In This Case The Most Generous Interpretation of Events is Also the Most Plausible

Adam Bearson, School Staff/Guest Writer

A student scratches a swastika into the grass with his foot. Later he will assert that he was merely educating his friend who didn’t know the word “swastika”. A few hours after the swastika appears, a coach sees it, quickly converts it into a plus sign before moving on with his day.

If you see hatred here it may be because you want to see it.

I agree that this is a teachable moment for many of us, but not because we need to address “hatred” or “intolerance”–neither of which appears to figure in these events. Instead, this is an opportunity for each of us to check our outrage and consider embracing the most generous interpretation of events. In this case, the most generous interpretation is also the most plausible: a student was educating a boy about a hateful symbol, and a coach was removing a distraction from the practice field.

Many parents, especially Jewish parents–and I am a Jewish parent–may believe that the history of anti-semitism directs us to seek out the most sinister interpretation, the one that will inspire our community to rise up and stamp out any festering hatred in our school. But doing so may have the opposite effect. By jumping to outrage and encouraging an angry response when, as in this case, a more rational one is readily available, we may be unintentionally victimizing innocent people for thought-crimes they didn’t commit.

When we teach kids to seek out the most generous interpretation for other people’s actions we promote resilience, tolerance and civil discourse. When we teach kids to respond with outrage when better interpretations are available, we teach fragility, intolerance and entitlement.

I’ve heard it argued a few times this year that if parents and students feel uncomfortable then we must be doing something wrong at our school. Of course, we always want to hear people out and listen to discover how they are feeling. But does this mean that we should accept the most emotional response to a given event as evidence that there is a real problem? What if instead of validating every angry emotion we taught students to practice giving people the benefit of the doubt?

Many people are outraged by the swastika scratched into the grass, but we don’t have to be. We can see it for what it most likely is–a naive kid giving another even more naive kid a history lesson. Later, a coach demonstrated resilience to his players by taking matters into his own hands and converting an offensive symbol of hatred into a positive one of learning and rationality. That is exactly how I would want the coach of my kids to respond. 

Look, Rio is not perfect and we need to reflect on how Jewish students and students of color feel here at our school. But if we begin by seeking out the most generous, rather than the most sinister, interpretation of our motives, our conversations will be better for it.

Adam Bearson teaches English and media at Rio Americano.