Administrators have ordered the removal of swastikas from a high school production of The Producers, the famous Mel Brooks film that makes fun of Nazism.
The New York school district that oversees Tappan Zee High School considers the inclusion of a swastika to be offensive and, possibly, a hate crime—regardless of the context.
"There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate," South Orangetown Superintendent Bob Pritchard told the local CBS station.
The kids in the play had a different reaction.
"It's satire, not supposed to be taken seriously," said Tyler Lowe, a student performer. CBS notes that Lowe is himself Jewish.
It's not surprising that the teens understand the play better than the district does. The plot concerns a pair of producers who put together a deliberately bad, patently offensive pro-Hilter play in order to profit from its commercial failure. They are thwarted when the play is a hit—the audience assumes it's satire.
High schoolers aren't children: presumably they can participate in a play that concerns Nazism without somehow coming away from it thinking Nazism is good. Similarly, can't the play show a swastika without anyone mistakenly believing the school is endorsing the symbol?
Contrary to what the district thinks, context does matter. If a swastika appears on a Jewish student's locker, it's a hate crime. If it appears in a history textbook, it's not.
The danger comes when authority figures try to shelter kids from offensive ideas and symbols. It's better to let them behold the swastika, and laugh at it, than live in fear of it.
As Mel Brooks—creator of The Producers—said in a 2001 interview:
"I was never crazy about Hitler…If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win…That's what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can't win. You show how crazy they are."