Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught! [Oscar Hammerstein; South Pacific]

south pacific

South Pacific first appeared on Broadway in 1949 and ran for 1,925 performances. The Broadway musical and subsequent movie by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein is loosely based on a collection of short stories by James A. Michener called Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947. I first saw the Broadway version performed at a summer theater in a converted barn near my home town in the 1980s but I was already familiar with many of the songs because my father, who I have mentioned before had been a very progressive Baptist pastor, owned a copy of the movie soundtrack.

Peppered among the upbeat songs and flashy dancing of the musical, one number even features a cross dressing sailor, is a strong and controversial (at least for the 1940s), message on racism.

The story is set on a remote island in the South Pacific during the Second World War and centers on the inter-generational romance between a young American nurse and a middle aged French plantation owner. Tensions arise between the nurse and the plantation owner’s inter-racial children from a previous marriage and she must come to terms with her personal prejudice. The song above is the most poignant moment in the entire play sung, when in a secondary plot, a naval lieutenant by the name of Cable falls in love with a native Tonkinese girl and comes face to face with the prejudices of his American military brethren.

That song has been running through my head all week.

Last Saturday, as I drove in my car I heard the disturbing news that a Japanese citizen had been executed by ISIS followed a few days later with confirmation that a Jordanian pilot had been burned alive by the same terror group. Our immediate response in the face of such brutality is to recoil from the horror and exclaim; “What evil? How could someone do such a thing?” But what Oscar Hammerstein taught us in 1949 and has become painfully clear over the last 70 years is that prejudice, racism and what those fighting terrorism have more recently dubbed ‘evil’ are all manifestations of things each and every one of us have learned from an early age.

A close friend of mine recently exclaimed that the terrorist must know that what they are doing is wrong, that they are making a choice to do it for the shock value and to incite our rage. We have to stamp them out by any means necessary.

While it may be true that they are choosing tactics to get our attention, I believe that the entire notion of choice in this regard has to be re-examined. I no more chose to be born in Canada, son of a progressive Baptist pastor, who taught me to look at the world through Jesus colored glasses as a broken shadow of its potential, than the members of ISIS chose to be born in the time and place they were born and taught to see the world as a corrupted version of their ideal full of infidels.

Children, no matter their nationality or religion are carefully taught to become reflections of the home and society in which they were born.  There is very little in the way of choice presented to any of us until it is too late. The terrorists we see on the nightly news may be making a conscious choice about the way in which they are waging war but their overarching worldview and motivation has been shaped by a lifetime of education at the hands and feet of generations that have gone before them.

So the next time you’re tempted to judge the actions of terrorists on the news or even the dark skinned clerk at your local convenience store remember:

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Oscar Hammerstein knew as early as 1949 that we will not win the war on prejudice, racism and terror until we wage war on education. Whether you want to admit it or not, we have all been carefully taught.


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