It’s important to remember that America has seen angry, agitated times before. The Civil War, when politicians became so angry they left the country and raised armies to kill each other– that was a fairly angry time. We’ve had Presidential campaigns that were hugely vicious and libelous, Hell, as we’ve all been musically reminded, once upon a time the Vice President of the United States killed a prominent political leader in a duel.
And yet, something feels different now. My stock explanation is that while we’ve always had anger and viciousness as part of our public and political life, we’ve at least agreed that civility was the ideal, the norm to be pursued, and now we don’t. I’m not sure that’s true, but it feels true. We have become outrage junkies; we are sold policy and products based on the outrage it will cause. “The Secret That [fill in the blank] Doesn’t Want You To Know” which translates roughly to “This will really piss those bastards off.” The GOP policy position on the ground has been largely reduced to “Do things that will enrage liberals” and political coverage in the second-hand full-bias media is usually framed in terms of who will be outraged. And damn– progressives and liberals and anti-Trump’s really have to stop publishing versions of “Trump has now done something that will totally end his run!” Sorry, but 2,437th time is not a charm.
Telling truth to power is important, hugely important. But truth is not measured by how enraged you can imagine somebody being about what’s been written. And when you start steering by imagined outrage rather than truth, understanding and accuracy, you are headed for the weeds. Sometimes I find Samantha Bee funny; sometimes I think maybe we’ve found a progressive Ann Coulter.
I was talking about this on twitter (to the extent that anybody can talk about anything on twitter) and was called out for my own contributions to incivility in the education debates. Well, sir, that’s just…um… fair. But I like to think I’ve made a bit of a journey in this regard, and I think it tells us a little something about the shape of these debates.
When I started blogging, my defining characteristic was anger. It had been growing for a few years. Having stupid policies, anti-education and anti-student policies, inflicted on my classroom was nothing new, but I was noticing that I was increasingly losing my power to defend my students from them. The idea of national standards backed up by a national standardized test that would be enforced by making it part of student grades all seemed like self-evident educational malpractice, and yet policy makers were talking about it, taking steps to inflict it. So I went to learn more, and I fell through a door into a world where all sorts of people whose policy ideas struck me as wildly insane and rather abusive– and who seemed absolutely uninterested in paying any attention to what actual teachers had to say.
My colleagues at school were, by and large, not interested. They complained when we were gored by the tip of the iceberg that passed by us, but they had no particular interest in finding out what the tip was attached to, or how big and wide the iceberg really was. And I was turning into the staff crank. So I turned to the outlet that has always served me in the past– writing– and for a number of reasons (mostly admiration of the bloggers already out there) I turned to blogging.
It did not occur to me that anybody would read my stuff. My goal was to vent, to rail about policies and articles that struck me as foolish, destructive, blind, ignorant. And so I regularly broke Rule #1. I called people names– some of them kind of mean. I broke one of my big rules of online discourse– I said things about people online that I never would have said to their faces.
I was angry. And the more I read, the angrier I became. Not just the anger of seeing destructive and dangerous policies pushed, but the anger of seeing my own profession and the institution to which I devoted my adult life to both under attack. And the anger that comes with being under attack and not being heard– not just being unheard, but seeing no avenue whatsoever to say a word. Was it effective? Well, yes, in two ways. It was effective in giving me an outlet for what I was thinking and feeling, and it was effective in letting other people who felt angry and upset and isolated know that they weren’t the only ones, that they weren’t crazy, that somebody else could see what they saw. We teachers are a terribly isolated tribe, and in troubled times, that does not serve us well.
What has surprised me most about social media is the avenues of conversation that have opened up, not just with fellow teachers and supporters of public ed, but with thinky tankers and policy wonks on the other side of the debates. The mere fact of being actually able to be heard in, as they say, some of these spaces has made me more careful and less ragey over the past couple of years. That’s not a bad thing.
In times like these, it behooves all of us to pay a little more attention to our rhetoric. There may be times when rhetorical flourishes like “I’d like to punch him in the face” or “She should just go die somewhere” may be harmless hyperbole; these are not those times. We have a civility problem these days, and every time you put out some words, you are either helping or hurting. It’s no good arguing you are in the righteous right, so it’s okay– everyone thinks they’re in the right.
At the same time, I believe firmly that you feel what you feel. Telling somebody, “Hey, you should have different feelings” is a waste of everyone’s time. You feel what you feel.
And I still firmly believe that some people can be taken seriously, and some can not. Some people are using words in good faith, and some are just using words as a tool for leveraging whatever goal they have, and still some others in high office use words like magical incantations, intended to conjure lies into reality. There are good grown-up arguments for charter schools that I disagree with, but can recognize as serious arguments; there are also pro-charter arguments rooted in deliberate skewing of the facts and denial of reality. I am absolutely opposed to national standards, but I understand how people of sound mind and good faith can like the idea. On the other hand, there isn’t a serious argument in the world for the retention of third graders who passed their classes but failed one standardized reading test. Civility does not mean letting someone piss on you and tell you it’s raining while you cheerfully agree with their weather assessment.
In other words, during times of conflict and stress, it is hard to chart a path between civility and honesty, and anger can make a lousy GPS system.
People want to be heard, and if they can’t be heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voice until they think they are heard. I’ve survived many tough meetings and tense classroom situations by holding onto that truth. But the flip side of it is that if you scream at people like they’re stupid and evil, it’s really hard to get them to hear you. Which doesn’t mean that you couldn’t be dealing with someone who is, in fact, stupid and evil.
On the one hand. On the other hand. But. So. However. You see the problem– balancing the line between civility and honesty in contentious times defies easy answers. It’s not as simple as “Everyone on that side of this line is an evil beast” or “Everyone on this side of the line is fully trustworthy” or even “People on both sides of the line are equally culpable.” In fact, there is never a clear place to draw a line.
That may be the disease of our age– not incivility or meanness or anger or viciousness, but just a fervent belief in easy answers that can divide everyone up into simply delineated tribes. Twisting our map of the world to accommodate our simplified view of the world is distorting everything, and the strain of doing the twisting is making most of us extra cranky. And while our leaders seem unwilling to engage in thoughtful introspection and reflection, that also means that “Just follow some leader I trust” is off the table as an operating procedure. It may be that we just have to be big boys and girls and think for ourselves.