The viral video from Canal Plus TV in which a French father explains to his son that flowers and candles may serve as better protection than guns against terrorists, reaffirms that there is nothing stronger than the combination of empathy and knowledge. Now that we have had our customary moment of silence, it is time for a succession of loud moments of information exchange and knowledge building. We owe that to our children, our students and, more broadly, to the rising generation. From the moment they can speak, they know, intuitively, when they are being patronized rather than reasoned with.
I just turned 50. The generation before mine was all about "speaking truth to power." Now I think that just speaking that truth, and winning attention for it in the cluttered social media world, may be enough. I try to live up to this standard in the classroom. In the era of trigger warnings and threats to academic freedom (and abuses of that freedom by a few), faculty must help other authority figures, such as Angel Le, the French father in the viral video, to put a human face on these tragedies.
And the Parisian father did a fabulous job of explaining the ISIS massacre, which was a sudden, open wound on French civilization and the Western world. Le and his resilient city get another chance starting next week, when they host a conference -- on climate change worldwide -- at which the future of ALL civilization will be discussed. True heroics will be needed at the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The first 20 did not go so well.
We need calm but truthful messengers for youth at urgent moments fairly often. Le's translation of the ISIS attack recalled for me the morning of 9/11, when I was teaching students on U.S. foreign policy and a couple of cell phones rang (computers in the classroom were much less ubiquitous). We changed the lesson plan and talked about the implications. I changed the lesson plan even further during the weeks that followed, and as I was preparing for my first full lecture after the attacks, shy and tearful student came to my office before class to remind me that "some people had family members in those towers."
Another brush with urgent, society-wide adversity came in 1985 when I was the earnest student. A junior at Brown University studying abroad in Bogota, Colombia, I worked as a freelance journalist during an eventful time there. I covered the terrible Armero volcano eruption and the take-over of the Colombia Supreme Court building by M-19 insurgents (leading eventually to the slaying of 12 of that court's 25 magistrates) for the Brown Daily Herald and Nashville Tennessean, where I had worked as a summer intern. I called my mother from Bogota to tell her that I would be going to the sites of these calamities. She was flummoxed and demanded that I not go. I told her I was calling as a courtesy but that I wasn't asking for permission. She scolded me for a few minutes and then just said, resignedly: "Well, keep your feet dry and take your galoshes."
How we react to these events, and -- just as important -- how we interpret them to kids and students with needed context, helps determine our worth as citizens, as well as whether we are positioning the next generation to solve the problems that we seem to have created. Angel Le did a brilliant job, despite having to do it on the spot (or, perhaps, because he had no time for it to come from anywhere but the heart). Even under the scrutiny of cameras, he was candid with his son, using metaphors, and speaking simply and confidently, yet not denying his son's intuition about the severity of what we were up against.
Let us hope that other Parisians, and visitors to that timeless city, can also speak truth to power, and to each other, about what is perhaps the biggest longer-term security challenge that we all face: climate change and its adverse effects around the globe. As the world gears up to showcase opportunity and optimism in Paris, let us hope that more spokespersons emerge who are as lucid and straightforward as Angel Le.
Climate change deniers still obfuscate policy debates whenever they can, seeking to blast through credibility like pressurized water through oil-bearing tar sands. And unlike the aftermath of the heinous but localized attack on Paris earlier this month, we all have to respond to this global crisis. Some of us have family members impacted by terrorist attacks and other violent acts, like the terrible one just suffered by Paris. We all have family members impacted in the climate change debate. It is less immediately dramatic and is too complex to capture the media's attention with simple images, but it is just as urgent as fighting guns with flowers in Paris. Let's give the next generation the explanation we owe them. We can keep our feet dry and take our galoches.