I’ve been told I give a pretty overt “crazy left” vibe when it comes to my politics. However, I’m very careful never to let my own political beliefs enter my teaching, and I try to appear as politically ambiguous as a person can be while under the constant scrutiny of 24 decently clever 18-21 year olds. I’ve resisted the temptation to both openly agree with some of my more left-leaning students. I’ve also resisted an even more powerful urge to smack a “Make America Great Again” hat off a student in my class because have you seen what this self-serving goblinoid lunatic is doing? So I don’t get political in my class, and I do that because I do not think politics have any place in the classroom. My students are not paying to hear me expound on the merits of a demilitarized populace; they came to learn about commas, and sentence structure, and forming an argument, and probably because their advisor told them it’s a required course.
However, I’ve been doing some research lately on something that happened in my class last year, something that at first seemed political, but I’ve determined was wholly different. It used to be that politics were defined by the particular stances you or a party took on some issue involving the governance of the country. That’s how it felt for America at least. More recently, however, things have felt different. Politics isn’t just something to think about every time there’s a new white christian running for president anymore. It’s a daily occurrence. We’ve got a president that tweets which makes it really hard to ignore him. I cannot wait for a State of the Union address written in 140 characters. American politics have become like that drunk friend at a party who you lock in the bathroom so you can keep working on chemically forgetting everything wrong with your life without interruption. Except now the friend you’ve so handily tucked away has an iPhone, and he’s texting everyone else at the party and reminding everyone that he’s there, and he keeps trying to be part of the fun even though he’s already had his time in the spotlight. It’s exactly like that.
So we’ve got a drunk bathroom president and potentially our own issues to work through, and we cannot seem to lock politics out of our thoughts because it keeps shoving itself where it doesn’t belong, into things that have no reason even being political.
Like being an asshole.
Being an asshole is not a political stance. It is not liberal to say gun-owners are psychopaths even if some of them are. It is not conservative to say people who smoke a lot of weed have garbage taste in music–often they do. It isn’t political to be an asshole, but recently it feels like political parties are absorbing opinions that are inherently apolitical. Imagine if, on merit of being a democrat, you were required to like sardines–the kind that come in little cans and are all greasy and have the bones still in them. “But I don’t like these strange oily fish snacks!” you cry to the leaders of your party.
“Well, too bad. We really dig them,” they boom down to you from high above, “we especially like when they have the juicy bones you can suck the marrow out of so now you have to like them too, and you have to suck the bones, and we’re gonna watch.”
“Shoot golly, I guess I have to,” you say and dutifully begin consuming can after can of mercury-rich mummified fish.
That’s what we’re dealing with now: political parties that are absorbing opinions that have only tangential relation to actually political things. Being an asshole is not a political stance, but my problem is that it has become one, or it is at least pretending to be because political parties are forming apolitical opinions of their own.
All this boils down to one incident I had in my class last year that has actually been the impetus for all of the research I’m doing in my Master’s program. It lasted about 22 seconds. The incident, not the research, that stuff is taking me months. Those 22 seconds unfolded like this:
In a discussion on understanding how to appeal to an audience, gender came up. That’s not an abnormal occurrence. We were watching some music video, and I asked the class who they thought it would appeal to. One student said women, and I asked why it would only be women. I can’t remember what he said, but I asked if it might not only appeal to women, but to more feminine-identifying people. I said this, in part because I wanted to challenge him to keep the discussion going, but also because I wanted to teach that studying an audience is not always a cut-and-dry case of “it wants to reach these exact people.” I did not quite expect what came after.
A student raised his hand and told the class that he had always considered himself a little on the feminine side, and that the video had actually appealed to him. It was a wonderful moment of smugness for me because I go to feel like I’d made a good point that had been heard by some of the class and that a normally quiet student felt comfortable expressing himself genuinely. However, like my hair last time I got it cut or the life of any of the fish I’ve owned, the lifespan of my satisfaction was cut tragically short. Another student, who did not raise his hand, added his own opinion to the discussion. He pulled the ol’ “does that mean if I identify as an attack helicopter, you have to treat me like one,” which is one of those worn out jokes that gets passed around on the more toxic comment sections of the internet.
I talked to this student after class, told him it was wrong to attack another student for any reason, including gender. He said it was free speech and that he was expressing a political opinion. At the time, I didn’t know what to do, so I just told him to refer to the syllabus and my policy on discrimination, and if it happened again, I’d kick him out of my class.
I wish I’d had the bravery and the cleverness to stare at this bitter child and, the moment he cited politics as his reason for expressing prejudice in my classroom, tell him that hate isn’t a political opinion, that maybe there was legislation dealing with gender, but that does not mean that subscribing to a party that believes in systemic discrimination necessitates it at the individual level, that just because someone far away was trying to pass a law keeping people from using a bathroom they prefer does not mean he should also be an asshole to someone tangentially related to who that law was directed at. I also wish I’d said that he was a moron and that I’d seen him fall when he was crossing the street earlier, but that’s less for professional gratification and more because he was a prick.
Now I’m spending my time scouring databases and case studies and the library and my own big book of ethics for a solution to the problem posed by students of unequivocal assholery. My research this year is on depoliticizing gender in the classroom because I’m tired of being worried about calling out bigotry. I’m tired of hearing that discrimination is defensible because someone was just expressing their first amendment right because that right ends at the exact moment the free speech turns into an attack on one of my students.
A counterpoint I’ve heard to the argument that my students should not openly discriminate against each other is that I must be one of those safe space college snowflakes, the kind that cries if their feelings are hurt and needs a latte to get out from under my hemp blankets in the morning. My response is that I don’t want a safe space, I don’t want some little zone in which “hurtful ideas” aren’t allowed, and I’m not a special snowflake because nobody is special because regardless of who we are or how we look or who we like to sleep with we’re all going to die the same lonely, scared death wishing we’d been different and knowing we wouldn’t be if we had another chance.
I do not want a class cleansed of contrary ideas. What I want is for my students not to be bigots. That’s the difference between me demanding that all of my students write about candy and love or just asking them not to berate the one student who actually wants to write about that stuff.
So I’ve found myself in kind of a difficult place. On the one hand, I’ve got a colossal issue I’m researching my way through which might ultimately get me fired if my boss thinks I’m forcing my own ideology on my students. And on the other hand, I want so much to teach my students that they can have a political opinion, and that opinion can–and probably should–differ from mine, but if that political opinion has somehow annexed toxic ideas under the guise of political points, and if they try to bring that hate into my classroom, then I’m going to tear them apart because the fact that a politician believes something does not make that something political. If the president likes his steaks burned and slathered in ketchup, then I am not a revolutionary for saying I prefer mine still bleeding.