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Saturday, February 11, 2006

The art of bullying


In Small Town, 'Grease' Ignites a Culture War

Published: February 11, 2006

FULTON, Mo. — When Wendy DeVore, the drama teacher at Fulton High here, staged the musical "Grease," about high school students in the 1950's, she carefully changed the script to avoid causing offense in this small town.

Fulton High drama students, Jon Curtis and Sarah Bailey, auditioned for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which replaced "The Crucible."

She softened the language, substituting slang for profanity in places. Instead of smoking "weed," the teenagers duck out for a cigarette. She rated the production PG-13, advising parents it was not suitable for small children.

But a month after the performances in November, three letters arrived on the desk of Mark Enderle, Fulton's superintendent of schools. Although the letters did not say so, the three writers were members of a small group linked by e-mail, all members of the same congregation, Callaway Christian Church.

Each criticized the show, complaining that scenes of drinking, smoking and a couple kissing went too far, and glorified conduct that the community tries to discourage. One letter, from someone who had not seen the show but only heard about it, criticized "immoral behavior veiled behind the excuse of acting out a play."

Dr. Enderle watched a video of the play, ultimately agreeing that "Grease" was unsuitable for the high school, despite his having approved it beforehand, without looking at the script. Hoping to avoid similar complaints in the future, he decided to ban the scheduled spring play, "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller.

"That was me in my worst Joe McCarthy moment, to some," Dr. Enderle said.

He called "The Crucible" "a fine play," but said he dropped it to keep the school from being "mired in controversy" all spring.

To many, the term "culture war" evokes national battles over new frontiers in taste and decency, over violence in video games, or profanity in music or on television. But such battles are also fought in small corners of the country like Fulton, a conservative town of about 10,000, where it can take only a few objections about library books or high school plays to shift quietly the cultural borderlines of an entire community.

The complaints here, which were never debated in a public forum, have spread a sense of uncertainty about the shifting terrain as parents, teachers and students have struggled to understand what happened. Among teenagers who were once thrilled to have worked on the production, "Grease" became "the play they'd rather not talk about," said Teri Arms, their principal, who had also approved the play before it was presented.

There is a vast difference between offense and cowardice.

It is one thing to stage Birth of Nation, but Grease? And complaints from three people?

The fact is that the play was acceptable to the majority of the people in the town, yet a minority of complaints created a culture of cowardice. Not staging the Crucible is the height of irony.

So, you're wondering, how does this differ from running a bunch of offensive cartoons?

Well, for one thing Grease is inoffensive. The second, only a few people complained and their complaints were ridiculous.

Third, none of this was discussed in public. For good or ill, the debate over the cartoons was a highly public event and still is. It didn't happen because of a back room slight of hand.

Fourth, most Muslims simply want to be respected. Now the building burning loons have one agenda, a political one, but in most of Europe, Muslims are asking for the right to have their traditions respected in the same way other traditions are. Not more and certainly not less.

In the US, the reaction of the major newspapers indicated that racial and ethnic offense are the line where editorial judgment comes in.

And Danish Muslims tried to get their concerns addressed within the system.

What happened here is that three people bullied the school and the principal bowed to them without seeking any outside support. Which is why this will cause a shitstorm.

posted by Steve @ 1:25:00 AM

1:25:00 AM

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