Pledge of Allegiance = Bullying?

When I saw the article title at first I thought I had misread it. I looked again. Nope. It said what I read the first time. Lawyer wants to ban Pledge of Allegiance in schools; claims it’s bullying. I’ll admit, my first thought was that the lawyer in question must be jumping on the bully bandwagon because especially with the start of school, bullies are a hot topic, and he was somehow using the word bully to incite. After having read the article, I’m still of that opinion. But I thought the premise an interesting one, so I took a look.

While the article is brief, in a nutshell, the good people of Brookline, MA are considering banning the Pledge of Allegiance. Not all of the folks are in agreement, but there is a faction that would like to see it banned. This is something the majority of us who were born and raised in the United States of America have recited, hand over heart, through our entire pre-college school career, day after day. What could possibly be wrong with the Pledge? Before getting all up in arms over it, the discussion really has very little to do with patriotism or the lack thereof.

I had a neighbor when I was a kid who happened to be a teacher, and she mentioned that she really would like to do away with the Pledge of Allegiance. At the time the idea shocked me a bit. What harm did reciting a few words every morning do? But when I started to think about what she said, and some of the books I’d read, understanding grew. When children start school, one of the first things they learn is to recite the Pledge. Standing tall, hands over heart, some murmuring because they are afraid they have the word wrong, while others shout in their confidence, the Pledge is learned by rote memory. That is all. Not one of the kids reciting it has an inkling about what the words mean that they are saying. Most of them can’t pronounce the words correctly, let alone know what allegiance is and why they are pledging it (heck — they don’t even know what a pledge is unless it’s the stuff to dust the furniture). I think Beverly Cleary illustrated this the best in her timeless classic Ramona the Pest. Ramona was so excited to go to school and every morning they sang a song about the dawnzer lee light, so when her father was looking for something at dusk she told him he might want to turn on the dawnzer. Ramona had no idea what she was singing about and made the “words” fit in her world. She had no feelings of patriotism, she just got to sing every morning. While the illustration is about the National Anthem, it serves just as well for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Another classic example involving rote recitation as a means of declaring patriotism — when it is nothing of the kind — is in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. During war, Captain Black, angered by the promotion of Major Major to Major, decided to have all of the men sign loyalty oaths to obtain the very things they needed to go on a mission to serve their country. Then he added in the Pledge of Allegiance and then the National Anthem as a part of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means.”

The entire passage is funny, absurd, and yet drives the point home. Heller was a master. If you’re interested in reading the entire passage, click here. So while, I’m not sure that there is a lot of value to young children reciting a pledge, or for anyone to make a pledge they don’t understand or don’t mean, I also don’t find anything wrong with teaching the pledge once the kids are old enough to understand the meaning behind it as well as the history of the pledge. But is the pledge bullying?

According to the lawyer, Marty Rosenthal, “It goes against tolerance and diversity.” He also claims: “We think it’s analogous to bullying. It could promote bullying,” Rosenthal said. “Anything that’s a hot button issue that divides people is susceptible to bullying.”

Ahhhh. Yes, he’s trying to create it as a hot button issue. And that doesn’t mean that it, the pledge itself, is bullying, but is susceptible. Oaths and pledges have certainly been used as methods of bullying in the past. The example in Heller’s Catch-22 certainly was a case of one person going on a bullying spree and getting others to join him, all to prove that Major Major was a communist because he wouldn’t (wasn’t allowed to) sign the loyalty pledges. And pledges and oaths have been used in the past by dictators as a form to keep people in line. Prove your patriotism!

I don’t believe the pledge is being used by the Brookline school system as a means of bullying because it lacks the intent. In this case, the people of Brookline, MA have a decision to make as to whether they are keeping the Pledge of Allegiance as a part of the daily school practice or whether they modify current practice. Hopefully, this can be done without bullying on either side to sway their point.

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3 Comments on “Pledge of Allegiance = Bullying?”

  1. As an outsider from Canada I have to give my head a shake.

    Wouldn’t it be better to ask the question, how can we best teach our children what these words mean?

    1. Edwin ~ I don’t disagree. In fact, I did say that I believe the pledge as well as the history behind it should be taught once the children are old enough to understand the concepts. The example from Ramona the Pest is referring to a practice which is common in the US, teaching the pledge in Kindergarten, which means to five-year-olds. And the question remains, is a five-year-old developmentally ready to understand the concept behind words like pledge and allegiance?

  2. I agree that age appropriateness is vital. We need to start by teaching our children what we believe and why at a level they can understand.

    My problem is with what I see as a ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ underpinning to the call for an outright ban.

    As for the entire link to bullying argument, I don’t even know where to start. As a left handed red head raised during an era where we did say the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school, I found myself at the receiving end of many far stronger enticements to bullying that the question of getting all the words right.

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