This time in my teacher voice: On two pandemics and the cost of "moderation"

As a brown teacher in a mostly white school, I've learned a necessary skill: Talking to people where they are

Published July 26, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Rear view of large group of students attending a class (Getty Images)
Rear view of large group of students attending a class (Getty Images)

There were so many bad memes circulating at the time, but the one that broke me for good still hangs vivid in my memory: picture an alarmingly red canvas with the phrase "LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT" waving arms in all caps from the top, and thereafter a list of stalwart border-enforcement strategies in North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, followed by a description of the unconscionable bounty a person supposedly receives when they enter the United States illegally from Mexico (Social Security, health insurance, was there something about a minor-league baseball franchise?). The meme has since been relegated to the internet's darker recesses because, of course, it was wrong in virtually every sense of the word, but in its prime, it made the rounds. 

My objections were not limited to those you might expect from a person with a name like mine, a son of immigrants, lover of fútbol and corn tortillas. Writing an essay about how social media posts oversimplify complex and nuanced issues would be an exercise in garrulous tail-chasing, given that the design of social media is to simplify, to eliminate the inconvenience of nuance. No, I was disheartened not so much by the content of the message as by the ensuing discourse. It was not the absence of cited sources, or the grotesquely inaccurate depiction of what life is like for undocumented immigrants, or even that the countries referenced might be your first three responses to the question "What is an antonym of the word 'American?'" What really got to me was that pointing out these obvious logical shortcomings did nothing to inspire critical reflection among the people who were broadcasting them. In fact, I think they only felt more emboldened to unveil the secret lives of those dudes who trim your trees and fry your papitas.

Limiting my exposure to Facebook debates and Twitter manifestos has left me with no shortage of dialectic stimuli. As a high school teacher, I have the immense blessing of being able to exercise my sociopolitical anxieties through sincere conversations with my students, bright and talented kids whose minds haven't yet fallen captive to the inflexibility of grownup-speak. But those conversations, like so many other things, have become collateral damage in the incursion of COVID-19. And since my wife and two older children choose not to humor my delusions of political enlightenment, I've had to resort to sharing my thoughts on contemporary life with my three-month-old son. I'm grateful for his willingness to listen, but the most I get in response is a stare, some drool, the occasional fart.

I should note that even when classroom discourse was a part of my daily life, those conversations were never particularly easy. I'm a first generation Mexican American who teaches English at a competitive independent school, the type of place I might have pummeled with water balloons in my younger and angrier years, and my job has challenged me to practice impartiality in ways I never thought myself capable. My students are great — they give me hope for a better tomorrow, and I use that cliché unapologetically because there's no better way to characterize their virtues — but I've taught hundreds upon hundreds by now, and, well, they don't always believe what I believe. I've sat across from kids while they disparaged my profession or argued that families like mine are "less American" because of our ethnicity, our many hues of brown, the cadences of our surnames. And while I can't claim a perfect record, I'm generally pretty successful in helping my students understand the nuances of our differing perspectives while offering three important reassurances: 1) those differences are not an affirmation of my moral superiority, 2) those differences stem from a shared yearning to make sense of the chaos in our lives, and 3) within those differences lies tremendous power to affect change. 

(Of course, a good number of my kids also just stare and fart). 

While considering how I would manage a conversation about the current state of our nation with my students, I realized that the spirit of impartiality I take painstaking measures to practice inside of my classroom might be just as useful outside it, where I so often slouch into lazy generalizations about the moral, ethical or intellectual character of people with whom I disagree. When students reject the premise of white privilege or defend Donald Trump's categorization of most Mexican immigrants as rapists, I can, quite easily and in real time, remind myself that they simply haven't learned or lived enough to understand the implications of their beliefs. When adults do the same, however, I dismiss them as bigots, pendejos or both (the former necessitates the latter). Shouldn't I extend them the same grace I offer my teenage students?

It's a beleaguering question; the parts of me that haven't been sterilized by faculty meetings and Back to School Nights, to say nothing of the resignations that come with parenthood, impel me to believe that people who refuse to wear a potentially life-saving piece of cloth over their mouth (because of Thomas Jefferson?) or who still reject the idea of systemic racism, with all the resources and knowledge and history and empirical video footage at our disposal, don't deserve our empathy. Sometimes, there's no justifiable "other side" to an issue. But whether or not these people should believe otherwise is kind of a moot point. They don't, and my shouting, "Check your privilege!" in a louder voice has yielded no success to this point.

The process I follow when managing a discussion with a student who believes something different from, or in conflict with, what I believe isn't particularly scientific or pedagogical; most of you who are reading this are probably better human beings than I, more patient and humble and empathetic, so you probably already practice this in your own lives. But patience and humility and empathy are not my strong suits, so I have to be intentional in articulating the framework. It looks like this: Your student says something that pisses you off (i.e., "This book is stupid"), and your impulse is to teach them otherwise (i.e., "No, the book is gorgeously written and timelessly provocative, and it's not the book's [or my] fault that you can't understand that"). Instead, you breathe through that impulse and make a deliberate effort to start the ensuing discourse with a premise that is proximate to where they stand on the matter but oriented toward your point of view (i.e., "Sure, the book's a bit slow and dense for contemporary readers, and the author probably doesn't need to use the word 'countenance' so often; maybe there's a novel that teaches these valuable lessons about [insert theme] in a way that better suits the tastes of your generation"). 

It's critical that this premise be closer to what they believe than what you believe for three reasons: 1) if you really care about the ideas you promote, then you should want them reinforced by the rigor of scrutiny; 2) it is no longer good enough to lay a heap of objective, impartial, thoroughly resourced facts in a person's lap and expect them to change their mind with all the compelling memes out in the world; and 3) sometimes, on extremely rare occasions, you will discover that you are the one who's wrong.

In other words, instead of shouting at your interlocutor to swim over from their island to your island, you meet at their shore so that, together, both of you can regard your terrain in all its beauty and plentitude and peer-reviewed accuracy (i.e., "BUT here's what you might learn about language and storytelling and being human when you read something that was written hundreds of years ago halfway around the world"). 

Please understand that I am not advocating neutrality. The world of politics, like the world of literary criticism, is not, as many believe, a matter of pure subjectivity. Some answers are wrong answers. It's just that I've had much better success convincing students to appreciate epic poetry than convincing adults that their ability to meet mortgage payments is about more than bootstraps. 

Here below, for instance, in deliberately uncertain terms, is what I wish I could say to my students about the current profile of their country, a United States reeling in the face of two pandemics — one novel, the other ancient; what I would tell those of my kids who believe the media has exaggerated the impact of COVID-19 to further victimize our president, or who don't quite understand the need to differentiate "Black" lives mattering, or who are tired of hearing indictments of white privilege when nothing about their own experiences has felt particularly easy. And I suppose it's what I should also say to any adult who is still willing to listen, because maybe the way I teach and the way I live should not be so different after all. These are not arguments about the best ways to mitigate infectious viruses, nor are they blueprints for eliminating police brutality or curing the hardships of being Black in America — I'll leave those matters to the people who have endowed a life's work to understanding them, whether by choice or necessity. These are arguments about leadership, and I'll start with a premise that stretches well beyond the conveniences of routine liberalism.

*  *  *

So here's a premise that stretches well beyond the conveniences of routine liberalism, and something that, in a sense, I think we all want: 

We want Donald Trump to succeed.

Despite my efforts to signal impartiality in my classroom (or perhaps because of it), I have also grown stronger in my own political disposition toward our country's history of discrimination, our systems of power, our imbalance of wealth. But right now, I'll admit that my politics don't really matter. It doesn't matter how I've voted in the past or how I intend to vote in November, how I feel about Trump. Right now, my three children can't go to school or socialize with their friends, and they are stuffed in a middle-class home with parents who are each day getting a little worse at pretending to have their act together. So I would love for the current president of my country to wake up tomorrow and ease our divisions with the most unifying tweet in the history of tweets, and then announce a deliberate and faultless plan for defeating COVID, and then introduce acts of legislation that rectify the centuries-long legacies of discrimination in our institutions of law enforcement while also ensuring that good policing is incentivized and recognized for its social import. I would love for him to emerge from the summer of 2020 as the man who laid the groundwork for sustainable social and economic healing, a leader. Because I am more concerned with the success of my country than the success of my party, I am rooting for that. 

But in order for Trump to succeed — to win, as he might say — he (and we) must reckon with the facts of his leadership. There's much to say about Trump's character as a leader, and the matter of whether it's fair to invoke his character in political discourse is a tricky one, given his insistence on spotlighting his ethos and the irrefutable patterns in the way he talks about certain groups of people. Nevertheless, if this is to be an exercise in impartiality, in moderatism, a space for people to the right and left of the Trump threshold, we'll stick to empirical material: statistics, direct quotes and important developments from the recent months of his presidency. Facts — which, like viruses, have no politics.

Donald Trump isn't responsible for having created COVID-19, and it's true that many of his critics, present company included, speak as if the virus itself — and its dramatic potency — is his fault, or as if it were a uniquely American problem. The schizophrenic activity the virus has shown across the globe, rates as volatile as an adolescent in quarantine, confirms that understanding its designs is far more complicated than "just listening to scientists," when scientists have been asked to make consequential recommendations with little data and even less time. (Remember when wearing masks was a cause for mockery?) But Donald Trump is responsible for coordinating our nation's response and, perhaps more importantly, articulating that response in clear and assertive terms. What has our response been? I ask rhetorically, yes, but I also literally don't know. Even if we set aside editorial discussions about xenophobic nicknames for the pandemic or the efficacy of injecting Clorox into our veins, any casual glance at the inconsistencies of our national strategy and its messaging leaves little doubt as to why the United States has become the implied subject when the rest of the developed world reminds itself, "Could be worse."

(Symptoms caused by the hypocrisies and contradictions described below may include nausea, headaches, shortness of breath.)

The Centers for Disease Control, our presiding federal health protection agency, has issued strong recommendations for wearing masks in public, and a growing number of states have accordingly issued face-covering requirements. Donald Trump, the chief commander of that same federal government, has not only refused to wear one (until very recently, and then only briefly), he also mocks journalists who do choose to follow CDC guidelines and retweets clickbait comparing mask enforcement to "slavery" and "social death."

Here in my home state of Texas, five bars had their alcohol licenses revoked on a single weekend in June for failing to enforce proper social distancing guidelines; on that same weekend, Trump hosted a public rally of somewhere between several thousand and several million of his supporters (depending on whom you ask) in Tulsa, Oklahoma — masks optional (which is to say worn by almost no one). At that rally, he blamed our skyrocketing COVID rates on exceptional testing and suggested that, in order to actively skew the data in our favor, he was planning to "slow down" this crucial resource in understanding the virus and its movements. Then the White House said he was kidding. Then he said he doesn't kid. Then he told his inexhaustible homeboy Sean Hannity that, duh, he was kidding.

As of July 26, the publication date of this essay the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports that more than 146,000 of the 645,000-plus COVID deaths confirmed worldwide have occurred here in the United States. Consider that fact one more time: the United States of America, with its inimitable stockpile of knowledge and resources — and about 4 percent of the planet's population — accounts for more than one-fifth of the entire world's COVID deaths. Not cases, transmissions or hospitalizations. Deaths. And while pesky resurgences far and wide remind us that even superb leadership can't beat this thing for good, we'd be foolish to neglect the abundance of lives that are saved (and let's not forget the economic triumphs) when curves are flattened, when plans are executed and easily reinstated. Our nation's staggering body count, alternatively, proves that poor or inconsistent leadership, or the outright absence of it, can have exponential consequences. 

Examining Trump's leadership in relation to our unsuccessful response to the COVID-19 pandemic is equally useful in understanding the rising tensions and clamorous calls to action from supporters of the Black Lives Matter Movement who, of late, have flooded our screens with images we more often associate with nations in bloody revolution, the kind to which our military is so often deployed in the name of democracy. I feel compelled to address the equivalency I'm drawing between these two pandemics, however. I do not wish to suggest that they have emerged in our lives concurrently and that they operate with similar designs and historical implications, when the only thing they really share is our utter inability to grasp them — one because it's new and invisible, and the other because it's ubiquitous, inseparable from every brushstroke of the American portrait. Furthermore, as a person who is not white, I know all too well the frustrations of watching the community of people who look or love or speak or worship like you endure generations of uncontested mistreatment, only to see our masses finally mobilize with urgency when it's the gueros who are dying Nevertheless, the particular issue at the moment is state-sanctioned violence and discrimination against African Americans, Black lives mattering, and since that ain't me, I'll focus again on leadership, an enterprise that is equally critical to the saving of lives in the context of both pandemics.

In the interest of impartiality, we should recognize that Donald Trump isn't responsible for creating systemic racism or police brutality; nor was the murder-by-torture of George Floyd, the precursor to this recent wave of BLM demonstrations, a type of criminal act that didn't exist untilTrump took office. It's true that his critics, present company included, are wont to raise their smartphones in righteous indignation at any sight of bigotry and exclaim, "Look at what our president has done!" Black Americans have been victimized by the state — they've been incarcerated at higher rates and for longer sentences than their white counterparts, wrongfully profiled, killed by police officers without just cause — under the tenure of every president since their supposed emancipation, even Barack Obama. (Let's not forget that the Black Lives Matter movement started when Trump was still just a normal everyday billionaire). 

But Donald Trump is responsible for establishing the tenor of our racial discourse, for determining which kinds of beliefs are normative in our country and which kinds are "un-American," a threat to our guiding principles. Ever since the Unite the Right rally of 2017 (and probably much earlier), when he refused to condemn an incensed mob brandishing swastikas and iron crosses and singing Nazi battle cries down the streets of Charlottesville, Trump exposed himself as a leader who will sidestep any moral stance that might interfere with the energy of his following, even in the face of historically un-American ideologies. So it came as no surprise that in the wake of George Floyd's murder, when the country needed a leader to engender peace, Trump gave us instead a gleeful endorsement of chaos: he fired off a Tweet in which he referred to protesters as "THUGS" and threatened, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Later still, as cities collapsed and protesters marched and chanted and destroyed and bled and suffered on video, the millions of Americans supporting BLM on the streets and from their homes needed a leader to legitimize their message, a leader who could at the very least say, The problems you're mad about are real. Instead, in what will likely be a defining moment of his presidency, he had a group of peaceful demonstrators tear-gassed so that he could pose for a picture of himself holding a random Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Aside: If you're still not sure what it looks like when a leader fails to articulate a clear and assertive moral stance, consider the following excerpt, transcribed verbatim, from Trump's explanation of his "looting starts, shooting starts" Tweet in an interview with Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner: "It means two things, two very different things. One is, if there's looting, there's probably going to be shooting, and that's not as a threat, that's really just a fact, because that's what happens. And the other is, if there's looting, there's going to be shooting. They're very different meanings."

In the same interview, Trump found himself having to address the (unsurprisingly) racist history of that phrase: it was made famous by 1960s Miami police chief Walter Headley, a notorious segregationist and obstructor of civil rights. Trump dismissed the connection as a coincidence, but weeks later he stumbled into another "coincidental" endorsement of bigotry when he retweeted a video of a contingent of his supporters caravanning through a Florida town in star-spangled golf carts, allegedly unaware that one of them clearly says, "White power" in the clip. This pattern of details — the Nazi imagery in Charlottesville, the racist history behind the "looting starts, shooting starts" Tweet, the literal white supremacy of the phrase "white power" — forms a picture too distinct for mere coincidence. But the mistake we keep making is to use that picture for categorical judgments of Trump and his supporters as Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, etc. 

Whether or not these judgments carry logical merit is of little importance, because indulging in them is the surest way to get a Trump supporter to renew their bumper sticker (and let's not do that thing again where we trick ourselves into believing those bumper stickers ain't selling out). So instead, we should focus once more on the facts of his leadership: What none of us can deny, regardless of which jersey we wear on Election Day, is that for the first time in many decades, the ideologies our country has confronted in its bloodiest wars and on the shoulders of its greatest heroes have become normative; that a person can parade them through our streets and still be regarded as a "very fine" American, to use Trump's own words from Charlottesville. 

It would be naive to think that our president can fix systemic racism and eliminate COVID-19, but what's more naive is to believe that his leadership has nothing to do with their blast radius. He is, literally, the single most influential living human in determining the course our country takes in confronting both viruses. What Trump actually has the power to achieve, and what he actually believes, wants and thinks, may be unknowable, but we can place fingers concretely on what he chooses to represent through his actions and statements. 

So what does Donald Trump represent in this unprecedented moment in our history? What does it mean to be a responsible American in the time of COVID, the time of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and too many others, under Trump's leadership? He, and those of his supporters who refuse any critical reflection no matter how impartial we make the discourse, would want us to see the symbolism of man standing in front of a house of worship with a sacred text in his hand. But we should not, and  cannot, ignore the path he walked to get there.

(With no mask on.)

*  *  *

The real threat of social media is that it distorts reality, magnifies the fringe of a picture and makes it look like the picture itself. We are, all of us, less happy than the sum of our Facebook photos, less healthy than the avocado toast splashed on our profile, less righteous than the headlines we share. We are more alone than our number of friends or followers. It's true that some liberals would rather see Trump fail than see our country heal under his leadership, just as it's true that some conservatives find pleasure in the scenes of destruction that crowded our smartphones in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, the images of liberal bodies — especially black and brown ones — beaten en masse.

But those people live and operate as a severe minority. Most Americans understand and agree that the shape our country's in right now is bad for everyone. Infection rates are spiking, businesses are throwing in the towel, cities and states are reopening and then re-closing, families are spending their final moments in separate hospital wings. People of color are falling hoarse from shouting centuries-old appeals, hazarding their bodies simply to let the world know that they don't feel safe or welcome in their own country. Military force has been threatened against our own citizens. Whether or not Trump played a role in creating or exacerbating these circumstances may be a topic of deliberation, and I certainly have my thoughts — but that doesn't really matter. The fact remains that these are the circumstances, and presidents are elected, if for no other reason, to make us believe the world's not ending when it seems to be. As Trump himself has suggested on many occasions, in America a person's fortune is not defined by their circumstances, but rather by hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, bootstraps and other words like that. 

We stand at the precipice of change. For the first time this generation we have been thrust into experiences of American life that are authentically communal. COVID gives no damn about wealth or whiteness, and the eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd's murder that we watched in shared isolation rendered in excruciating, tactile detail the anxieties of which Black Americans have spoken as long as they've had platforms to do so. People are listening, understanding, changing their minds. What becomes of this moment is our choosing: We can lament the fact that it required two pandemics, or we can take a deep breath and try to change someone's mind.

I'm well aware that many of my people will think me a vendido, a sellout, for what I've suggested here, and it's true that impartiality is easier said than done (and it's not that easy to say). I am nervous around police officers and have experienced more than one instance of profiling, including an especially egregious traffic stop in which a state trooper harassed me on the shoulder of I-35 for 40 minutes while my white friend sat in the car inconvenienced only by the passing of time (except on repeated occasions when the trooper asked him, "Do you know this guy?") — but when I listen to my black compatriots describe what it's like to have to coach their children through potential encounters with law enforcement, teach them where to put their eyes and hands, I know that I'm writing this essay safeguarded by the privilege of my particular shade of brown. Without concrete, assertive action, lukewarm conciliations from people of privilege will leave us with the same problems to protest a century from now. 

But what I've learned from my students more than anything else is that the guts needed to change our institutions and the patience needed to change a backward-thinking classmate (or relative, neighbor, co-worker) are not mutually exclusive. Since the early goings of the Democratic primary cycle, liberals have been presented with a false dichotomy that asks them to choose between breaking toward the right, where conservatives might be willing to compromise their ideologies, or breaking to the left, where conservatives will be forced to change their ideologies altogether.

The fallacy lies not within either option but rather within the idea that those options are mutually exclusive. We can impose our convictions in the way we vote and demonstrate and live and also moderate those convictions in order to communicate more effectively with the people who threaten them. Moderation, in other words, shouldn't be regarded as a necessary substitute to urgent action, but rather as a necessary supplement to it. Taking a breath and listening, even when people should know better, isn't the only way to instigate progress, but it is part of the way. 

So in the interest of impartiality I'll close with a thought that should serve as a guide for all of us, regardless of our political dispositions, so long as we are willing to accept the state of our nation and the role of its leadership:

Throughout his presidency Trump has never budged from the core philosophy that the well-being of our country is a matter of competition, and he is the leader who will make us "win" and "be great." Well, it should bring us no pleasure to say that we're losing, and not just in ways that are nuanced and open to interpretation. The facts are grim, trending in the wrong direction, and without good leadership a nation in turmoil is left with no sense of what "better" looks like. So we say together. 

By Andres Aceves

Andres Aceves is a teacher and writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Southwestern American Literature, Front Porch and other publications.

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