There is nothing particularly new about the recent story out of Tennessee, about a girl who was turned away from her prom because her dress looked like a Confederate flag. These sorts of obnoxious acts arise from time to time, often motivated less by overt racism than by misguided loyalties or an urge to make noise. The discussion that follows usually focuses on rights: Does a student have the right to wear whatever dress she wants? Does a school have the right to bar offensive clothes?
There’s no useful answer to those questions, because rights aren’t really the issue. In general, we all have the right to offend. But in most cases, mature people take care not to say things that seem racist or sexist or harmful, because that is the civil thing to do. Yes, some people offend too easily. Some people can be misunderstood. But it’s hard to imagine that an American high school senior, in 2012, would be unaware of the broader implications of flying, or wearing, a Confederate flag.
This girl didn’t seem to care — which points to a larger problem, and a different paradigm for thinking about a student’s offensive behavior. Our country has a well-acknowledged issue with civility, fueled by the ease of hurling invectives anonymously online, but also by the fame and glory that can come with doing something shocking. Schools should have no qualms about urging students to do better — to be good to one another, not because it’s legally required, but because it’s right.