Needless to say, writing this has made me nervous because I have perceived it, rightly or wrongly, at my first shot at finally doing what I have always wanted to do: be heard. And now, in my first moment of triumph, I find myself, poetically, at a loss for words - or at least having trouble in finding the right words. Ironically enough, I think that “finding the right words” perfectly encapsulates my evolving concern with the way that justice is spoken about.
Anger served as a key motivation for coming back to grad school. I was angry that my student’s brilliance would not be recognized because it could not be quantified on any state test. I was angry because I succeeded in a system built to foster talents like mine while my older brother, eternally wiser than I could ever wish to be, was deemed a failure by unfair measures and, after serving 8 years in the military, was discarded with no assistance, job prospects or preparation for reentering the education system. I was angry that while my younger brother made it into all his dream schools, he was barred entry because of finances. I was angry that my sister was being provided a criminally bad education and that nothing was being done to change that. Most of all, I was angry because unless I or one of my siblings succeeded in this education and financial system, my parents would never have the better life they were promised when they moved to this country.
I am not alone in using anger as my motivation. I would venture to guess that most people do. The anger in the room at the Critical Educators for Social Justice group meeting in Philadelphia this year seemed palpable. We spoke in terms of “sides” and “battles”. We spoke about what we had to do to “win this fight”. I listened in on conversations about finding allies and ignoring those who push against you. In much of the writing about social justice in education, authors use the same violent, military metaphors.
When we speak about justice with such vitriol, what are we really talking about? The answer seems to be vengeance.
When we use terms such as “warrior”, “the right side”, “battlefield”, and “war”, we fall into the trap that education is a place where there should be winners and losers. We too quickly equate ideas and forces with actual people and in doing so strip them of their humanity.
This language of violence and battle implies a lack of love or, at the very least, a lack of confidence in the power of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Especially within the field of education, we need to move away from framing anything we do in terms of battle, in terms of winners and losers, and especially in terms of vengeance. I am not claiming that every idea has some intrinsic value or that everyone should be allowed to do what they want, but every opinion must be heard. I think peoples’ default response to this claim would be to bring up hate speech and the terrible effects it has on people, both emotionally and physically - but even hate speech contains value in that we learn from it examples of how far the human spirit can lean in the direction of evil, how easily corruptible we are and provides opportunities to show how far the human spirit can lean in the other direction in response. There are lessons to be learned from all speech and all examples and if we truly claim to be seekers of justice, then we should also, as educators, model what that justice looks like.
Far too often, I find myself speaking in terms of battle, war, and violence. At times, I yearn for debate and argument because I want to show “the other side” how much smarter I am. I want to embarrass them through logic and I want them to submit to my ideals. Other times, I want the opposition to win because I want something to fight against. I fear that if I don’t have something to fight against, then my life will have no purpose. And occasionally, I want to fight to silence the people who disagree with me. Still, is it just to silence any voice or does that set an unwanted precedent?
We should be careful, then, to not make the mistake of attempting to silence the voice of others as our voices grow stronger. We cannot brush aside the opinions and thoughts of those who disagree with us. We cannot mock them or treat them as an enemy or speak of them as though they were ignorant. There is a sense to their thoughts. For example, I used to feel intense anger when I argued with my father about politics. He would speak to me about my youth and tell me that I would eventually change my mind as I grew older. He would tell me, and at times still does, to worry about nothing but making enough money. That money should be not the only but at least a principal guide in all my career decisions. I felt like he didn’t understand me and was not listening to my thoughts. I came to realize that while he may or may not truly listen to me, I never really truly attempted to listen to him, at least not what lay behind his words. He lived through a time of dictatorship and disaster in Central America. He saw groups come in and promise democracy and power for them only to rescind on those promises and promote their own well being at the expense of the people. His world is one where money equals power and choice - two things that were actively taken from him for most of his life. When I came to understand this, I was able to better understand and communicate with him when we spoke about politics and the future and solutions. We should focus not on our differences but on our similarities and start our search for justice from that place of compassion, cooperation and love.
I think many of us, myself included, simply want to be heard, to have a voice in the matter - and I think that is no different for those people whom we are so used to considering our enemies.
This is not easy and I do not claim to have it figured out. I reside as far from my own ideals as any other person, and it is still difficult for me to not think or write in terms of vengeance. But we must at least try to think and write and live by words of love, acceptance, compassion, and, most of all, forgiveness. We must be careful with the words we use and not allow our anger or our flesh memory to get the better of us. I would never suggest that we should forget and move on without dealing with the past, but rather that we should forgive and learn, the same way we as educators or parents would want our students or children to act if some ill befell them due to another.
The power of words is that they create feelings and stir actions and if we do not rectify the way we speak and write we will only succeed in creating a world where we constantly hate one another. We should seek to build alliances across ideology and resist the temptation to stick to any dogma.
I believe James Baldwin said it best when writing to his nephew on the centennial of emancipation; “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it”. Acceptance, cooperation, and understanding are key, especially in our roles as educators. If we simply seek retribution, that will only lead to another group seeking more vengeance on us. Revolution is cyclical by definition – what we need is evolution and the acceptance of the idea that we can all move forward together as humanity.