There May Be Two Sides to Every Story; That Doesn’t Mean They’re Both Important

Back in April, the Gay-Straight Alliance of Craig High School in Janesville, Wisconsin participated in the Day of Silence, and showed a video to accompany it: the viral hit “Kids React to Gay Marriage.”

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be news, and the showing of the video itself wasn’t. But this week, the Janesville School District superintendent issued an apology to the community. The district’s policy says that in the case of “controversial or political issues,” the school is required to give a platform to “all sides” of the matter.

“Upon further review of the video, the School District of Janesville Administration believes this video was inconsistent with the goals and purpose of the Day of Silence Observance. The National website states that the purpose of the Day of Silence is to call attention to the harassment and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. In the School District of Janesville the focus of the Day of Silence is also to eliminate bullying and harassment toward ALL students.”

Janesville has been a consistently Democratic district for many years; the attitude of the school district isn’t indicative of a deeply entrenched conservative mentality. Even if this idea of giving “both sides” equal credence isn’t necessarily widespread school policy, it’s a widespread belief; the idea that it’s important to be “neutral” on social issues if you want to be “fair” to everyone. Not only is this philosophy not exclusive to Janesville, it’s not exclusive to schools; it’s the same reason why news outlets like FOX and CNN choose to cover issues like protecting trans students in a “debate” format. Just like CNN’s decision to give uninformed transphobe Randy Thomasson equal billing with Masen Davis, who was actually involved in the bill’s passage, Janesville’s apology is unnecessary and ultimately harmful. Rather than achieving its intended goal of making the playing field level for “ALL students,” it makes the school a hostile place for marginalized students.

A major flaw in thinking when it comes to “showing both sides of the issue” is that discussion of those issues, even if they’re “controversial” or “political,” should primarily be driven by respecting opinions rather than facts. If facts about the dangers facing trans students in California had been the priority, then Davis’ voice would have been the only one necessary; Thomasson’s only contribution was his personal opinion on trans children (which, as a cis person, is pretty meaningless).  Similarly, Janesville’s focus on “eliminating bullying and harassment toward ALL students” communicates more concern about people’s feelings than people’s real experiences. It’s true that some people will feel like they or their kids aren’t receiving enough attention if queer and trans kids are centered in discussions about bullying. The fact is, however, that queer and trans kids will still experience disproportionate amounts of bullying, harassment, violence and all of the attendant mental health issues that come along with them, regardless of what straight cis people’s feelings are.

The decision to make the general public’s feelings a priority over hard facts isn’t necessarily a surprising one for instituations, like schools or media organizations, that rely on public support. In order to be successful, these institutions need the goodwill and participation of their communities, and when community members are displeased, it can throw real wrenches into the works. Indeed, the apology in Janesville was prompted when a school board member received complaints from parents and grandparents that anti-marriage-equality views weren’t receiving equal representation. The difference is that unlike news organizations, schools are tasked with both the safety and the intellectual development of children. Both those things are compromised when we pursue “neutrality.” Marginalized kids learn that their pain and harassment is something that can be debated against, and that the “other side” will be taken at least as seriously as their real experiences are, even if it’s totally off base. And all kids learn that feeling strongly about something gives you a pass on having to examine the facts of a matter and listen to other people’s experiences, which constitutes a serious blow to the critical thinking skills we’re supposed to value so highly in education.

Janesville is just one school district, and honestly, it’s far ahead of many others in that it allows students to form a GSA and participate in the Day of Silence without repercussions. But it does provide an important and instructive lesson on the pitfalls of trying to be “fair to everyone” when marginalized and at-risk communities are involved. It’s silly and cheap for adults to engage in that kind of rhetoric at all, but when kids’ safety is on the line, it’s unconscionable.


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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 759 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thumb up 18

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    I look forward to the day when being a bigot is not considered a valid point of view. Being sexist, racist, homophobic, trans phobic, ableist, etc. is not a legitimate political or social viewpoint. Therefore, it does not need to be considered.

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      The day when people understand that being racist,sexist,homophobic, etc. isn’t just an opinion but apart of a lethal system of oppression will be a good day. Like I’ll go out into the wild and hug a white guy when that day comes

  2. Thumb up 15

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    Ugh, I really hate when news organizations, school districts, etc. harp on this “two sides” idea. Here’s the thing: I’m sure there are people who believe that gravity doesn’t exist, that the earth is the center of the solar system, and that there’s no such thing as evolution or climate change, but IT DOESN’T MATTER what they believe because they are patently wrong. Does that mean they can’t have those beliefs? No, but they sure as hell shouldn’t be given equal importance to people who have studied or lived the issues. If you are willing to jeopardize the quality of your programming and misinform tons of people just to show the supposed two sides of an issue, then you shouldn’t be in the business of educating people or keeping the public up to date (or making important decisions in general).

  3. Thumb up 3

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    After we finished our AP physics test we had about a month of school left to kill, and one day we watched a video on intelligent design. At first we thought it was an educational video, but we all really quickly realized the logical inconsistencies of the video. We proceeded to break down everything that was incorrect in the video. It was fun.

    But the same cannot be done with the marriage equality debate. When it comes to opinions-based debates, with “facts” drawn from a book that came out before we even knew the Americas existed or that the earth was round, it’s really hard to not offend students and parents while sending a message of tolerance. At the very least can’t we teach students to love and accept and respect everyone and then let them draw their own conclusions? Exposing them to bigotry normalizes it.

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          Then it’s a simple matter of stating that fact as such instead of using a very ethnocentric voice. Not everyone is a white Christian European, so it comes across poorly to use “we” in this case.

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          Sorry, I said white European Christian because I was thinking of the societies that primarily used the Bible as a basis for scientific thinking, not for the original cultures contributing to the actual authorship of Scripture.

  4. Thumb up 2

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    I hate to disagree here but I disagree. I love that this school recognized the Day of Silence and stood up against the rampant bullying of LGBT+ students, I can’t even describe the feels I would have if my high school had ever done that. But they showed a video that advocates a political position (gay marriage) and although I love the gay marrying part and I think gay marrying is not just politics but also a fundamental human right, I am not OK with public schools taking political positions. Period.

    If this were an anti-bullying-of-LGBT folks video, awesome. Bullying and harassment are (or should be) against any school’s policies and in some places are against the law. If it was a “Hey, evolution is a thing, you should learn about it,” video, that’s great too, that’s teaching kids about how the world works and that’s what schools are for.

    But if we let schools broadcast political messages on issues that are actively being debated, isn’t that kind of a big deal? Not in a good way?

    tl;dr version: if this school was showing a video that advocated for “Defense” of Marriage, we’d all be like WTFBBQ where’s the ACLU let’s sue these f***ers. Just because we happen to be right about gay marriage and conservatives are wrong doesn’t mean we (or they) should have the right to move political speech into schools.

    So yeah, I pretty much disagree with the main opinion in this post, as much as it pains me.

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        Why can’t an issue be both moral and political? Aren’t most political issues moral? I think gay marriage is a fundamental human right but I still don’t think our government should be advocating for or against it.

        In my high school, if you told the teachers thay were allowed to argue in favor of political positions if they were “moral” then all we’d ever have heard from them would be anti-gay, anti-feminist, pro-fundamentalist Christian nonsense. And that wouldn’t be right.

        For me, its easy to see how wrong that would be when the rhetoric is against me, and its very hard to see what is wrong about it when its a message I agree with and is desperately needed. But it’s wrong either way. I don’t trust government to get morality right, so I’d rather it didn’t get into the business of trying to resolve controversies itself. I think that’s what we should do as citizens.

        Totally will change my mind about this if it was a student group that put all of this on outside of school hours or something like that, but it sounds like this was something the school administration did and everyone in the school had to participate it. Just think what that would be like if it was your HS and they showed some anti-gay crap and then claimed it was morality and so they had the right :(

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          I probably should have used the word “ethical” rather than moral because I forgot about all the baggage attached to morality. That, however, doesn’t really change the fact that giving two (erroneously proportional) sides to an “issue” is what makes it political when the issue itself is not inherently political. John Oliver did a brilliant takedown of the nonsensical approach to addressing climate change in the media: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg

          “Should all human beings be treated the same and be given the same opportunities in life?” is more of a philosophical quandary rather than something that should be used as a dividing platform for opposing political factions, so I still take issue with the fact that you’re claiming that same-sex marriage *is* inherently political.

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      But when you take into account institutionalized oppression, the school “not taking a position” would still most likely end up being oppressive and harmful. Schools don’t exist in a vacuum and students are affected by the world around them and the opinions of others.

      When it’s an issue of safety or human rights, as Rachel said, schools have a responsibility and they should care for their students.

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        Yesterday was the 60th Anniversary of Brown v The Board of Education declaring all children/students deserve a chance at success and a quality education. “All children” should mean ALL CHILDREN! Children of all color, children of all religions, children of all sexual orientations, children of all socioeconomic levels, children of all family types, …etc, etc, ALL children.

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      I work for a school district in Tucson that mostly serves low-income Latino kids. Some are undocumented, or have family who are. The school district has publicly come out in support of undocumented students, stating that they will receive equal treatment in our schools. Some might call that a political move, but I think it was the right thing to do.

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      If you hated to disagree, then you wouldn’t. So you must be against Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day etc, etc, all being celebrated in schools as well? They are also politically based.

  5. Thumb up 8

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    Well if a political position is advocating for and enabling human rights for all humans anytime, then I’m ok with it.

    Bigotry is never ok, and as someone wise before me here has said, giving Bigots their own platform simply normalises and encourages them.

    God.

  6. Thumb up 3

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    I organised a celebration of IDAHOT at uni this week. We were out on the plaza, drawing rainbows on the ground, handing out ribbons, and info, and basically just raising awareness that queerphobia is a thing, and it’s not okay. Not a word was said about marriage equality.

    Nek minnit the Christian group on campus put up a sign near us about “god’s definition of marriage” and a talk they were running about it.

    So…this story kind of reminded me of that, and the explanation made my emotional response seem valid.

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