Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Will one outspoken teacher bring down a "loyalty police" on Latvian educators?

The worrisome case of a “disloyal” teacher of Russian language and literature, Vladislavs Rafalskis, has dominated some of the Latvian media in recent days. A teacher at a Riga school he made the “disloyal” statement on a radio show. Rafaļskis, a member of the For Human Rights In A United Latvia party (PCTVL), told a radio program recently: "I can honestly say that I am disloyal to this country. I simply despise this regime. It alienates my children too, and creates problems for them."
I am willing to believe that Rafalskis may be motived by some wacko ideas about the Latvian state and what he believes the government should have done for the Russian population etc. These may be heartfelt views, even if one could disagree with them or even strongly oppose them. In any case, Rafalskis has not expressed his disgust with Latvia as dramatically as some 300 000 people, who have left and are probably not coming back – aren’t they more “disloyal”?? And somehow I don’t believe that his political views affect his teaching, or that he will tell children that in Russian a dog is a frog or teach other wrong vocabulary. What disturbs me about this case is that it has started a push for some kind of loyalty policing at schools and other state-financed institutions. This will inevitably have a chilling effect on teachers who may want to provoke political debate among their (older) students by expressing “radical” views. Already, there are dozens of comments on news portals and social media demanding that Rafalskis be fired, deported, etc.
Any ideas of a formal or informal  “loyalty police” should be nipped in the bud in a democratic country, because full democracy and freedom of expression includes criticizing the state, even declaring one’s opposition to its legitimacy and existence. After all, didn’t most Latvians consider as heroes  the dissidents who rejected the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and did they not consider it unjust that people who didn’t join the Communist Party (another badge of loyalty) were denied career advancement? Was a Communist doctor better than a non-party member?
The other thing that is scary about “loyalty”, besides the fact that it is a relative, “rubber” concept, is that it elevates the state above the individual and creates an enforceable duty for free individuals to express respect and fealty for what is, in the final analysis, an abstraction and a social construct. It grants the state and parts of society (those calling for measures against “the disloyal”) the right to officially or unofficially punish a person’s convictions or attitude. That is hardly the same thing as punishing an act that may be motivated by “disloyalty” to a particular state or political system, but even acts of symbolic protest involving state property should be treated with the greatest care for the element of free expression and political protest that this may involve.
One should also somewhat of an uproar when some members of the National Alliance showed up at a day care center to teach Latvian patriotism by displaying German-made World II weapons.  Was this “good loyalty” as opposed to Rafaļskis “bad disloyalty” speaking to an adult audience on the radio (and speaking of the political regime, not the abstract nation-state). Teaching should follow guidelines for political debate at appropriate levels – the older the pupils and the closer to voting age, the more it should be encouraged. For older classes, political diversity among teachers must be supported and protected, because children, when they become young adults in the “real world”, will be confronted with different, sometimes harsh viewpoints no matter what their schools tried to teach. Above all, the schools should produce free, critical thinking individuals, not “loyal subjects”.