As political season ramps back up for a long run into the 2016 Presidential Election Cycle, the vitriol is already bouncing around my social media pages–particularly Facebook. Living through the evolution of “netiquette”, I feel that I have reached the point where I can and should expect more of people with whom I engage online–expect more than name calling and insults just because I may believe in a different pathway to solve the same set of problems our communities, states, and nation faces. And I’m setting a high bar this election cycle. Those that fall into attacking the person rather than exploring and explaining a message will be restricted or potentially unfollowed–not because I can’t handle disagreement, but because I expect respect from those with whom I engage in dialogue.
Being a veteran teacher, I take my responsibility to model even-tempered inquiry seriously. Questioning in order to learn and grow and build a deeper understanding is what I want from every student–and what I expect from every adult. As a proponent of academic freedom (the freedom to ask questions, regardless of how unpopular, without fear of reprisal), I likewise welcome many viewpoints on my regular stream of “Provocative Posts of the Day” and “Meme Funfests.” Many times I will post items not because I agree with them, but because I want to hear from people that may know more on the subject than I do. And in most instances, my online friends are respectful and search for common ground and stretch each other’s lines of questioning. But occasionally, I do find that one friend that posts horrifically negative remarks that stereotype and paint with broad brushes in order to demonize entire groups of people. I often confirm/accept friends that I know are of different political philosophies in order to learn more about their views. I want to learn and understand. Unfortunately, I find that a few of them do not exemplify even the most basic pillars of good character–like fairness, caring, and responsibility– when posting on politics.
For instance, a local political blogger (I’ll call him TPB) whom I often see at school board meetings asked me be a source for his blog posts. I respectfully declined for a plethora of reasons. First, he is devoutly anti-union, and I am a local union president. Second, his blog posts are often long on generalizations and short on specifics. Third, his offer to use me as an anonymous source rubbed against my journalistic ethics to identify sources whenever feasible. Fourth, I feared that my views would become fodder for his base rather than be used to enlighten and educate.
Personally, TPB is a pretty nice guy. I don’t have a problem with him. So when he sent me a friend request, I accepted. At first I looked forward to reading his blogs as they gave me a clearer view of ideas with which I typically disagree. But as I delved into these pieces, I have to admit it grew harder to read his work. His treating genuine issues as spectator sport deeply troubles me. The first line of a recent blog in which he endorsed a political candidate says, “As far as I’m concerned, Big Labor can go straight to hell, and S***** ******* is helping them go there!” He was bragging about his candidate winning and the other side losing as if this complex issue that affects quality of life for many millions of hard working people is nothing more than a football game. TPB frequently maligns entire groups with negative connotations and name calling like when he uses terms like “Big Labor thugs,” “Big Academia,” and “Public Sector Unions” as if they are curse words.
Knowing this about TPB means that I rarely comment on his posts unless I can offer some expertise. One recent response from me included how a local initiative he supported wasted taxpayer dollars and I listed specifics as to how and why I was making that claim. Today I made a mistake though. I grew tired of seeing TPB attack my profession. It’s not as if teachers aren’t vilified enough in the media, but when he made sweeping hateful statements toward people with whom I am personally acquainted I decided to ask a clarification question. I knew that the question might be provoking in nature because I was going to defend a person that is linked to something he obviously believes is bad. So I started by asking if he really meant to call teachers thugs. I followed up with a defense of Lily Eskelson Garcia. I was right that the question and defense provoked, but I was surprised when it unleashed a barrage of name calling against me–I was suddenly a “pro-union element,” “corrupt,” “a Marxist,” and “unworthy to have kids in [my] class.” My ill-envisioned attempt to have him clarify and use specifics rather than paint my national union affiliate, the NEA, as a corrupt entity that harms children with his broad, baseless claims backfired. I had the gall to ask him if he even knew who Lily Eskelson Garcia is (she is the president of the NEA–and I have met her and worked at conferences with her on many occasions. She’s a rock star educator who deserves respect). I followed up with basic information like the fact she is a former Utah Teacher of the Year who is a strong advocate for at-risk students. The only replies I got (from three different men) was that I was a typical pro-union type who was an impediment to students who worked only for myself.
Let me reiterate. I’m not offended at the names this local blogger and his friends called me. I am pro union and I do not apologize for it. I have strong beliefs that being an engaged, empowered union member helps me to fight for a noble profession in which 76% of teachers and 52% of administrators are well-educated women (I see unions as a great equalizer among the sexes in the workplace). I’m not offended at being called a Marxist (even though I’m not–I’m openly a progressive who works to keep my politics out of my literature classroom). I’m not offended at being called corrupt (again inaccurate and unsupported–sorry, I’m a firm believer in supporting my accusations).
But I am offended. I am offended that the act of asking a clarifying question prompted retaliation–the absolute opposite of the principle of academic freedom for which I so strongly advocate. I am offended that TPB and his merry band of men chose to attack me personally rather than parlay on his use of the word “thugs.” I am offended that someone who lives in my community chose to allow a group of men who didn’t know me utilize ad hominem logical fallacies at my expense while using his friend status to backdoor stalk my page and make disparaging comments toward me personally. There is no room for this type of cyber bully behavior. So I had to take immediate action. I already have privacy settings set pretty tight on my social media pages, but I chose to block all the men on this thread. Their mantra of destroying anyone who happens to believe differently than they do is not respectful, responsible, caring, trustworthy, fair, nor good citizenship. They will now get to play in their malicious echo chamber by themselves.
And I will continue to play by my “New Rules” of demanding civil discourse, even on the most troubling of issues. As lifelong learners, I feel we all have plenty of experiences to share and help each other see the world with more clarity. We may not always agree on how to solve problems, but we can still help each other understand the various avenues our solutions may pave.