Yesterday I was called a “numbskull” on Twitter when I responded to a tweet about a reporter getting dragged out of a news conference with a snarky reminder about the Constitution and Freedom of the Press. Here’s just a snippet of the response:
Replying to @kkg3 He's not a credentialed reporter, numbskull. He got caught and got booted. The only proper response. Bravo security!
It gets worse, believe me. Fear not, my feelings weren’t hurt, but I can’t say I remember the last time I was called a numbskull! This was just an hour after my husband and I returned from dinner where we saw a pretty sizeable and spirited demonstration in Newburyport (not Cambridge! not Boston!) complete with people holding signs chanting “LOCK HIM UP!” AND “TREASON!” Most cars honked in support when they drove by; we are in Massachusetts after all. One guy flipped the protestors off.
There must have been something in the air because when I posted on Facebook a reminder that Putin was a KGB officer, a high school classmate who rarely communicates with me claimed that my comments were hypocritical and that Senator McCain was not to be trusted because he had been pardoned by Nixon. I went to Snopes and smugly posted a FALSE rebuttal; he responded that Snopes was wrong. Ever the teacher and not to be outdone, I responded with another article that refuted his claim. My goal was to prove him wrong; my greatest flaw is self-righteousness.
Many of my friends who admittedly share similar political views defended my comments, but pretty quickly I felt uneasy. Why? Because in the same way I was quick to respond in a rather snarky tone to the “tweeter” who dubbed me a numbskull, we were quick to defend our deeply held views without ……...well, listening to understand. I’m still not sure why my former classmate was so adamant in his defense of President Trump’s meeting with Putin and his disdain of Sen. John McCain, but that opportunity is now lost. What I do know is that we are all very certain that our views are correct. I was quick to try to prove my high school classmate wrong instead of...well, listening to him. Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds all liberal touchy-feely, but it seems that we are all at an impasse. It’s easy to commiserate with people who agree with us, but how often do shut down conversations with those who don’t? I confess that too often I’m more interested in proving that I’m right than….well, listening to understand.
I co-teach American Studies with a history teacher. We explore connections between American history, literature, culture and current events. We ask our students, “How do we know what is true?” We teach critical reading by asking them to read contradictory perspectives on history and current events. We read Shakespeare and Fitzgerald to explore the complexity of human nature. We model civility even when we disagree like the time I passionately defended the Puritans as “models of virtue” while my colleague described them as “mean-spirited and hypocritical”; of course the truth is somewhere in between, but we were trying to show that one can remain civil even when we disagree. Easier said than done. As an educator, I must admit that I’m worried about the lack of civility and division we are witnessing and perhaps contributing to in our nation. I’m thinking a lot about how I will address this come September with my sixteen and seventeen-year-old students. Yeah, some are bold and parrot what they hear or see on social media or on their parents’ favorite cable news channel. But most are avoidant; they don’t want to talk about controversial topics. It’s scary to be challenged; it’s hard to figure out aloud what you believe when you’re sixteen. People might laugh or shut you down or even call you a numbskull. Sometimes it’s easier to just keep quiet.
So, friends, help me out. What to do? How do we model civility to our students or high school classmates or relatives with whom we vehemently disagree? How do I move beyond my own self-righteousness and need to be right? How do we listen to understand instead of preparing our counter-argument in our head? We need to figure this out because whatever we’re doing isn’t working.
Your favorite numbskull