The response isn’t to debate. The response is to silence. -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer who caught my attention when she gave a talk about the danger of the single story and now she offers up more wisdom about our increasing inability to listen to one another and have robust and respectful dialogue.
In a way, her comments provide a mirror for all of us. In a video interview with The New Yorker, she offers a critique of what she sees as a “quickness to assign ill intent” in our discourse. While she happens to be talking about folks on the Left “eating their own,” the truth is, her observation applies in a much broader sense and can be seen daily, not only in Twitter battles over our current President or the #TakeAKnee movement but also in the sparring over how best to serve and teach America’s students. Adicie thinks the answer to bad speech is more speech, not silencing others and pretending that neither they, nor their views, exist. Or beating them up for holding a different opinion.
People on the left, so there’s something to be said, of course for ideals and I believe very much in that, but I think when one speaks about politics, sometimes there can be a kind of an extremist idea of purity and it’s so easy to follow foul of the ridiculously high standards set there and there’s often also a kind of self-righteousness. I mean you follow the rules and if you don’t, you’re cut down very quickly. The response is not to debate. The response is to silence.
And I find that very troubling.
It is troubling. I had an experience recently where a personal friend who leads a high poverty school in Providence, weighed in on an article I had shared on Twitter. He had interpreted the article differently than I had and it was a nice surprise to see him weigh in. It’s rare that he does. But before I could respond to his thoughtful push-back, two friends of mine had swooped in and pummeled him not only for his opinion of the article but for his race. He is white. He found their responses pretty rude and uncalled for, and he said so.
But the whole episode left me reeling a a bit, watching three people I know and respect unable to exchange ideas in any meaningful way. Obviously, the two who brought the hammer down didn’t know this guy was my personal friend and former colleague, but we have to ask ourselves, should it even matter?
If we want people like my friend, Eric—father, a former teacher and current principal—to engage in the conversations that impact them everyday, there is no defense for shutting them down right out of the gate. I can promise that despite my own disagreements with him on some things, he absolutely adds to any conversation about educating kids. And he’s thoughtful. He listens. He reflects. Why would anyone want to pile on and push him away?
I am reminded of Adicie’s Ted Talk in 2009, The Danger of the Single Story, in which she warns that our tendency to gravitate toward just one part of the whole—a single story—leads to incomplete understanding and knowledge. I remember thinking how much her words resonated with me when I reflected on the fierce and endless debates in the education space and I find myself going back to them now when I consider how quickly my friend was relegated to “a white guy” with nothing of value to say by two very smart people who have no idea who he is.
I wrote a while back about the danger of the single story and how it plagues education conversation conversations everywhere but especially on social media.
There are countless examples of people on all sides of education debates who cling to the single story to prop up their side or their preferred narrative. Single stories play perfectly into the gotcha strategy that plagues most public discourse today, including how best to educate America’s children.
But here’s the problem.
No school is a single story. No district is a single story. No charter network is a single story. No school governance model is a single story. No teacher is a single story. No parent is a single story.
And most importantly, no student is a single story.
It’s one thing to go to war with public figures and those whose job, in ways, is to undermine the work we do. Obviously taking on the NAACP or Diane Ravitch or the AFT is one thing; they are powerful and well funded centers of influence. But shutting down individuals we don’t even know who may be testing the water of engaging as parents or educators is not only contrary to the work.
It’s just wrong.