Justice & Stanley (2016). Teaching in the Time of Trump.

Justice, B., & Stanley, J. (2016). Teaching in the Time of Trump. Social Education, 80(1), 36–41.

[Article link: http://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/publications/articles/se_800136.pdf]

“The norm of reasonableness has a long history in democratic political thought. The best known contemporary formulation is that of John Rawls, who maintains that people are reasonable when they propose standards for cooperation that are reasonable and justifiable for _everyone_ to accept. Reasonable people are also ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose, and abide by the results of reasonable deliberation. Reasonableness requires respect for the opinions of others and a willingness to discuss them. 2” (p 36)

“The medium and the message are fully integrated, and this integration is critical to Trump’s rejection of reason giving and reason taking. He keeps up a steady stream of boasts, insults, and policy assertions almost entirely insulated from thoughtful public analysis. 6” (p 37)

“However, after Trump called for the ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ Arianna Huffington announced that her website would now put Trump back in Politics, calling his campaign ‘an ugly and dangerous force.’ 11” (p 38)

“How will we make America great? By naming and excluding undesirables, or, in the case of ISIS, butchering them.” (p 38)

“The most disturbing, however, is the Mexican wall building footage, which shows dark-skinned people surging toward a barrier (footage from Spain, it turns out) as if they were a swarm of insects.13 This is a dehumanizing trope that is familiar in racist propaganda and was favored by the National Socialists, among others. 14” (p 38)

“… scapegoating …. As a result, prominent conservatives have distanced themselves from Trump’s eruptions; some have even labeled him a fascist. 15” (p 38)

[“Democracy and the Challenge of Demagoguery” (p 38) …]

“Public schools exist, in part, for the political purpose of instilling the principal values of a democratic republic, training students in the skills and knowledge requisite to healthy democratic life. In a time when a major political candidate threatens the fundamental values of the nation, educators are called to explain the nature of the present threat, that is, to explain one of the oldest problems in Western philosophy, the problem of demagoguery.” (p 38)

“The problem of demagoguery lies not in its conflict with freedom, but with the democratic value of equality.” (p 39)

“Demagoguery causes problems in the absence of equal respect; it feeds off of and strengthens divisions in society. … Trump is not merely representing deep-seated anxieties—he is feeding them.” (p 39)

[Offensive wording below has been masked. — oki]

“… politicians who wish to exploit them must do so in a way that does not trigger the public’s sense that they are violating the norm of reasonableness. This dialectic, concerning the ideological fissure of racism in the United States, is aptly reflected in a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, later to lead George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign (with the notorious Willie Horton ad):

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—–, n—–, n—–.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—–‘ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—–, n—–.’ 18

“When a politician uses language that explicitly represents a group in negative terms, such as Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists,’ or his repeated association of Muslims with terrorists, it undercuts the norm that keeps such ideological fissures part of the private sphere. It makes such ideas part of legitimate public discourse. Since legitimate public discourse is guided by a norm of reasonableness, this gives the description of Muslims as terrorists or Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ an aura of reasonableness. Demagoguery legitimates problematic ideologies by making them appear to be reasonable moves in public discourse.” (p 39)

“These are what we can consider _unreasonable_ perspectives, group perspectives that have, as a criterion for membership, rejection of other perspectives.” (p 39)

“To say that unreasonable perspectives should not be considered in the formation of public policy is not to suppress their expression.” (p 39)

“Silence in response to Trump’s assaults on public reason is not a neutral decision either, though it is an easy one to make. The realm of public reason belongs to us all equally and we are each responsible for its upkeep. Silence is at best an acquiescence; it is at worst a tacit agreement that being Muslim, or a Mexican immigrant, or black, is to deserve exclusion from reasonable consideration.” (p 40)

“Arendt grimly observed this axiom in action: ‘Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such….’ 25” (p 40)

[“Pedagogical Issues” (p 40) …]

“Teaching in the time of Trump raises a fundamental pedagogical question: is it permissible for a teacher to adopt a non-neutral political stance in the classroom, either through explicitly addressing the problems with Trump’s rhetoric or, conversely, by remaining silent in the face of it? How can teachers balance the much cherished value of political impartiality (protecting the students’ freedom of expression and autonomous political development) against the much cherished liberal values threatened by Trumpish demagoguery?” (p 40)

“… teaching for democracy is not the same as giving free rein to all perspectives so that all are treated as equally reasonable. Rather, teachers lead conversations and set reasonable parameters so that all students can safely participate and learn what is reasonable and what is not reasonable.” (p 40)

“Students are free to decide that they accept Trump’s antidemocratic rhetoric, but if they do not understand why it is antidemocratic, or if they think that his rhetoric is reasonable, their public school education has failed them.” (p 40)

“Silence is not an acceptable strategy. As teachers, we should advocate no particular political party, candidate, or public policy. But we are all obligated, deeply, to hew to the basic principles of democratic life in order to help our students discern what is reasonable.” (p 41)

Selected References

  • 2. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 49.
  • 6. Amber Phillips, “The Surprising Genius of Donald Trump’s Twitter Account,” The Washington Post (Dec. 10, 2015); Michael Barbaro, “Pithy, Mean and Powerful: How Donald Trump Mastered Twitter for 2016,” The New York Times (Oct. 5, 2015).
  • 11. “A Note on Trump: We Are No Longer Entertained,” The Huffington Post (Dec. 7, 2015).
  • 13. Amy Davidson, “Donald Trump’s First, Ugly TV Ad,” The New Yorker (Jan. 4, 2016).
  • 14. Lynne Tirrell, “Genocidal Language Games” in Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech, Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 174–221.
  • 15. “Why Some Conservatives Say Donald Trump’s Talk Is Fascist – CNNPolitics.com,” CNN (Nov. 25, 2015). Ross Douthat, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?,” The New York Times (Dec. 3, 2015).
  • 16. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace and Company: San Diego, 1973).
  • 18. See The Nation (Nov. 13, 2012), www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/.
  • 25. Origins of Totalitarianism, 350.
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