The Three-Finger Salute

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Publication date:

April 14, 2021

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Watching the news the other day, I was reminded of an era in my past that shaped me in more ways than one. It also made me realize how easily and quickly we forget the experiences that made us who we are.

I was watching a news segment on the street protests in Myanmar following the military coup that toppled a civilian-led government. In defiance, the protesters had adopted a hand gesture that looked oddly familiar to me: the three-finger salute. I had seen that gesture somewhere before but I could not immediately place it.

As I searched online, I found that the three-finger gesture has a religion origin (the three fingers representing the Holy Trinity), is the symbol of the Hunger Games, and has become a symbol of anti-government protests in many parts of Asia. I also found what I was looking for: the three-finger hand gesture is the Boy Scout salute. That brought me back to the many adventures I had as a Boy Scout and how they shaped me as a person.

As I write in my book, Rough Diamonds, I was a member of the Boy Scouts for many years, starting out a a Cub Scout and moving all the way up to becoming a Boy Scout leader. The organization has gotten discredited for good reason but my experiences with the Boy Scouts were very formative. I realize now that they were a big part of my character education and shaped my moral compass.

The Boy Scout salute symbolizes the essence of what it is to be a Boy Scout. That was written down as the Boy Scout law in 1908 by Sir Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Keep that year in mind as you read on. It is indeed quite a while ago but what the Boy Scout law contains is still very relevant and valuable today. To be honest, I could not remember the law at all. I googled it and Wikipedia brought me right back to my Scout days.

The principles written in the law still inspire me. They also made me wonder where the teenagers of today get these valuables pointers. Most don’t even know what a compass is or how to use it; and I am not even talking about their moral compass. What app teaches and hooks them to this stuff and shapes their moral character? If they know anything about the Boy Scouts, it is dad’s picture in his goofy uniform or the many scandals that have plagued the organization.

When you join the Boy Scouts, you make a pledge, the Scout Promise, to live up to the ideals expressed in the Scout Law. In fact, this was serious business and I remember quite well that I felt quite proud when I took the pledge and became a Boy Scout.

As I was reading the Scout law again after so many years, I realized that  I still adhere to the principles I pledged to so many years ago. The principles are still very relevant today. As I reread them, I feel a sense of pride, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of loss. I was a proud Scout; it is the only uniform I ever wore in my whole life (I got out of mandatory military service in Belgium because of the size of my family; because I was  the oldestt of five children – I was the third of seven – Belgium’s enemies were spared from facing me!). I feel a sense of gratitude towards my parents who send me and my siblings into the Boy and Girl Scouts; they no doubt wanted us out of the house but scouting grew on all of us. As we ripped clothes, cut hands and legs, and broke bones, the Scout experiences stitched together our human fabric.

The sense of loss comes from reflecting on what the Boy Scouts came to represent in the minds of many people and from realizing that nothing really has replaced it. No online game – even with VR – can come close to the experiences I had being a Boy Scout. None. The competitive world we have created runs on very different tracks.

Let me refresh you on the 10 principles enshrined in the Scout Law.

  1. “A Scout’s honor is to be trusted.” Carrying the Scout badge came with responsibilities and one was expected to live up to them;
  2. “A Scout is loyal.” You were part of a team and you followed the leader;
  3. “A Scout’s duty is to be useful and help others.” Compassion and respect for others; your duty was to give;
  4. “A Scout is a friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout, no matter to what social class the other belongs.” We are all equal, no privilege, no entitlement;
  5. “A Scout is courteous.” You are polite, respectful, and do not expect any reward;
  6. “A Scout is a friend to animals.” We could update this one and replace “animals” with “nature”. Respect goes beyond other people; we respect the environment we live in and share with others;
  7. “A Scout obeys orders.” Respect for authority. Rules and laws are there to be followed;
  8. “A Scout smiles and whistles.” Be happy, it rubs off;
  9. “A Scout is thrifty.” Don’t be a burden on others (including your parents!);
  10. “A Scout is clean in thought, word, and deed.” Be a decent, emphatic human being.

It is easy to go from here right into attacking the Boy Scouts for the many abuses they are associated with and guilty of. Those are even more reprehensible in light of these principles and the pledge every Scout made to adhere to them. I will not defend the organization in any way. I just want to go back to what Baden-Powell had in mind when he wrote down these principles in the early twentieth century and how these principles shaped me. My character and moral compass have been tested severely over the years but the needle kept and keeps pointing North, in large part of what the Boy Scouts taught me.

If we all lived by the principles contained in the Scout Law, we would all be so much better off. The term Boy Scout is rightfully tarnished but none of the principles contained in the Scout Law are. They remain as valid as ever and should shape the character of each and everyone of us.

The three-finger salute stands for being a decent and caring human being. Can you look at yourself in the mirror and make that salute?

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