Yesterday, along with an estimated sixty thousand other people, I went to the Women’s March in Toronto. It was a wholly positive experience, and it got me thinking. There’s been some discussion on the BPSA-US “Trailhead” forum lately about the role of Scouts in political activism. Clearly, it’s a timely question; 2016 was an exceptionally turbulent year in US politics (exceptionally turbulent being the most evenhanded phrase I could come up with to describe it) and 2017 looks like it’s going to be worse. North of the border we Canadians are hardly immune to the sound and fury which is the 24-hour news cycle… and our nation has its own brand of partisan political turmoil, as well.
And I don’t want to get too deep into the fine details of my political opinions on this blog. That’s not what this blog is for. (That’s one of the things my other blog is for.) But I do think that a discussion of the impact on (and the role of) politics and Scouting organizations in general — and BPSA Scouting organizations specifically — is worth touching on.
First off, I will state for the record that I am definitely a progressive (I avoid using the term “liberal” because in Canada there’s an actual Liberal Party which I almost never vote for.) I’m left-leaning, pro-union, and openly LGBTQ. I believe firmly in the need for government regulation, environmental protection, universal healthcare, civilian oversight of the police, reducing income inequality and giving minorities a hand up. I don’t mind taxes too much so long as we’re getting value for money (and in Ontario in 2016, we ain’t.) I also believe in responsible gun ownership, holding politicians accountable, supporting veterans, and publicly hanging pedophiles. I don’t belong to any political party (although I briefly held an NDP membership in order to vote in their last leadership race); instead I carefully examine the issues and candidates in each election (municipal, provincial or federal) and vote according to how their platform and political record matches with my conscience and personal political convictions. Historically, I have voted either Liberal Party (rarely) or New Democratic Party (frequently.) During my twenties I was a dedicated social justice and environmental activist, up to and including a couple of arrests at demonstrations. Now that I’m in my late thirties I occasionally attend demonstrations and donate money to various causes when I can. I believe in scientific study, support an informed electorate, and despise the wilful ignorance of many in our society. In short, in most regards I’m what my grandparents’ generation would have called a Progressive Conservative, and what our current generation refers to as an Orange Liberal. (I haven’t changed, as Jim Wright once wrote, the lines have just moved.)
So that’s where I’m coming from when I write this.
Yesterday at the big march in Toronto, I didn’t see any Scout or Guide uniforms or banners. With sixty thousand people in the streets of Toronto (much less the millions around the world) I have no doubt, none at all, that there were people in the crowd who were in Scouting as youth, and even some who are now Scout or Guide leaders. There were enough kids in the crowd that I’m certain there were actual Scouts and Guides. And I’m very, very glad that I didn’t see them in uniform, because as much as I care passionately about a lot of issues, in this hyper-partisan age I’m firmly of the opinion that Scouting must be non-partisan.
This is not just theory to me: We have several leaders in our troop whose political opinions cover the spectrum; I’m about as left-leaning as they come, and some of our other scoutmasters are quite right-wing. We’ve had political discussions among ourselves (although not where the youth can witness it) and I’m well aware that my political background is viewed by a couple my colleagues with a mix of bemusement and exasperation, which is fair enough: I feel the same way about theirs sometimes. But I think we need to keep it away from the kids, because Scouting must be absolutely non-partisan. It is not our place as leaders, however strongly and honestly held our personal political opinions may be, to attempt to influence the views and opinions of youth. Insofar as politics must be discussed with the youth, leaders ought to strive to be as dispassionate and evenhanded as possible, encouraging youth to educate themselves and make their own decisions.
But… non-partisan doesn’t mean Scouting is apolitical. “The aim of the Scout training,” in the words of Sir Robert Baden-Powell himself, “is to improve the standard of our future citizenhood… But passive citizenship is not enough to uphold in the world the virtues of freedom, justice, and honor. Only active citizenship will do.”
Improving the standard of our future citizenhood by promoting active citizenship. If that’s not a political action, I don’t know what is.
There have been suggestions on Trailhead that Scouting groups should participate in anti-Trump marches, or BLM marches, or raise funds for Standing Rock. As a progressive I support all those causes. As a Scout leader, I am firmly against uniformed Scouts engaging in any of those activities, because they could be interpreted as our organizations — and the Scouting movement as a whole — taking a partisan political stance. And generally speaking, Scouting-age youth are not yet educated enough to make that decision, so it might be seen — and would likely be seen — as the leadership of the organization pushing the youth into that position. That would only serve to discredit our organizations and harm the Scouting movement as a whole.
If adults or youth (especially older youth) who are involved in Scouting make their own informed choice to attend a political demonstration then they have that right and more power to them. But they must not be wearing a Scout uniform when they do it. We are the inheritors of more than a century of Scouting tradition and ideals; we have a responsibility to make sure that tradition isn’t misused, even for what we might see as a good cause. Scouts marching in uniform would be a powerful political symbol, yes, but we cannot — must not — succumb to the temptation to turn our Scouts into our surrogates in the partisan political struggles of our time.
This might not be a popular opinion, especially with my fellow Scout leaders south of the border. The BPSA-US is heavily slanted towards progressives in its leadership simply because many BPSA leaders have quit the Boy Scouts of America over the BSA’s appalling institutionalized homophobia. That slant towards politically progressive leaders lends itself towards a corresponding institutional slant towards a left-leaning organization. Building an organization that promotes “Traditional Scouting For All” might be a political act but it is not a partisan one… and we should take diligent care not to cross the line between the two. We must vigilantly guard against any tempation to tilt Scouting to one side or the other of political spectrum, especially when that side is our own. And we especially need to draw a very firm and clear line between partisan political action in our personal lives — action such as marching in an anti-Trump demonstration, as I did yesterday — and involving Scouting itself in partisan political activity.
In fact, I would argue that the current growth of the BPSA and other independent Scouting organizations is as a response to the failure of the BSA and other “mainstream” Scouting organizations to draw that firm line. The BSA’s official (and unofficial) policies of homophobia, transphobia and promotion of religious indoctrination represent a partisan and reactionary political stance and are a misuse of the tradition of Scouting. And I’m pretty sure that’s why their membership numbers have been dwindling for years. Repeating the same mistake from a different, albeit “progressive” angle in alternative Scouting organizations would be short-sighted in the extreme. We cannot put ourselves in the position to alienate any of our youth.
The stated goal of the Scouting movement is to create good citizens for the future. Period. It’s not to teach crafting skills, or how to perform first aid, or to make fire from two sticks, or navigate without a compass, or camp out in the rough. Scouts learn those things, of course, but they are not the goal of Scouting. They are the method by which the Scouting movement achieves the goal of developing the character of youth so that they will become good citizens in their time… and we cannot force that good citizenship into the mold that we, personally, might think is right. Trying to do so would only stunt and warp it. In the end, I think the hardest part of working with Scouting youth will come down to trust: we have to be confident that, having taught our Scouting youth to be self-reliant, community-conscious and responsible citizens, that they will act as such when their time comes. They have the right to make their own decisions and we owe them the trust that they’ll make the correct ones.
Content yourself with that, fellow Scouters, because that’s as far as we have the right to take it.