Editor’s (admin’s) note. I’m sharing an email message to a family member replying to a blast email headlined “Everyone Wants Kids in School — Except for the People Who Are Supposed to Be Teaching them!” [Bang mark in the original.] We’ve gone round and round before about what I perceive as teacher-bashing, and this time I had it up to the keister and tried to explain why I find it offensive. This isn’t the first time I’ve cited Luther’s catechism as an antidote to political vitriol — in 2014 I quoted it in a published comment about a right-wing video conflating “liberals” with mass murderers. And I’m linking below to a column on the subject by American ecclesiastical historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago.

While I wrote the original email in the heat of the moment and I would be more restrained in some of my word choices if I were writing it now, I’m sharing it as written — edited lightly to take out identifying information and a couple of subliterate goofs on my part. It’s not a bad summary of how Luther (who was capable of some remarkably unrestrained invective himself) and his Small Catechism help me deal with political vitriol.

***

I’m sure your preferred sources of information wouldn’t use a term like “teacher bashing” — after all, they have an ideological ax to grind, and I doubt they much give a damn about collateral damage — but it’s hurtful, it’s nasty, it’s corrosive, it’s divisive and over time the character assassination has a cumulative effect. Survey after survey indicates that the second highest reason people leave the teaching profession (after low pay relative to other fields requiring comparable levels of education) is the lack of respect and public support for classroom teachers. Ditto for the decline in enrollment in colleges of education. The steady drumbeat of vitriol from politicians of all stripes (Gov. Cuomo in New York state is one of the worst) isn’t the only reason, but it contributes to the overall nastiness. It’s demoralizing, and after a few years too many good teachers move on to careers where at least they’ll be respected.

These are facts […]. I’ve tried to explain them to you, and I’ve recommended books and articles. Have you read them? Like I’ve said before, I don’t expect to change your mind. But we really can’t have a civil discussion unless we try to understand the full range of evidence on all sides of the issues.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think right-wingers are the only ones guilty of this nastiness, and I don’t think it’s confined to education. There’s a reason I got out of politics after 20 years and went to work for the Ursuline sisters! After a while I just had it up to the keister with electioneering — they always stand at Armageddon doing battle for the Lord before election day, and the other side is always a bunch of cloven-footed minions of the Prince of Darkness. Always, every election, from village board of trustees to president of the United States. I realize politics is a blood sport, but after a while it gets exhausting. And demoralizing. In fact, it’s worse when my political allies do it. 

So when I read the vitriol you share about teachers — or Democrats, or journalists, or any other group I’m identified with — I just want to go take a shower. It’s dirty, it’s nasty, it angers me and it ruins my day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to walk around angry any more than is absolutely necessary.

It goes beyond politics. My father raised me to look for the good in everyone, to always give the other guy the benefit of the doubt and to not be too damn sure of my own opinions. (I’ve had empirical evidence, too, on that last point — when I was most convinced I was right about something, that’s been when I was most likely to be wrong and I needed to take another look at the evidence.) I didn’t realize it at the time, and Dad never mentioned it, but I’m sure he had internalized what Luther says about false witness in the Small Catechism. It was a real “aha” moment after my mother joined Atonement Lutheran and I first read it. I thought the old man was maddeningly fair-minded when he wouldn’t share my indignation about something that happened on the playground, but I can see now that he was right. And especially now that I know where it came from, I can see it’s good psychology. The same is true, I think, for the rest of the Small Catechism.

[Admin’s note: The section I’m referring to is Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment — by his count — which reads as follows:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean? — Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

[End admin’s note.]

So when I see really partisan stuff on the left-wing advocacy websites like Daily Kos or Counterpunch, I usually don’t bother to read it. I already know what it’s going to say, and, besides, I don’t need the negativity. Same for social media — if I see a headline about “RepubliKKKans” or “deplorables” or comparing Trump supporters to Nazis, I skip over it. Don’t know if I’ve shared this with you before, but a couple of years ago when the vitriol was ramping up, I posted something to Facebook that set limits on the nastiness:

1. I’m not going to share ad hominem attacks on anyone who is not a public figure, as defined by Times v. Sullivan as those who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies.” If you’ve run for office, you’re fair game. If not, you’re not. It’s as simple as that.

2. I’m not going to share memes that I consider misleading, slanted or insulting to rank-and-file supporters of politicians with whom I disagree. Unless a meme’s point is clearly supported by widely known evidence, I don’t like to post memes, period.

3. I’m not going to share posts from what I consider “Fake News” websites, and extremely partisan websites, even those, e.g. Daily Kos, whose editorial policy I agree with. If one cites a professional, objective source, I will make an exception in that case. But I’d rather go to the source and link it instead.

4. If any of my Facebook friends post material I consider mean-spirited, objectionable, or demeaning to people of opposing political views, I will quietly hide it or delete it. I have conservative friends and family who do not share my political opinions, and I don’t want them insulted on my FB feed.

And this explanation (sorry if it sounds teacher-y, but, hey, I’m an old classroom teacher … and teachers gonna teach, it’s what we do):

FB friends who were my students at Benedictine will recognize that these rules are an adaptation of what I’ve been doing since we started blogging in class 10 and 12 years ago. I fully intend to use FB as a tool for political activism, but I want it to be a relatively safe space (sort of like our classroom used to be) where people will not feel themselves under personal attack. I’ve endured too much of that myself, from those who consider me a “libtard,” a commie or a “snowflake,” and I don’t want to return the favor to folks I disagree with.

I guess all I’m asking of anybody is to have a little compassion  for the people they slander and demoralize with their political invective. 

***

One last admin’s note [March 18]: Reading over this after I’ve had a day to cool down, I would only add that my article (published in 2014 on the Sojourners website under the headline “‘Liberals With Guns — False Witness in a Viral Video,” quoted church historian and emeritus professor Martin Marty of the University of Chicago on the intersection of political invective and what the bible calls bearing false witness:

Luther’s “explanation” to the eighth/ninth commandment–let’s be civil and not fight about the numbering–came to mind amid commercials and media appearances by candidates of all stripes last year. “You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor,” says the commandment, and Luther explains,

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

Ow! And again I say unto you: Ow!

Marty’s point: We all do it. Ow! I do it, too. So we’d all better be careful. All of us.

[Martin Marty’s column, “The Best Possible Light,” was published Jan. 25, 2011, on the Christian Century website at https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-01/best-possible-light. It was reprinted in The Chicago Tribune, where I saw it.]

[Revised and published March 18, 2021]

One thought on “Of teacher-bashing, political vitriol … and a cure for invective in Luther’s catechism

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