It’s not often that the Kids’ Page, a syndicated feature printed in some newspapers, inspires a grownup, but it can happen.
Last week’s page focused on the Jan. 15 birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Along with a word search, crossword puzzle and brief bio of the civil rights leader, there was a game to match terms associated with social activism to their definitions.
The brevity and clarity of the definitions was compelling.
Too often, perhaps, the words used in the game are tossed around by grownups without any thought given to their very precise and direct meanings.
There were seven words.
“Equality” was first. The definition given was “the state of being treated fair and equal.” It’s that “do unto others” Golden Rule thing. In a world of power politics, few stop and ask, “How would you like it if someone did this to you?” It’s also a question we ask our children more often than we ask ourselves.
Next was “racism.” What does a racist believe? “Skin color is a primary way to define a person.”
Race festers below almost every conflict in Mississippi. Is this what whites want? Is this what blacks want? As long as rivalry and/or revenge based on pigmentation has center stage, not much else will happen. And while race functions both as a sword and a shield in American culture, the definition proves “racism” boils down to the actual belief that the color of a person’s skin — his or her ancestry alone — can be used to identify whether that person is kind or mean, smart or addled, careful or careless, honest or evil. No thinking person can look around and believe that. Geniuses come in all colors, shapes and sizes. So do liars, con artists and thieves.
“Prejudice” was defined as “an adverse opinion toward a person or group without just grounds.” The term, quite obviously, means pre-judge. It’s a first cousin to stereotyping. An example would be deciding that “women aren’t good in science” and deciding, based on that sweeping statement, that a woman applying to teach high school science wouldn’t be as good as a male applicant.
“Coexist” was next, defined as “to live in peace together.” To paraphrase, “mind your own business.” To “coexist” does not mean “agree” or “approve.” Take the trend toward legal use of marijuana. It actually harkens to the libertarianism of American pioneer days and away from the trend of the last century when governments and courts have tried to make us act in our own best interests. The thinking is that if people choose to stay stoned, that’s their business. Neighbors can coexist because the neighbors are free to make their own choices, too.
“Peace” was the next word. The Kids Page defined it as “a state of tranquility or harmony.” Poets and songwriters have long contended that peace, too, is a choice. Others contend that strife, even war, are inherent to the human experience, driven by our competitive nature and by forces of evil, such as Isis. Maybe so, but eliminating self-imposed strife is certainly possible.
Next-to-last on the list was the term “civil rights.” That term is tossed around almost as often as “racism,” but what does it mean? The definition given is “the nonpolitical rights of an individual person or group.” The Declaration of Independence lists “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inherent. Said another way, our existence, our freedom of person and conscience are gifts that come by virtue of being born. If they’re going to be diminished or denied by anyone, there should be a compelling reason.
The last word was “tolerance.”
Ever notice that those demanding it are least likely to practice it? The definition is “the act of allowing something different from your own beliefs.” The annual season when intolerance is in full bloom has just ended. Mind you there are very good reasons why spending public funds on religion is unwise, but things have gotten a little weird. Some people will tell you they avoid stores where employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and others will tell you they avoid stores where employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Really? Given today’s youthful theme, let’s quote the great Elsa from “Frozen,” and “Let it go.”
Big people — those who spend little time on the Kids’ Page — often think about big topics. When we do, it might help to fall back on what the words we’re using really mean.
It couldn’t hurt; it might help.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.