace was unilaterally behind Emperor Hirohito. Barefoot Gen was the first time I had ever heard about the bombing of Hiroshima from the perspective of a Japanese civilian and it exposed me to how horrific the bombing really was, how much adversity the survivors had to endure for years after the bombs were dropped, and how the perceived “unilateral support” for the Emperor by the populace was fueled from the same exact kind of propaganda that fuels support for wars the US gets involved in. By the time I was done with Barefoot Gen, I felt hoodwinked by my formative years of education. Who can sleep at night believing what we did to those Japanese civilians was justified? How can teachers tell children that bombing those civilians was justified, especially while they simultaneously make Night mandatory reading? Do they not sense that obvious contradiction? Most of all, what the hell kind of Orwellian nonsense is it to suggest that dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian populace was the most humanitarian decision, especially when other instances showed that humanitarianism was the last thing President Harry S Truman and the recently departed President Franklin Roosevelt had on their minds when it came to their decisions?
The point I’m making with this post is that I believe it is essential that we, as the human race, be open to the experiences and perspectives of people that are different from us. That is how we grow as a species. Choosing to be or capitulating to close-mindedness in our education is only going to be our detriment in the long run. Right now in America, several of our Republican presidential candidates, including the one leading on the polls, are speaking in favor of policies that would forcibly deport undocumented US immigrants and their US-born children. This is precisely the problem when we close ourselves off to other people’s perspectives and humanity. A bratty teenager complaining about being assigned to read a gay woman’s memoir is banal on its face, but this has a reverberating effect. This attitude begets school boards banning books, indifference towards an epidemic of police brutality, Japanese internment camps in the US, Jewish prison camps in Europe, perpetual bombings and drone strikes in the Middle East, or support for presidential candidates that are pushing for policies that would tear 11,000,000+ families apart from each other. I don’t think I’m just being a worrywart either; the fact that time and time again that this mentality continues to fester affects innocent people’s lives. Just ask the children in Islamabad who have become afraid of the sky because they’ve witnessed hellfire fall down and incinerate their loved ones. Or ask the closeted person who is contemplating suicide because they were brought to believe that the way they are is wretched.
Considering Night is required reading in schools, I have to wonder if people in this country actually read the content of the book or if they just skim through it.