The New York Times recently published an article detailing the challenges parents face when talking to their children about Donald Trump. The piece describes the process as “mortifying, embarrassing, and jarring,” leaving some feeling uncomfortable exposing their children to Trump’s rhetoric.
As a teacher in New York City, I have noticed that kids are anything but oblivious to politics. They come to school with big plans for the future — a future without Donald Trump, they say. Children rightfully describe Trump as a greedy, scary bully, who instills fear in people by yelling at and insulting others.
Trump has brought up questions about what discourse should be tolerated, not only on the debate stage and in the White House, but in homes and schools. When students bring politics into the classroom (children as young as five are voicing their opinions on the presidential candidates), teachers — like parents — are wondering how best to respond.
In grappling with this, I revisited Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.”
Marcuse argues that educators have an obligation to be intolerant toward policies, attitudes, and opinions that oppress people, threaten to limit human rights, or promote racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. For Marcuse, oppressive language is a symptom of capitalism, which relies on inequality of all kinds to survive.
It persists, says Marcuse, because of the false sense of democracy instilled in people from a young age. This false democracy is founded on a definition of pluralist tolerance that values all opinions equally. Such a definition of democracy and pluralism doesn’t serve the cause of progress and liberation, but sustains capitalism’s repressive status quo.
Pluralism is supposed to promote fair dialogue in a world with contradictory and incompatible ideologies. But on what basis do pluralists think such “fair and tolerant” discussions take place? We can’t have a truly pluralistic society based on exploitation, in which people are starving and disenfranchised. To think that there are equal sides duking it out ignores the asymmetry of power produced by capitalism.
Marcuse argues that educators should be intolerant of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice; to have a liberal discussion, we must be illiberal toward these things. Indeed, there cannot be an open discussion with people who are inciting violence, racism, and sexism.
When violence is on the horizon and hateful propaganda dominates the media and the public sphere, teachers cannot afford to be neutral. Donald Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States; his calls for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants; his belief that climate change is a hoax; his violent, patronizing language and misogyny; his statements describing Mexicans as “killers, criminals, and rapists”; his call to torture and kill the families of terrorists — these are real threats to real people, which should be denounced as intolerable to our ideas of freedom and equality.
Today we see the pluralist logic of tolerance infiltrating how teachers respond to their students’ political statements. Teachers often take the “let’s all get along” approach, refusing to privilege any particular stance over another, even when those stances are racist, sexist, and homophobic.
Recently, I listened to a first-grader declare that Donald Trump is a bad man because he says racist things about people with brown skin. Her teacher shook her head and said:
Now, everyone has different opinions. Some people like the things that Donald Trump has to say, and some people don’t. Everyone gets to choose who they think would be the best president of the United States, and what one person thinks is bad, another person might think is good. So we need to respect these differences.
Marcuse would denounce the teacher’s neutrality not only as unacceptable, but as harmful to students, because it reinforces the false belief that every opinion is equally valid. We know that not to be true. Marcuse uses the speeches of fascist leaders as an example of the real dangers certain opinions pose:
In past and different circumstances, the speeches of the Fascist and Nazi leaders were the immediate prologue to the massacre. The distance between the propaganda and the action, between the organization and its release on the people had become too short. But the spreading of the word could have been stopped before it was too late.
Today, there is little distance between Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and its real-life consequences. Xenophobia, coupled with Trump’s defense of violence as a legitimate means to an end, characterizes his presidential campaign. He encourages his supporters to assault angry protesters — if you perceive someone as a threat to your safety, that person should be carried out on a stretcher.
Messages like this are resonating with Trump supporters, and innocent people are suffering. At Trump rallies it is all too common to see his supporters with signs reading, “Kill The Muslims! Kill Them All!” Two brothers in Boston assaulted, punched, kicked, beat with a metal pole, and urinated on a homeless Latino man. The brothers invoked Trump, claiming he was right that “all these immigrants need to be deported.”
Such hate speech and violent behavior would never be allowed from students, so why should teachers and school administrators support or tolerate a “balanced” discussion of these issues? We must fight to make schools places where children are freed from indoctrination; we must not only condemn hate speech in all forms and guises, but critically connect this speech with capitalism. Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt?
As Megan Erickson argues in her book Class War, we must continue to organize a movement that rejects the connection between the classroom and the marketplace. Contrary to the capitalist model of education, this movement would transform schools from centers for job training into places that allow students to critically examine the conditions that make up society so that they can change what Marcuse calls their “inhuman reality.”
Like Marcuse, Erickson argues that classrooms should not be “safe spaces” that isolate students from the global structures that perpetuate elite agendas at the expense of workers. Instead, educators must push themselves to facilitate classroom conversations that connect knowledge to the struggle against violent bigotry and injustice. It is crucial that instead of reinforcing the existing conditions of society through noninterference, apathy, and fear, we challenge ourselves and each other to combat systems that further oppression.
At a progressive school in Manhattan, a principal recently called a lower school assembly for students in grades 1–4 to talk about presidents. The discussion began with basic questions (“For how many years can someone be president in the United States?”) and became increasingly philosophical (“Why do you think the president must be born in the United States?”). And, finally, “Does the president need to look a certain way?” As hands shot up, the first-grader who was called on answered, “Yes. The president needs to be at least part-white.”
At this moment, the principal, who looked stunned, had a choice to make: either intervene and reshape the conversation around issues like discrimination and racial prejudice, or choose to move on without confronting what was just said. She responded in a way that has become too familiar — by shifting the conversation from the school back to the home: “Well, these are some very interesting thoughts, here. We should all take this conversation home and talk about it with our respective grown-ups.”
It might be easy to push these controversial topics out of the classroom and back into the home, but that doesn’t mean it’s best. This was a moment when educators could have helped students reexamine the social factors that define what is acceptable today and why we might want to challenge that status quo. These conversations can happen at basic levels that kids are more than capable of understanding.
If we want our world to evolve so that people are no longer threatened, attacked, and tortured on the basis of their race, gender, sexual, and religious preferences, then we must assert our unapologetic intolerance toward racist, sexist, and violent hate speech. This intolerance must comprise the nucleus of education; it must be the basis for ongoing efforts to eradicate poverty and homelessness, reduce physical and mental anguish, and ultimately dismantle capitalism.
As Donald Trump continues to persuade people to adopt violent tactics to further deepen inequality in the country, we cannot remain neutral. As people’s rights are being stripped from them, we cannot remain silent. It is not strong political conviction that we should fear in classrooms — it is neutrality, passivity, and complacency.