How Do We Talk About Sochi?

Monday, 10. February 2014

by Daniel Davis Wood

At the Ecole d’Humanité, our student body is currently even more energetic than usual thanks to the Winter Olympics just beginning in Sochi, Russia. However, the widespread appreciation of cultural and lifestyle diversity at the Ecole has left many students troubled by the attitudes towards minority groups recently on display in Russia. As a school community, then, how do we respond to conflicts between the things we’re interested in seeing or doing and the troubles we read about in the headlines of the daily news? Respectful dialogue and conversation are crucial to our efforts to find a way forward.

At the start of last week, a number of Ecole students asked staff members about the possibility of showing the Winter Olympics after dinner this week. On Thursday, this idea was taken to the Media Group, a group of students with responsibility for showing a half hour of nightly news each day, and, at Friday’s school assembly, the members of the Media Group announced that they were prepared to show highlights from the Winter Olympics for up to two hours each night for the entire two-week duration of the games. But this announcement drew a response from the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student group responsible for raising awareness about LGBTQ issues around the world, as GSA members questioned the decision to show the highlights without first discussing the harsh attitudes towards homosexuality now prevalent in Russia. On Sunday night, then, the entire Ecole community reconvened to raise questions about these issues and to express a range of views in response.

Some students stood up to suggest a boycott of the Winter Olympics, a decision to not show the highlights at all. Others criticized Russian attitudes towards homosexuality but argued that these should have no bearing on our enjoyment of the games, and still others spoke in defense of Russia and suggested that some members of our community did not have a strong enough understanding of Russian culture to make an informed judgment on the issue up for debate. On the whole, what emerged from Sunday night’s discussion was a picture of a school community whose students are willing and able to articulate well-informed, well-argued points on some contentious political issues, all without giving in to rising tempers and simple arguments.

It should come as no surprise that our students are capable of this, since many of them take classes in Middle Eastern politics, climate change politics, ecoliteracy and food politics, and related subjects with an emphasis on current affairs and open dialogue. The difference here, however, is that Sunday night’s discussion did not take place in a classroom and, rather than speaking in response to a prompt from a teacher, these students tried to engage one another, clearly and often persuasively, by speaking from a place within themselves.