Legislating denial won't change reality

Denial is the act of declaring something to be untrue. Sadly, we have lawmakers who want to deny the existence of racism. This kind of denial amounts to lying. It inflicts pain on those whose lives are being denied, and makes the denier untrustworthy. 

Denial also has a psychological definition: self-protection from uncomfortable truths. For many of us living with painful experiences and loss, denial is useful. It allows us to go about our lives with a semblance of normalcy. On the other hand, explicit recognition of painful emotions can produce healing and a chance to move forward—an affirmation of our agency and humanity. 

I find it outrageous that state Reps. Mike Loychick (R-Bazetta) and Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) have introduced legislation that would supposedly protect us from the painful historical and current reality that racism, sexism, homophobia, hate and structural inequality exist. Their solution: bury these topics from view. Their legislation, H.B. 616, would make it illegal to discuss the truth in Ohio’s public schools. Teachers accused of telling the truth by encouraging an open exchange about difficult issues could lose their teaching licenses, and any school where this takes places could lose state funding. 

Apparently, these legislators find the truth to be so upsetting that they must protect themselves and everyone else by prohibiting discussion of these realities. Instead of encouraging understanding, reducing conflict and fear, or promoting unity through open discussion, they prefer denial. 

Their legislation censors the content of classroom discussion in favor of indoctrinating youth with the history and cultural values that make the authors comfortable. This is an overreach of their authority. 

They are using the law to impose a kind of psychological defense of denial for all of us. Legislators have no right to require denial. Do they really think one can prohibit, by mandate, discussion of things that students see every day? These two cultural warriors are degrading public office and public trust by selecting the truth they like, enforcing silence, and encouraging people to lie. The bill rejects the essence of education, and does not fit in a democracy. 

Fortunately, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education (BOE) will not stand for this nonsense. At its May 3 meeting, BOE Member Dan Heintz introduced a resolution to oppose H.B. 616. Said Heintz, “There is so much wrong with this bill that it is genuinely hard to know where to begin.” He listed the lawmakers’ desire to deny the existence of institutional racism, the hypocrisy of protecting students from indoctrination, and the efforts of small-government advocates trying to micromanage local schools. The resolution received unanimous support. 

Our community has acknowledged that discrimination, oppression, injustice and structural inequality are real and harmful. We try to dismantle the barriers to equality and validate our shared humanity by confronting our own behavior through public policy and practice. 

Cleveland Heights is a national model of integrated living because we put the issues at the center of community activism, city government and public education. We are state leaders in the search for equity in education outcomes because we put success for all children at the center of our education policy. Now, two Ohio lawmakers who know nothing about our community and its values want to tell us what is good for us. They want us to hide the truth, retreat from our values, and abandon our kids. Really? 

The BOE resolution rejects H.B. 616, and we should all do the same. It urges the legislators to “return to their traditional home-rule stance by not imposing their cultural agenda onto our community.”

The schoolhouse has become the battlefield for a culture war promoting fear and chaos. I am grateful that our local elected leaders stepped up to challenge the most recent legislation designed to take us backward. We need to stand with them.  

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 15, Issue 6, Posted 2:44 PM, 05.27.2022