Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 3

November 16, 2015

Continued from Part 2 here

Since I wrote part 1 of this series of posts  there have been a number of blogposts from teachers appearing (for instance, herehere and here) commenting on teachers’ use of social media. All three of those posts are noticeable because, on the one hand, they described insults and personal attacks online, but also described those who simply disagreed with them, were negative or (in one of the posts) just used the wrong tone. The authors of the posts drew no clear dividing line between correspondence where they disliked the style or substance, and correspondence that was insulting, personal and possibly even criminal. Even worse examples (which I won’t link to) of  failing to distinguish between these types of behaviour have appeared on social media since then, where named individuals (including me) were directly (and indirectly) accused of abusive behaviour without even one actual example being provided.

If the line between debate and abuse is being muddied, the most obvious reason is that while people wish to silence debate, there is still some degree of embarrassment connected to simply saying “I don’t like it when people disagree with me”. People feel obliged to give some greater objection, no matter how unjustified.

Here is a quick guide to the most common ways in which people in education seek to demonise a challenge to their ideas.

    1. Imagined insult. People who have had their ideas challenged, particularly if they are not used to it, often become convinced they have been insulted. Sometimes it may be a sincerely held delusion. Their own self-worth might be so tied up in their philosophy or pedagogy that challenging their ideas feels to them like you are exposing their failure. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell if somebody’s irrational beliefs about the world are grounded in equally irrational beliefs about themselves, without challenging those beliefs directly, by which point they will already feel insulted. However, one of the advantages of social media is that it does keep a record of most communication, so it always pays to ask where and when the insults and abuse are meant to have happened. 99% of the time this will lead the “insulted” party to change their story to one of the other complaints below. Never take seriously complaints about insults and abuse in education social media without first checking what was actually said.
    2. Personalising the debate. This is closely related to the above point. Again, a debate about the world suddenly turns out to be a debate about the people making the argument. Sometimes its defensive: “You are saying I’m a bad teacher”, sometimes offensive “You are saying that because you are a white male”. In the worst possible cases, they will try to make the discussion about their own children, something which can never end well. Either way, it serves to divert attention away from the ideas that are being debated, and invites people to ignore what is actually true, in favour of who they sympathise with.
    3. Hurt feelings. This has now become central to the armoury of progressives on social media. Whenever debate is to be shut down, whenever actual insults are thrown, whenever a witch hunt is organised against somebody who dared challenge them, the progressive responsible was only acting because their feelings were hurt. Never mind whether those  feelings stem from pride, selfishness, thwarted vengeance or shame, the mere fact the feelings were felt is presented as a reason for why they should have been indulged. Julie Burchill wrote a great article earlier this year about the Cry-Bully, an aggressive individual who, nevertheless, loudly  proclaims their own victimhood. I don’t agree with all the examples she gives (though Clarkson seems a perfect target) but it is a good description of those who seem to think that it is cruel to stand up to them when they behave atrociously.
    4. Unprofessional. The use of the word “professional” to mean “never expressing one’s own views”, which is pretty much the opposite of its actual meaning, has been a common means of shutting down debate in schools for as long as I’ve been teaching. This now seems to have spread online, where disagreeing with the orthodoxies of the day, challenging other’s opinions or telling the truth about what happens in schools can be dismissed as unprofessional. The best response to being told to be professional is to claim to be holding onto one’s amateur status in order to compete in the teaching olympics.
    5. Tone. This is used where complaining about insults really isn’t going to convince. The advantage of complaints about tone is that it is so subjective that almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis. Here are the basics of tone policing in a diagram:
      Tone PoliceThe red boxes show the choices you can make with your words. If you make your point directly, then you have chosen to be Blunt. If you conceal it among compliments and irrelevancies, then you have chosen to be Polite. If you have used words that credit the listener with knowledge, or an understanding of academic discourse then you have chosen to be Formal. If you phrase it as you would in casual conversation or to a non-specialist, then you have chosen to be Informal. The words in yellow show what will be said to be wrong with your tone depending on which choices you made. There is no way out of this. After years of trying other approaches, I have largely settled for being blunt and informal.
    6. Anonymity. This one doesn’t affect me now I’m not anonymous, but it is still used on others. Ultimately, it comes down to declaring that anyone who does not identify themselves is doing so because they are somehow ashamed, embarrassed or doing something wrong, rather than because the attempts by others to shut down debate have made it impossible to be open about who they are, or made them fearful about retaliation. I’m still hearing of bloggers and tweeters being told in the workplace that they should no longer express their views on social media, and that’s without those whose freedom to speak out is only restricted by informal pressures to conform.
    7. Conflict. Finally, the last complaint is that by speaking out, or not censoring those who do, one is creating conflict in the blogosphere. Of course, conflict is usually just a weasel word for debate. Where people are free to disagree and debate rationally and sensibly there is often no conflict worth speaking of, and even if there is, it is usually still preferable to the conflict between those who wish to see open and honest debate, and those who want to present a lie about how everyone believes the same thing. Nobody should be ashamed to be in conflict with somebody who is lying or silencing dissent.
      Tone Policing. The only motive is to end debate.

      Tone Policing. The motive is to end debate.




  1. This is so true. I dislike meetings where ideas on teaching and learning are presented in such a way as to imply ” How could anyone possibly challenge this?” Then , if you do challenge the idea, you get a pained and hurt expression, as if to imply ” How dare you disturb the harmony?”. I am quite happy for people to challenge my views and am willing to accept that I might be wrong – but equally, I expect others to back up their views with reasoned argument. Simply putting on a pained expression doesn’t do it for me.

  2. Probably around eight or more years ago, I heard an excellent presentation at a “Shock of the Old” conference by a psychologist who had studied online behaviour. He illustrated just how wide the gap was, between what people felt was morally acceptable behaviour in the real world, compared to what they were prepared to do online.

    Since then there has been a little progress, but not much. The internet is still frontier territory. If teachers aren’t sufficiently aware of this, what chance have the children they teach got?

  3. That was really good and so relevant and true.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. ‘Professional’. I’ve NEVER heard that word used in a positive way in teaching. It’s always “that’s ‘unprofessional'”, “you’re ‘unprofessional'”, etc..

    • Interesting point although given the sense of ‘unprofessional’ implied in your examples, there’s a further implication about the probable meaning we should adduce from ‘professional’, which would be anything from just about acceptable upward.
      On the rare occasions, I’ve heard ”professional’ as an attribute supposedly attached to an individual, ‘just about acceptable’ proved extremely optimistic and forgiving.

  6. […] claiming that it is unprofessional to challenge them. I have listed and analysed these arguments in this post. As before, I would argue that these are tactics to avoid and silence debate rather than a response […]

  7. […] written before about tone policing – when people get annoyed at the way people speak on social media. The […]

  8. […] just the way you said it. Let’s discuss that instead.” This kind of tone policing has been examined by Andrew Old, who notes that the subjective nature of ‘tone’ means that “almost any style of […]

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