09 January 2011

Educating Responsibility

In the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Saturday morning responsible people all across the United States began, once again, to wonder why. Others, including so-called "political leaders" like Ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin began scrubbing their websites and Twitter feeds and US Senators Jon Kyle and Lamar Alexander (both Republican "Leaders") began crafting denials.

Let us begin here: In the long, ugly history of American assassinations, the perpetrators themselves have always been mentally unstable. John Wilkes Booth was a crazed narcissist. Lee Harvey Oswald and Leon Czolgosz were odd, paranoid loners. Squeaky Fromme? John Hinckley, Jr? I wouldn't want to try testifying to the "sanity" of any of these people. But in every case, other voices lay behind their actions. Each of their targets was defined as "un-American" and "destructive to freedom" and part of governments designed to hurt ordinary Americans. So, in each twisted mind, societal justification for their actions could be constructed.

And behind those other voices lay thousands, maybe millions, of Americans willing to allow that rhetoric to go forward, or even voting for those speaking with hate - or at least - via votes for legislators - voting to keep those speakers of hate in power.

And behind that lies the denial. "I didn't mean it that way." "I didn't vote for Newt Gingrich, just my local Republican congressman." "I was just making a point, I can't be responsible for crazy people."

At some point, we all need to point to ourselves and take responsibility. Yes, those who found themselves having to scrub, explain, or deny this weekend need to act most quickly - but, of course, they won't.  They won't even begin to consider taking responsibility. So those of us who were, as my Ma used to say, "raised better," need to act.

Because when assassin Loughner urges people, in a YouTube Video, to "read the United States of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws."He is directly channeling not any personal demon, but Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner. And let me extend the responsibility a big step further out. If you - any of us - voted for a Republican congressperson this past November, or did not vote because we were "mad" at Barack Obama (however legitimately), you - us, we - are responsible for John Boehner being in a position of power.

"We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights." Ms Mansour said attemps to tie Ms. Palin to the violence were "obscene" and "appalling." "I don't understand how anyone can be held responsible for someone who is completely mentally unstable like this," Ms. Mansour said. "Where I come from the person who is actually shooting is culpable. We had nothing whatsoever to do with this."
OK, forget Sarah Palin, an opportunistic coward with no observable morals, let's look at the two responsible, sober, US Senators from the top paragraph: Here's Jon Kyle just a few months ago, of course, labelling - effectively - those who are not anti-immigrant as "pro-criminal." Here's Lamar Alexander promising, four days ago, "guaranteed retribution" to those who  might require filibustering Senators to actually filibuster. Nice talk boys. Of course, if you voted for a Republican Senator, any Republican Senator - even sweet Olympia Snowe of Maine, you are responsible for making Kyle and Alexander powerful.

I'm not saying you are guilty. That's a different level, but in basic human terms you are responsible.

But I'm not immune from this criticism. I get hot. I say things. Inappropriate things. I belittle people. I'm responsible as well.
"We live as we were reminded yesterday in a dangerous, hair-trigger time, where tempers always seem near the boiling point and patience seems a lost trait.

"Democracy's arguments have never been pretty, but technology has changed the American dialogue.

"Because we can now know of problems instantly, we expect answers immediately. And when we don't get them, we let everyone know in no uncertain terms.

"We scream and shout - hurl charges without proof. Those on the other side of the argument become not opponents but enemies.

"Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All's fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames.

"Which wouldn't amount to much if the words reached only the sane and the rational, but the new technology insures a larger audience. Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too, and are sometimes inflamed by what the rest of us often discard as hollow and silly rhetoric.

"And so violence becomes part of the argument.

"In an eloquent statement, the new Republican House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday's "attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. "

"But it is much more - it is an attack on each of us and our way of life.

"If elected officials cannot meet with those who have elected them without fear of being shot, if the rest of us allow such a situation to exist, then we are no longer the America that those who came before us fought and died to protect and defend.

"We must change the atmosphere in which this happened, and we can begin by remembering that words have consequences.

"Like all powerful things, they must be used carefully.

"More and more, we seem to have forgotten that."- 
Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation
OK. so what?

Well, in education we have a special responsibility. We have a special responsibility to responsibility.

On the same sad Sunday as we deal with the aftermath of the events in Tucson I watched this story on CBS Sunday Morning. A story which contains this exchange re: a Middle School principal, a bullying student, and that student's mother:
"But McDermott says Stephanie is still "a work in progress."

McDermott says Stephanie's behavior has not improved, in part because she still doesn't seem to grasp what the problem is.

"I'm not sure yet that she wants to change who she is," he said.

Smith asked her, "How does it make you feel to know that parents are so worried about their kids, what you're doing to their kids, that they called the school to complain?"

"I don't find it right because I don't threaten kids that bad," Stephanie said.

"That bad? If kids are scared of you … come on, this is the first time you're hearing that kids are scared of you?"

"Uh huh," she said. "'Cause they're always like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"But what are you saying to kids that they would turn around and say 'I'm not scared of you'?" Smith asked.

"Like, 'I'm gonna beat you up.' Like when I say that to them, they'll be like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"Maybe they're not telling the truth," said Smith. "Here's the thing: If you call people names, if you threaten to beat them up, doesn't that make you a bully?"

"Yeah," she said.

But Stephanie's mom, Sue, isn't so sure.

"Stephanie, you know, really isn't that bully that people label her as," she told Smith.

"What do you think she is?" she asked.

"Oh my gosh, I don't know . . . A sassy, sassy smartass little girl, you know?" Sue laughed.

"I get the sense that there's a little piece of you that's kind of proud of her."

"Exactly," said Sue. "You have to stand up for themselves, you know? In society, really, I don't think anybody would really pick on her."
We can bemoan this mother. And it is true that there's some kind of sickness there. But it is a sickness exploited by the Middle School system which remains in place. I cringed watching the little kids thrown into the horrible, completely inappropriate, bullying encouraging environment that are the corridors and classroom spaces of the school in the story. And while a "healthier" child, or a "better" mother might deal with this differently, we simply cannot count on everyone being "healthy" or "better." Certainly not in a nation with no reasonable health care system, no reasonable mental health care system, and no actual societal support for parenting.

So we have to be better. Instead of just counseling kids about bullying, this principal needs to make real changes, to rethink his middle school, to literally make his students responsible for their peers.

As we need to rethink all of our schools, so that we actually model respect for every human and differing lifestyles, beliefs, and behaviors. So that we actually model the ability to take on controversial and complex topics and discuss them in reasoned intellectual debate, and not hide them because "our community won't understand." So that we don't run from, yes, even allowing the President of the United States to speak to our students - no matter what we think of him, or "outlaw" programs we choose not to like.

We need to reconstruct our behavior in schools so that we admit our mistakes, apologize to students when we wrong them, seek their counsel on making them whole after we have hurt them. We need to flexible enough in both our belief systems and our professional actions so that they will see that there is a different way.

This is profoundly important. Profoundly. So let us take heart from a couple of examples. In New York this week new Governor Andrew Cuomo invited the leaders of the state legislature, including the Republican President of the State Senate, to speak - to speak politically and openly at his public first State-of-the-State Address. And in Utah a Civility and Community 2011 effort has been launched state-wide.

These are beginnings. But we, each of us, must do much more. Democracy, or even just "society," isn't easy. It is complex, messy, confusing. Those who hold onto hope for our future must demonstrate our commitment now.

- Ira Socol


Peter Hilts said...

Ira, you are right to call out the need for better discourse, but wrong to pretend that violent imagery is unique to republicans or Sarah Palin.

If you voted for democrats, you are responsible for supporting the party that used the same bullseye map metaphor while identifying "targeted republicans" Why the double standard? Why don't you call out President Obama for rallying his base by calling his political opponents enemies?

A very brief investigation on Google will find violent, martial, and weaponlike allusions on both sides of the aisle for generations.

You can't be credible if your outrage is selective. If target maps are heinous today, then they were inciting violence when democrats used them in 2004 and 2010. Fair's fair.

Your call to commitment begins with such a partisan bias that I can't hear your wisdom. That's too bad, because we need good people like you to call it both ways.

Unknown said...


I understand what you are saying, but respectfully - yet strongly - disagree.

It is fine to say that we all need to watch what we say, and all Sunday I watched Democratic leaders parade across the television saying just that. But, I think, it is untrue to suggest that the political leadership "on both sides" is equally culpable here.

Since the rise of Lee Atwater the contemporary Republican Party has shown a rather shocking disregard for truth and civility - by plan. Races have been demonized, from the Willie Horton ads to Sharon Angle's fence climber ads. People have been demonized, from Swift Boating to Michelle Bachmann's assault on the "Americanism" of Democrats, and opponents have been presented as personal threats. Attempts by Republican leaders to counter this are so rare that we can all remember each one, notably John McCain's assertion that Barack Obama was "not an Arab" (though the proper statement would have been, "he is not but why would that matter?").

Democrats, just since 2000, have been accused - by elected national Republicans - of "letting 9/11 happen" of being "friends with terrorists" of being "communists" of running "death panels" of wanting to stop "you" from getting health care, of wanting to "take away your guns" so they can create a "socialist dictatorship."

To imagine that there has been any equivalent response from Democratic leaders is just that - imagination. From Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City to Barack Obama over the past two years there has been a pretty solid effort not to demonize beyond the necessary.

Yes, there are crazed voices on the left. George Bush blew up the WTC, but I do not hear that from Congress, from the White House, or even from MSNBC. I do not hear that from candidates financed by the Democratic Party. Nor did I see Democrats take over Congress and immediately imply that all that had happened under Republicans was unconstitutional.

It is good to be even handed, but not all actions are the same.

- Ira Socol

Unknown said...

To quote Paul Krugman today...

"Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

"And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will."

- Ira Socol

Massis said...

This is not about politics,people. This is about mental illness and how little this country does for people who are seriously mentally ill. Some brains are damaged in ways that don't allow them to see their illness or accept help. What are we doing for them? Nothing! Let's focus on this, and not all the bs political rhetoric.

Unknown said...

That's tough to separate out Massis, since this Member of Congress was targeted by the rhetoric pretty exclusively because she voted in favor of expanding access to health care and mental health care.

Again, as Bob Schieffer said, when we speak publicly we speak to a wide range of people, not just those we believe to be "reasonable" and "intelligent."

- Ira Socol

Peter Hilts said...

->I didn't imagine President Obama promising to bring a "gun to a knife fight."
->I didn't imagine President Obama telling Latino supporters to "punish your enemies."
->I didn't imagine President Obama promising that a Republican victory in the legislative branch would lead to "hand to hand combat."
->I didn't imagine President Obama boasting that when it comes to the private sector, "I know whose ass to kick."
->I didn't imagine President Obama telling union leaders to "hit back twice as hard" days before uniformed SEIU members beat a conservative black man (Kenneth Gladney) so badly he was confined to a wheelchair.
President Obama's aggressive and violent rhetoric did and does motivate personal violence. He has a much bigger megaphone and therefore greater responsibility to watch his tone. I gave you one instance of a person who was badly injured by political opponents doing exactly what the president exhorted them to do. Do you pretend that Rep Bachmann's words have had any similar effect?

You adopt Krugman's "Let's not make a false pretense of balance." by making a false pretense of imbalance.

As I pointed out, the imagery of a map with targets on it is not unique to the right.
->I didn't imagine that the Democratic Leadership Council published a map as far back as 2004 using bullseyes to "target republicans".
->I didn't imagine that in 2010, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee created a political map with bullseyes and a list of "Targeted Republicans." the DCCC is led by elected Rep Van Hollen who was appointed by Speaker Pelosi.

You badly minimize the “equivalent response from Democratic leaders” by pretending that hostility is not bipartisan.

Just because reality is not perfectly symmetrical doesn't mean you can't skew the truth. You have.

For your elected Bachmann, there is the New Hampshire elected Democrat who wishes publicly that Sarah Palin had been in the fatal plane crash with Senator Stevens.
You cite Angle, I cite Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan.”
Citing Paul Krugman is exactly as credible as me citing Rush Limbaugh. He is as openly anti-republican as Limbaugh is openly anti-democratic.

If you're going to bring in talk show hosts like Beck etc. then you have to acknowledge statements like Chris Matthews fantasizing about Limbaugh that someone would “jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he's gonna explode like a giant blimp.” Or maybe you’d like to defend Olberman’s plan to deal with Hillary Clinton’s opposition to Obama by finding, “Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out."

And while we're at it, didn't a left-leaning journalist say that Giffords is "dead to me" because she didn't vote for Pelosi as minority leader? Wasn't that post pulled down because it looked unseemly in hindsight?

I don't want to turn what is a great education blog into a political spat because there are lots of places for that. I won't grant you a pass on your double standard, but you are welcome to have the last word.

Unknown said...


I won't say that what you say isn't true, because it is true. I could - I suppose "can" - argue the relative form that these statements were made and the metaphorical differences between "targets" and "gunsights," but none of that is the point.

Keith Olbermann, the only national figure to actually take responsibility here, said it best

"We are all responsible." I have said, "Barack Obama hates kids." George W. Bush's Secretary of Education called teachers "terrorists." Gov. Christie of New Jersey routinely calls teachers "greedy" people out to "hurt kids." The President has used inappropriate language. We all need to stop. We all need to model different behaviors for our children.

My one big complaint with your last comment is equating a Nobel Prize winning economist with a talk-radio host who has never checked a fact in his career. This is the kind of "all information is equal" idea that I am really troubled by. It is not that Limbaugh is an uneducated drug addict and Krugman is as respected as it gets in Academia, but that everything Krugman writes is researched, backed by evidence, and designed to appeal to reason, and everything Limbaugh says is designed to do nothing but provoke and increase his own wealth.

You may disagree with Paul Krugman, many do. But few responsible voices would equate him with Limbaugh - for very good reasons. Reasons our students should understand.

- Ira Socol