Friday, January 15, 2021

Why teaching that all texts are problematic is a bad idea

This essay argues that approaching all texts as problematic, according to identity politics and systems of power, is a bad idea. Two years ago I would have argued the opposite, and I did.


In my essay Homer, Paul Ramsay and Me: Rewriting the mythology of Western civilisation, published in Meanjin, I tracked the development of the idea that we teach to defend western civilization and how classics and feminism might be positioned within this. My academic field is feminist classical receptions. 


This is the paragraph I would now retract.


I’ve been following the arguments made by John Howard, Tony Abbott, Kevin Donnelly, Christopher Pyne and Barry Spurr regarding education for some years. My summary is that they are afraid of postmodernism, critical theory, multimodal texts, identity politics, multiculturalism, feminism and cultural relativism. In 2010 John Howard described senior school English courses as embracing ‘gobbledygook’. Clearly, he dismisses ideas he doesn’t understand.


I now understand why, and I join them in their fears, although not in their politics. 


It’s not surprising that politicians call for defunding the humanities when literary theory sounds as incomprehensible as this. This professor of English and Comparative Literature is making  no sense. All theories should be tested and reviewed, and they should be explainable; they shouldn’t be taught as ideological indoctrination.  


There are writers from the right who are critiquing what is happening in educational institutions and in politics, and it is worthwhile to listen to them and engage with their ideas. However, my reference will come from some writers from the left, three thinkers who work together and separately. They are: 


Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who wrote Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody. Helen Pluckrose runs Areo magazine. James Lindsay runs New Discourses. Together with philosophy lecturer Peter Boghossian, who wrote How to Make Atheists, they wrote articles submitted to academic journals now known as the Grievance Paper Hoax. Lindsay and Boghossian also wrote How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. They all participate in Wiki Letters. You can hear an interview with Lindsay on ABC radio here.  And here is Helen Pluckrose's article in The Australian where she explains why they embarked on the Grievance Studies hoax. Pluckrose has launched a website, Counterweight, to provide support for people who need assistance.


In Cynical Theories Pluckrose and Lindsay define the problem in terms of two principles and four themes. The Postmodern Knowledge Principle (radical skepticism as to whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism) and The Postmodern Political Principle (a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how). The four themes they observe are: The blurring of boundaries; The power of language; Cultural relativism; and The loss of the individual and the universal. 


They argue for the maintenance of liberal democracy. We need a diversity of voices, not just people who write about their own experience - we want to open up rather than shut down - and add ideas to be publicly challenged and reviewed. This is what academic or scientific rigour is. This is a process, both in the academic circles and in the democratic process, that works for incremental and careful improvements to our systems of knowledge and our systems of power. They want us to see people firstly as individuals, and as individuals sharing our common humanity.  


This is their definition of liberalism:


Liberalism is perhaps best understood as a desire to gradually make society fairer, freer, and less cruel, one practical goal after another. This is because liberalism is a system of conflict resolution, not a solution to human conflicts. In being a system that works through the inputs of its participants, it offers up no one in particular in whom to place our trust, which violates our deepest human intuitions. It is not revolutionary, but neither is it reactionary: its impulse is neither to turn society on its head nor to keep it from changing. Instead, liberalism is always a work in progress.

….Liberalism’s success can be put down to a few key points. It is intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and - despite what postmodernists think - genuinely progressive. 


By citing them and their works here, I’m not endorsing all their tweets. These people are not gurus. They are thinking things through. 


The field of education attracts people who care about social issues and who regard education as a means of making social change for the better. While this is admirable, the means of doing this needs to be carefully monitored.


So long as educational institutions teach for ideological and political purposes, we will see resources such as this: Disrupt Texts. This US site, run by teachers for teachers, argues that all texts are problematic and that we teach for social justice outcomes. It shares approaches to texts, suggestions and resources which apply this principle. Some quotes from the website:


‘It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.’


‘Apply a critical literacy lens to our teaching practices.’

‘While text-dependent analysis and close reading are important skills for students to develop, teachers should also support students in asking questions about the way that such texts are constructed. Ask: How does this text support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice? How does this text perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies? And how can we ask students to wrestle with these tensions? ‘

About Teaching Shakespeare:

This is about an ingrained and internalized elevation of Shakespeare in a way that excludes other voices. This is about white supremacy and colonization.

About teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

‘So, I use the feelings it engenders for them and then introduce anti-racist ideas and critical race theory to help them see the racism in the text and in their own lives.’

……...We lift it up, look under its pages, between its characters, and expose its gaps.’ 

Critical thinking means asking who is absent, about representations and biases within systems of power. This is the opposite of close reading of text. This skips the basic questions we ask when we engage with and judge the success of a text: how do the component parts of the text, from the word choice and sound effects, use of repetitions, literal and figurative language, form and features, and the use of any literary devices, contribute to textual cohesion and the meaning of the whole text? Does the writer achieve an impact on the reader, that is either conveying a situation effectively or bringing the reader along a process of thinking, according to purpose and context? Then we can use the text as a tool to think with, consider representations, characterisations, narrative choices, and explore how that story could be told differently. We can relate the text to our own context, knowledge and understandings about the world. We can create new texts in response. But we should not judge a text as problematic for what it is not. No text can be a celebration of all minority groups in every place at all times. Texts exist within their own contexts, and we can consider how they were received then and how we might value them differently now. 


We should not criticise a cat for not being a dog.


In our classrooms we should not be asking:

  • According to identity politics, how do I problematise the text, because all texts are about systems of power in which there are the privileged and the oppressed?

  • How do I bring my indignation to the text?

  • How do I take offence at the text for what it is not?


This is the approach of critical race theory, and all critical grievance theories. This approach teaches students to engage combatively, and encourages the same approach to social interactions, such as use of social media. It presumes racism, even where none is present. It emphasises rather than dispels stereotypes. 


In teaching literature with an approach that every text is problematic we teach that all white people are racist and there is nothing they can do about it. That all men are sexist and if they don’t admit it then they can’t see their privilege. That all heterosexual people benefit from their privilege and that their biases are unconscious. What do we expect children to do with those messages about systems of power and their places within them? It is akin to telling children that they are born in sin. It encourages guilt, and it encourages victimhood and resentment. How does this impact student mental health in terms of their anxiety and depression? 


And where, in this approach, is the pleasure in reading and writing? There is none, except as a ‘gotcha’ moment, which is the basis for many viral tweets, posts, comments, Tik Toks and interviews. Critiquing should not just be about dragging down. Where is the room for building up? There should be room for joy. 


With this approach no text can be good. What does this mean for students when we read the texts that they have created? It means that no text a student can create can be good. So, this approach does not empower students to create successful texts. It demoralises students. 


Instead, we could ask for good thinking, applying logic supported by evidence. We can apply the principles of textual analysis and intertextuality, which are already core to the study of literature. Yes, we can read and teach a broader range of texts. Yes, we can regard these texts as talking to each other. We can ask: What does the writer do? What do the characters do? What does the text do? What do readers do? But applying critical race theory, or any critical grievance theory, is not helping the study of literature. 


I fear that teaching for social justice using applied postmodernism is akin to teaching religious indoctrination. If we endorse teaching for Social Justice then we endorse teaching for any ideology and ideological for political outcomes. 


In NSW Department of Education there is a policy called The Controversial Issues in Schools policy. Under this policy teachers and visitors to schools are not to coerce students to political views. 

1.3.1 Schools are neutral places for rational discourse and objective study.

1.3.2 Discussion of controversial issues in schools should allow students to explore a range of viewpoints and not advance the interest of any particular group.

 

A few years ago this policy did not apply to Scripture classes. The instruction during the Scripture timeslot, delivered by private providers, was exempt. Now it is included in the policy. 

2.2 This policy applies to visitors and external providers including approved special religious education providers or ethics education providers, conducting activities outside the provisions in the Religious Education Policy and Special Education in Ethics Policy.

 

Teachers are not to recruit students into religious or ideological groups. Teaching through a lens of identity politics for a social justice outcome is an ideological position. 

3.3 Attempting to recruit students or staff into non-school approved groups for religious or ideological reasons is not permitted in schools, nor are aggressive, persistent or unwanted approaches to staff and students. Staff and students may advocate for issues or activities that are important to them in a manner consistent with expectations outlined in the department’s Code of Conduct for staff and Behaviour code for students.

 

Teaching through a lens of critical race theory, or any critical grievance theory, is in breach of this policy.  


There is currently a case in the US where a parent and student are suing the school due to a civics module being compulsory at the high school. The civics module requires students to accept critical race theory.  The US government has banned professional development workshops teaching critical race theory. These programs may think that this approach teaches anti-racism; it doesn’t. It divides people by reinforcing their differences and stereotyping them according to race. 


We welcome the diversity of human experience, yes - but as individuals and as universal themes - not simply as members of identity groups, which is limiting. Most identity groups are unchangeable. If we see people firstly according to their identity group, we are judging them, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, not according to the content of their character but by the colour of their skin. We would do better to judge people according to what they do rather than who they are by accident of birth or some other self-declared identity. We could empower students not on the basis of their identity but on the basis of their actions. It is likely parents in Australia will also complain to schools or withdraw their children from public schools if they see this kind of indoctrination occurring. 


The trio of thinkers, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, have some suggestions: Challenge new definitions. Apply science and reason in categorisations. Apply logic. Ask for evidence. Acknowledge facts. Apply Socratic enquiry. Ask what is true and what is objectively, materially, concretely real. Keep conversations respectful and open. Listen and consider. Individuals should not be compelled to represent their identity groups. We think better collaboratively so no idea should be taboo or censored but should be tested amongst others. Don’t be cynical. Support liberalism. Liberalism has provided us with real progress through the civil rights movement, gay pride, and second wave feminism.


My own research aims to create resources to support the teaching of English without applying identity politics. I aim to create an Ovarian Poetics - looking to ancient literature to draw threads currently ignored or forgotten that refocus how we can understand and appreciate texts, arguing that we don't need to apply postmodern theories based upon French Philosophy, as we can find permissions and frameworks for literary creation, appreciation and analysis from the ancient Greeks and Romans. We can consider ancient ways of knowing and understanding, including ancient memory devices, and how we can use these to teach and learn today. We can reference texts written by a range of people over time and place. We can teach based on our shared humanity and freedom of the individual within a secular liberal democracy. We would do well to return to the principles of primary school debates and high school essays: define your terms, present a logical argument supported by evidence, and be respectful. We can be empathetic and use our imaginations. Yes, texts are tools to think with, but we need more utensils than grievance studies approaches to do literature well. We may need to agree that ‘critical thinking’ has been defined under these theories and should be renamed, as for our use in teaching English, perhaps simply as good reading and good thinking. 


We all want to make the world a better place, however we need to be careful how we go about it. We already have equal rights under the law. I’m not suggesting that there are no problems in our society; of course there are. But the means of addressing these problems should not be such that they embed more problems. The means are the end. How we get there is what we get. War begets war. Peace begets peace. In the English classroom we can grow cynicism or we can grow joy. 



Sunday, December 23, 2018

Let's apply some critical thinking to Christmas

Now that we have critical thinking embedded in every educational institution, we should expect that our traditions will be challenged. Is doing something on the basis of tradition a good enough reason?

Let’s ask some questions about Christmas.

Is December 25 Jesus’ birthday? Some will say that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that celebrating him is the ‘true meaning of Christmas’. This doesn’t hold up to examination. There is nothing in the gospels about Jesus being born in December. In the early Christian communities the birth of Jesus was not celebrated because the story of Jesus’ birth hadn’t started yet. Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the official religion for the Roman Empire, declared in 336 AD that December 25 would be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. This was reinforced by Pope Julius I a few years later. The first recorded use of the word Christmas was in Old English in 1038 CE. The words ‘true meaning of Christmas’ were first used on the blurb for Dickens’ book ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Does the celebration have pagan roots, and is it about winter? We know that Christmas replaced a winter solstice celebration in the Northern Hemisphere. It makes sense to have a festival when winters are cold and long and people are prone to depression. The early Puritan settlers of America banned the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan roots. Why are we in Australia decorating everything in fake snow, eating plum pudding and singing about Jingle Bells? Why do we sing carols by candlelight in a heatwave during daylight savings? Celebrating a winter wonderland doesn’t make sense in Australia, where it is hot and we all go swimming.

Is Santa real? The conspiracy about Santa is deep and broad. Adults behave as if he exists. They talk to children as if Santa really does know if they have been naughty or nice, and that he will sneak into their house at night and leave presents. Shopping malls and the post office are complicit with the lie. We can track the story of St Nicholas, through to the 1922 story of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and the Coca Cola image of Santa as a jolly fat man wearing a red suit with white trim. The practice of exchanging gifts began in the late 1800s. Christmas became a national holiday in the US in 1870.

Is Santa good for parents? Parents have the power to reward and punish children if they choose. They could accept that power rather than defer it to a fictional middle man. It would be honest and transparent and grow trust. As children grow, parents tell them they need to believe to receive, as if that is logical and a good philosophy for life. It is strange that parents lie to keep their children happy then children pretend to believe to keep their parents happy. Is this a good model for relationships?

Is Christmas good for women? Christmas is run by women; they do all the work to keep it going. Women put toys on layby mid-year and keep track of gifts children might like. They organise the food and do the cooking. They organise the relatives and try to make sure everyone is happy for the big day. This brings into question the unpaid work women do. This is work women could just stop doing. We could give the work of Christmas to men and see what happens. We could let children know they are dealing with their mothers directly, and women could accept the credit for the work they do. It makes no sense for women to do the work of gathering gifts and giving the credit to a fictional fat man. It works against the goal of gender equality.

Is Christmas good for the environment? The way we celebrate Christmas has an enormous environmental impact. We spend time shopping, buying gifts packaged in plastic, then wrap them in paper that is bought especially and used once. We buy gifts for people who need nothing new. We wrap the biggest thing we have, our houses, in Christmas lights. We buy more food than we can eat. It makes no sense to save energy, to reduce, reuse and recycle for eleven months of the year, and then create enormous amounts of waste in celebrating Christmas.

We can celebrate when and how we like. Christmas does not have one true meaning. The meaning is constructed, contested, and evolving. We should be challenging ourselves to celebrate according to our values - our real values - not the ones we are told we should hold. This may be uncomfortable, as learning often is. No-one ever said that applying critical thinking makes a person popular. But asking questions should be acceptable, shouldn’t it?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Managing Fertility

I watched Exposed on ABC - the documentary investigating the case of Keli Lane, and I have some thoughts.

Yes, the case was poorly investigated, and yes it was sexist. I don’t know what happened to baby Tegan. But here is my thinking. No man has ever been in a position that Keli Lane found herself in numerous times. She fell pregnant when she didn’t want to have babies, and has been criticised for not managing her fertility. She did not create these babies alone; they were the result of men not managing their own fertility. Each pregnancy could have been avoided with the use of condoms.

Women manage their fertility all through their fertile years which encompass about thirty years of their lives. Most women would use a variety of contraceptive methods, and at various times in their lives experience some combination of an abortion, miscarriage, giving a child away for adoption, experience live birth, stillbirth, IVF, and may adopt or foster a child.

Women are thinking of their fertility every time they bleed each month. Women may not speak to many men about how they control their fertility, so it seems that men don’t see the work that it involves.

In contrast men can impregnate women and not even know.

In the argument against Keli Lane’s defence that she gave baby Tegan to the child’s biological father many people said they found such a scenario unbelievable. Why? It is not at all unusual for women to raise a child alone. It is not at all unusual for a woman to have a child with a man who then leaves. It is not at all unusual for men to not contribute financially, or in any care role, for a child he helped create. If a woman can raise a child without a partner, why can’t a man? Surely in a world where men hold most of the positions of power, a man can raise a child. Of course he can. A man is just as capable of learning care work as a woman is. The assumption is, why would any man want to? And the response to that question should lead us to a major revision of the structural impediments to the experience of raising children and of care work.

Friday, May 11, 2018

My Body Betrays Me

When my daughter asked me what transgender is, I answered that some people feel that they were born into the wrong body. That their bodies had betrayed them. So they change gender. She replied: I feel like I should have had a twin. 

Of course, there was nothing I could do about that, but it did make me think about all the ways my own body had betrayed me. I am a woman and have always been female. My body has betrayed me in many ways.

My body has betrayed me by bleeding at times when I wasn’t ready. Having a female body has attracted unwanted attention from men while I have gone about my own business. I have put on weight when I hadn’t expected to. My body has betrayed me by being short. At times my face has betrayed me by being not pretty enough. I am not particularly athletic. I have frizzy hair. I had crooked teeth and ears that stick out. I fell pregnant when I hadn’t planned to. I broke my tailbone in childbirth. I now have a sore hip from sitting unevenly for years due to the fractured tailbone. I had mastitis when breastfeeding. I had a psychotic reaction (Hoigne Syndrome) to an injection of procaine penicillin which was administered for said mastitis. I’ve had hot flushes from menopause.

Some may feel being physically uncoordinated whilst dancing is a disappointment. Others may have serious diseases, lost a limb in an accident, suffer through a chronic illness or serious disabilities. Some people may feel like their body betrays them because they have a low tolerance to alcohol, or they have allergies. Women who have trouble conceiving, carrying to term or with childbirth, or breastfeeding, feel let down by their bodies. Others are disappointed by their skin colour, hair colour, eye shape or ingrown toenails. We all feel disappointed by our bodies when our plans are disrupted by having a cold or breaking a bone.

At times we are all physically unable to do what we want to do, whether that be to function, to excel, or to have fun. The range is wide.

For me, the biggest betrayal was having leukemia. I never gave my body permission to have a blood cancer. It was sneaky and pernicious. Nobody plans to get cancer and plans to devote time to treatment until it is necessary to do so. Any type of cancer is a betrayal of the body.

People who live long enough to live through a process of aging are likely to experience sore knees, declining eyesight and hearing, general aches and pains, and incontinence. They feel their bodies have let them down.

My experience is unremarkable.

I had reason to think about this again on reading Cate McGregor’s article in which she apolgises to people who were hurt by her condemnation of the Safe Schools program. I appreciate that she is open to learning. What concerned me was this:

'My concept of gender was forged by exposure to the showgirls of the 1970s and 1980s who were my heroines. I had a limited, arguably obsolescent view of how gender variance manifests among contemporary teens.'

I believed that people who want to transition from one gender to another undergo counselling. I assumed this counselling included challenging stereotypes of what is it to be one gender or another, or non-binary. It seems incredible to me that a person could think that being a women in the world today is like being a showgirl. I would expect that some serious consideration would be given to how gender exists within a system of power and an understanding that in moving from one position of power to another a person either moves from a position of oppression to one of privilege, or visa versa. Whilst I’m interested in the experience of people who have navigated this transition and what we can learn from their experiences, surely it should be no shock to them that other people will have other views. Living in male, female or non-binary bodies all carry expectations we may not endorse.

I wonder what percentage of people feel that their bodies betray them when they go through puberty. It is confronting when your body changes from one of a child to one of an adult. It can be a frightening transition, especially since it changes forever how you are perceived in the world and there is no turning back to the simplicities of childhood. No one decides if he or she is ready and no one gives permission for how it happens.

Perhaps feeling betrayed by your body is a common human experience. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect otherwise.

While some people can afford to surgically and medically change their bodies, most people don’t. Meanwhile, other people are betrayed because they don’t have access to what they need to keep their bodies alive: clean water, enough food, safety, or medical treatment. Probably everyone feels like their bodies have betrayed them in one way or another. Nobody feels that their bodies are loyal and supportive to their will in every way. In the end we are all betrayed by our bodies because we can’t live without our bodies. Perhaps we could learn to appreciate them more, in all their many variations, try to keep them healthy, and be grateful for what they can do.

And perhaps we could change our expectations about people based solely on their bodies.

Friday, January 05, 2018

My article in SMH about volunteering

I had an article published in SMH yesterday.

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/volunteering-doesnt-make-the-world-a-better-place-20180104-h0dd25.html

I didn't write the headline - it is a little less nuanced than I would have written.


Following up on my article regarding volunteering, fundraising and charities I’ve created flowlines to help think through these ideas.


The ideas are about how volunteering, fundraising and charities work in interaction with connecting systems.

Q. Is this my personal responsibility?
Eg. Raising money for Legacy, public schools, hospitals, medical research, the homeless, surf lifesaving, Careflight, international aid
Action. No - write to a politician. It is a collective responsibility.
Yes - keep thinking



Q. Is my action causing harm?

Eg. Making waste, unhealthy food, imposing on people, everything sold is ethically made

Action. Yes - do something else

No - keep thinking

Q. Is my action effective when considering all costs?
Eg. People’s time, investment, consequences, the money going to the most needy.
Action. No - find something else
Yes - keep thinking

Q. Will it need to be repeated next year?
Action. Yes - find another solution
No - keep thinking

Q. Should this be a paid job?
Eg. Managing a group of workers, helping with reading at school, Meals on Wheels
Action. Yes - write to a politician
No - keep thinking

Q. Is this fair and does it build a fairer society?
Eg. Fundraising for a wealthy group of school students to go overseas.
Action. Yes - keep thinking
No - find another solution

Q. Am I volunteering to build skills?
Action. Make sure you are not being exploited and your skills are recognised and rewarded by moving into paid work

Q. Am I supporting a church run charity?
Q. Do I support everything about this group?
Action. Yes - keep thinking
No - find another solution

Q. Does this group have enough assets and money that they could solve a problem tomorrow if they sold some assets?
Action. Yes - find another solution
No - keep thinking

Q. Should I help in an emergency?
Action. Yes - just do it

Q. Should I give blood?
Action. Yes - just do it.

Q. How should I be involved in my community?
Eg. Community garden, choir, sport, political group, local events that aren’t fundraisers, parties, being kind, helping people in any way that doesn’t damage a system (may include bush regeneration, WIRES), organise Soup and Submissions evenings (writing to politicians together), mentoring, any club that shares resources
Action. Yes - do it

I am also including a link to The Story of Solutions


and Naomi Klein at the Sydney Peace Prize


From 25 mins to 104 mins.

And Naomi Klein - This Changes Everything

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rqw99rJYq8Q


Monday, January 01, 2018

2017 wrap up

It has been the year of overworking. I won’t talk about my paid job except to say that people make the difference, and that it is over. I’m looking for something else. Outside of my regular job I have done an enormous amount of work this year - reading, thinking, writing and making resources. I feel like I have learnt as much this year as I did studying full time.

This has been the year I have re-engaged with classics (Ancient Greek and Roman Literature). 2017 has been a big year for classics and I want to be part of what happens next.

2017 has been a year of funerals. I have lost two friends, one to blood cancer (we had the same specialist) and one to violence. I have lost my mother’s only surviving sister.

I have been fairly well. I still have check ups and need to look after myself.

It has been the year of yoga. There will be more. And swimming.

I didn’t put on weight this year - something I now need to monitor.

It has been a year of dancing (going out grooving with middle aged women - so freeing to be invisible!), musicals, theatre.

Our campaign to get scripture out of public schools has had a good year. We are nearly at a point where it can roll on by itself, because the main stakeholders with power are now on board, and partly because church leaders have had enough of a platform to destroy their own brand.

I took the family to Cairns and we swam with the fishes at the Great Barrier Reef. I went to Melbourne to a feminist conference, and went to Canberra. I can recommend the All the better to see you with: Fairy tales Transformed exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne, until 4 March 2018, and the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra until 25 Feb 2018.

Anyhoo - back to work. I'm writing longer pieces and hope to publish some things in the new year.

Monday, May 22, 2017

No Name Calling



In 2016 I started working at a university. At this university (as at others) there are active student groups, including Socialist groups. I consider myself a socialist so one day at lunchtime I walked over to their stall. They were asking people to sign a petition against Pauline Hanson. I had noticed that since the federal election they had distributed posters against her all over the campus.


I read the petition statement but didn’t sign it - it wasn’t well written and included some assumptions I wasn’t on board with - and then I asked some questions. When I said I wasn’t going to sign the petition afterall they responded with aggression. I was told that petitions didn’t work anyway. ‘OK’, I said ‘what do you think will work?’ I then entered a strange conversation. I was told that the way to defeat Pauline Hanson and her followers was to shout at them that they are racist. I was told that this strategy had worked last time. I suggested that it was just bullying, and perhaps it would be better to build relationships with people and educate them and bring them along, so that they learn to not be afraid of people they don’t understand. The students told me that my suggestion wouldn’t work because: educated people are racists, in fact Malcolm Turnbull was the biggest racist because he held the highest position in the country; that if Pauline Hanson learnt not to be a racist there would be other people to take her place and it wasn’t about her - even though the posters and petition were all about her; that education doesn’t work and we need to just keep shouting at people that they are racist. I didn’t follow their logic about Malcolm Turnbull and Pauline Hanson, so I asked why they thought education doesn’t work. What did they think education was for if it didn’t lead to making a better society? Why were they at university? That’s where the conversation ended.

I’ve thought of this conversation after Brexit and after the election of Donald Trump. I’ve thought about it in relation to a rule in ethics classes. In ethics classes there is a rule that you don’t call people names. I extended this in the classes I taught to include people outside the room: politicians, celebrities, sportspeople, and I would ask what happens when you call people names. The students would say you hurt people’s feelings. I would agree, and extend the answer to include this: you cut off an opportunity to understand other people. Instead of calling people names, we need to listen and engage. Respectfully. People we disagree with genuinely believe they are right and are good. Shouting in their faces does nothing to change that - usually it makes people dig in, giving them more reason to not listen to you. Calling people names misses an opportunity to increase understanding and to make progress. Let's not do that.