The other day, I was blindsided by a thread on a Facebook post. The experience really illuminated in mind a very large problem we are facing in our nation. The post was shared on large Facebook group for teachers that I belong to. This group tends to focus a lot on social justice and progressive causes, which makes it right down my alley. But this particular post and the comment thread that followed, which I became entangled in, quickly escalated into a considerably contentious and vitriolic pissing match. The original post was playing off of the current climate in our nation which is trending toward tearing down long standing monuments to confederate “heroes” across the nation. As a veteran teacher of United States history, I have no issue with the removal of such statues, but I do begin to bristle a bit when the calls for changing our view of history and the way it should be taught venture too far. I took issue with the way the original poster worded their post.
Here is an excerpt from the post in question:
“If someone asks you which dead racists you are taking out of your curriculum, and your response is, ‘I don’t have to, I don’t want to, I shouldn’t have to, this isn’t fair,’ YOU NEED TO CHECK YOUR WHITE SUPREMACY.”
(emphasis in caps theirs, not mine).
As a US history teacher, I found the tone of this post to be a provocative trap. Looking back after several days, I probably should have just let this person vent and left it alone but at the time I just had to comment. I questioned the tone and I got attacked by the original poster and two or three others who suddenly were insinuating that I was racist and that I was helping to support our nation’s systematic oppression. My point was that I was actually doing the opposite. By asking me to remove the “dead racists” from my curriculum is to take away all the tools I have to teach students about the evils of the very system I was being accused of helping to perpetuate. I simply could not teach kids about what America is supposed to be without teaching about all those dead racists who derailed us from our creed. I tried to explain that, but I was so quickly written off by those few individuals who’d attacked me that they were beyond listening to me. I tried to explain my personal evolution of getting to the point where I am now. Those who jumped on me basically were calling me a hopeless cause and actually encouraged others not to respond to me so that I would just go away. I couldn’t believe it. The experience certainly helped drive home a point to me that I think we all, ALL OF US, need to take a deep breath and consider. Nobody is interested in listening and empathizing with people anymore.
I’ve written a lot about my rather unique path to my current point in life’s journey. For those new to my work, let me sum it up very quickly. I was born in the heart of conservative Christian country in a small town in Indiana. My family was a bit of unicorn. We were devout Christians but also socially progressive Democrats. When I was young, I didn’t realize how strange that was. When I got out on my own, I began to understand it. After years of living a seedier kind of life, I found my way back to church and I began to buy into the political message that is forced down so many Christian throats—to be a Christian is to be a conservative Republican—and so I began to be pulled to the Right. I didn’t ever get to the Far Right, but I was certainly well right of center. This was in my mid 30s. As I became a more seasoned educator and saw the horrible anti-public education agenda of the GOP, I began to take a fresh look at politics and religion. I could no longer vote against the interests of my own profession. Then I began to closely examine the absolute brainwashing I had fallen victim to for several years as a conservative Christian. I began to understand that it was all smoke and mirrors and that most of Jesus’ message was clouded or completely lost in the politics of it all. Thus freed from the shackles of my temporary oppression, I began to see that, while not perfect by any means, the platform of Democrats was potentially much more Christ-like than that of the GOP. I extricated myself from the bonds of conservatism and have been “clean” for more than a decade now, I’ve been steadily moving to the Left until I now find myself well left of center. It’s been a bit of a wild ride, but it has also left me with a pretty unique perspective and a capacity for empathy for both sides.
To me, this is what is missing in our nation right now; that capacity for empathy. The Left is as bad or worse than the Right when it comes to finding empathy for the opposition. It’s so bad right now, as I’ve recently learned from experience, that if you slip up and reveal that you have any empathy for the other side, you’ll be turned into a social pariah so fast your head will be spinning. The worst part of being a progressive Democrat, to me anyhow, is watching us constantly eat our own.
Here’s the deal, as I see it. The Left is all about inclusion and tolerance, so long as it fits our narrative. The problem is, everyone has a different narrative. Those screaming loudest from the furthest Left set the bar so high for what is an acceptable world view that only a select few people with certain life experiences could possibly live up to their standards. This has led to our current “cancel culture” where people are being publicly crucified for things they might have done, said, worn, etc., decades earlier in a time when they might have been a completely different person. I’m not saying the cancel culture is all bad, I just think that context is often thrown out the window and, to me, that’s intolerance just as much as bigotry is.
Too many people lose sight of the fact that we are all a product of our time, our place, and our unique situations. We all have our own paths to personal evolution. We all have different starting points. You simply can’t expect a child from a small Indiana town, or a kid who grew up in some poverty-stricken hollow in eastern Kentucky, or a kid who grew up in the lap of luxury in a Manhattan townhouse, or a kid from the projects of Chicago’s south side to come from those vastly different points of origin and progress to the same level of “wokeness” at once. It takes time and, yes, empathy from others, to shake off the dust of our past. People who lived a completely different reality when they were young need time to digest our rapidly changing culture. One sure way to slow that process is to show them the same levels of intolerance that we accuse them of having. Ignorance is curable. But hatred aimed at ignorance often turns it into incurable stage four bigotry.
I’m not suggesting we cut everyone complete slack, but there’s a fine line between teaching people through sharing the different realities we all have and shouting them down and calling them derogatory names. That kind of approach can turn an ignorant bigot into a loud and proud, Confederate flag waving racist. That kind of approach turned a “basketful of deplorables” into a powerful voting block that put Donald Trump in the White House.