Saturday, January 30, 2016

We Are All The Same

I once learned of a philosophy while I was in the military.  It’s not something that is talked about a great deal.  But, the basic premise of the philosophy is this: “the public’s perception of a population is defined by 10% or less of that population”.  This means that what you and I know about a group of people is setup for us by less than 10% of that group of people.  

For example, a number of years ago the US Marine Corps had a bad public image.  It’s not because of the Marines, or the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy, or because of recruiting or anything like that.  It was because of ignorant buffoons doing stupid stuff that got themselves in the media.  This gave the public the impression that Marines were all mean, ill-tempered, drunk, abusive, and unfit for society.  

As a Marine myself, I have to admit we are mean (when it comes to warfare and each other), sometimes ill-tempered, and the US Marine Corps was founded in a tavern, so drunk often applies as well(that is something I believe the vast majority of Marines will agree to and wholeheartedly embrace).  But, very few of us, very few indeed, are abusive spouses.  And fewer still are 'unfit for society'.

But that doesn’t stop the media or the court of public opinion from lumping Marines into the general ‘@$$hat’ category because of the actions of a few.  Like I said, the small percentage of this group who are known for this behavior make a bad public image for the rest of us.  Despite the commercials of the clean-cut, sharply uniformed individuals on the Silent Drill Team, the amazing battle service record, or the Toys for Tots campaign that annually receives millions of donations a year to give to children in need.

So.  What does that have to do with the title?  I’m using the story above to point out that the Marines, and other groups’ or populations’ public impressions are not defined by the whole of the organization, but by a few or small percentage of that group.  So it is with Boy Scouts of America.

We who work in Scouting, whether as volunteers or professionals, each often do hundreds of Service Hours annually.  We serve in churches, community centers, local parks, schools, and many more places.  In 2013, there were 3,615,306 youth and adult scouts in the United States.  Let’s assume each of those scouts only did 10 hours of community service that year.  That’s nearly 37 Million service hours!  And that’s only if every scout averages 10 hours a year.  I know personally, I am putting closer to 100 hours myself every year.  Is that broadcast by national media?  Does BSA get recognized for being the largest service organization in the USA?  Or does non-inclusiveness mar BSA’s public perception?  Or is there something else that seems to be a large sticking point for the public?

We Scouts and Scouters also know there are many different portions of the Scouting program.  Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Varsity Teams, Venture Crews, Explorer Posts, individual units, Districts, Areas, Regions, Lodges, Sections, National programs, Summer camp Programs, winter camp programs, and more.  But, to the average observer, all of these different points of input are all ‘Boy Scouts’.

Therein lies the problem I specified in my previous post. 

Say 10%, or 361,530, of those Scouts define the public’s perception of the Boy Scouts.  Which 10% will it be.  With the availability and ease of posting photos on the internet, we compound any potential problems as well. 

For example, Joe Cubmaster, the leader of 50 boys ranging in age from 6-11, wants to impress the boys with stories from a book he read about a noted Native American.  So, to make the story come alive more to the boys, he wraps himself in a serape or blanket, dabs a little paint on his face, and dons a dime-store headdress with green, purple, and orange feathers while portraying a character in the story.  Now, the boys know he isn’t ‘an Indian’ – he’s Cubmaster Joe.  Joe knows he is not trying to represent anyone or anything in any kind of poor light – he was just trying to help the boys see the story come to life better.  He meant no disrespect, the boys saw no disrespect.  But, then Sally, Joe’s wife, wants to share how impressed the boys were with her friends on Facebook.  And one of her friends shared one of those photos of Joe to another group who has nothing to do with the Pack, but is aware Joe exists in the world.  And one of those people shows the photo to another, and eventually this photo is shared on Pinterest, Imgur, Reddit, or some other web service that shares such things.  And suddenly Joe’s image is a meme plastered across the internet with thousands of views, laughed at, defended, complained about, derided, scorned, or used as ‘proof’ that Boy Scouts are disrespecting Native American culture.

Now, let’s change that story up.  A scout unit or camp program was founded 50 years ago.  The gentleman who started the program, we’ll call him Fred Campmaster, was well respected by everyone in his community for being generous, understanding, accepting, and educated.  He had friends in every ethnic community in the area and elsewhere, he was invited to dinners, and was taught everything there was to know about those cultures.  These folks offered him help in incorporating some of their ideals and cultural differences into a camp program he wanted to start.  Graciously he accepted and they set about teaching and learning everything they could about each other’s culture and how to best invigorate this fledgling program with those high ideals and traditions.  Now, however, 50 years later, the outfits that were once accepted due to many variables - like rural locale, available funding, lack of complete cultural understanding, lack of availability of documentation, hindsight, etc. – are no longer even remotely appropriate.  But, the group involved maintains they are just perpetuating the program that was presented 50 years ago, and it helps get boys to the camp.  They don’t know they are perpetuating stereotypes, they aren’t aware the outfits are offensive, and some would say they may not care because of their desire to uphold their own traditions regardless of outcome.  And like the previous example, photos make their way to social media in a matter of moments.  And the ensuing problems occur again.

Now, John Scoutmaster, leads a small troop of 30 Boy Scouts, aged 11-18, along with several Adults as support.  He took his troop to that out-of-council camp where Fred Campmaster’s program is being run.  The boys fell in love with the program, and without oversight, brought it back to their troop program, several States away.  They run their program based on what they think the camp program intended, without further research or understanding.  But, they learned from someone who claimed it was authentic and reverent.  They didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings, perpetuate stereotypes, or cause any difficulty.

Who’s at fault, though?  Who’s responsible?  Not the Cub Scout leader.  Not the Camp Director or the people who continue their program.  Not the Scoutmaster or the boys in his group.  Boy Scouts of America is responsible.  At least that is what Public Opinion says.  Despite what you or I might think or debate about this. 

And they aren’t wholly incorrect.  Certainly, research should be done by anyone involved.  And, true, these Scouts need to recognize that the outfits they are wearing don’t look anything like any photos of Native Americans taken since photography was invented.  And the local unit leaders should be aware that Disney or Hollywood movies are not wholly accurate, and if the outfits the boys use look anything like a Disney movie, they shouldn’t be used.  And certainly, when confronted by those of us who have some experience in this context, they should accept constructive criticism and understand we are only trying to protect the boys from harm.

But, ultimately, the Cub Scout leader is not singled out for his portrayal, the Camp director is not singled out for his inaccuracies, and the Scout leader is not singled out for perpetuating stereotypes.  Boy Scouts of America is blamed for their failings.  And Boy Scouts of America is responsible for the fallout.  And if confronted, each and every one of us who wear a uniform will be held accountable by the people who are offended by these incidents.

Now, I can safely say there are many Boy Scout instructors or advisors who are active in modern Native American culture, who are respected for what they do, and are accepted among their Native American friends and communities.  But, the approximately 400 people (note, I do not have cold data to support an exact number) spread across all 50 States who have had any significant training on the varied subjects related to Native American cultures, are simply too small a number. 

So, let’s be generous and say 1,000 adults in the entire BSA program have a decent amount of education about, experience with, or involvement in the Native Cultures of the USA.  A little quick figuring determines that each of those 1,000 are ‘responsible’ for educating 3,615 others.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that is simply impossible.  Each of those 1,000 can do their individual best in bringing information to the 3.6 Million other Scouts in the US.  But, it will not be enough. 

I don’t want to sound defeatist.  But, the numbers are against us.  How do we counter that?  We get buy-in from larger programs that affect more scouts than you or I can individually.  Summer Camp programs have to modernize and accept that their traditions reinforce stereotypes, and that needs to change.  ALL Scout leaders (no matter the level or type of unit) should receive training that focuses on diversity, stereotypes, and how to avoid them, right along with the Youth Protection training they are required to have annually.  And those groups who insist on continuing their out-of-date, stereotype-prone, or offensive programs should receive immediate attention to correct the problems. 

And why should we do this?  Because if we don’t, we run the risk of losing any program related to any Native American culture – the Order of the Arrow, Dance Troupes like the Koshare and Kwahadi dancers, Summer Camp programs like Mic-O-Say, and likely more – no matter who approved or validated them initially, or how old the program is, or how effective it is at bring kids together, or how many Native tribal leaders may approve of the program.  It took over 20 years for the University of Illinois to get rid of their parody of a Siouxan Chieftain, called ‘Chief Illiniwek’.  And the school was 'given the right' in the long-distant past.  But, times change and the use of the image & character didn't.  And, they were eventually forced to get rid of the half-time dances, the cheerleader in the facepaint, the use of the beadwork on that same outfit, and the logo because ALL were offensive to Native Americans.  And the tide is turning on that Washington team, too.  Eventually all instances of these team mascots will be removed and repaired.

But, more importantly, we should change our approach because it is the right thing to do.  It's time to be the change.

We are all the same, and must be culpable for the entirety of the BSA’s Native American programs.  After all, the public opinion, especially the Native American opinion, is that we are already responsible for these different programs.  The small percentage of Boy Scouts who are unaware they are dressing inappropriately have defined a public perception that the Boy Scouts of America are 'playing Indian'.  In that public perception of the programs of the BSA we are all the same.