Katie Petrik, Executive Editor Emeritus
In one of Aesop’s fables, The Dog and Its Reflection, a canine carrying a tasty morsel glimpses his reflection in a stream. Thinking his reflection is another dog with something tastier, he opens his mouth to bark, and drops his meal into the water. Sometimes in an argument, not content with making a curious point, we snap our teeth at the person on the other side.
As a twenty-something involved in a socially conscious profession, I encounter arguments from friends, articles and memes that cross this line. There’s the “this will be embarrassing someday” themed captioning of a black and white photograph of bigoted signage, connecting the image to support for your traditional belief of choice. There’s the “truth is, no one cares about your feelings, your guilt, your story” line addressed to “privileged” readers of pop-diversity articles. There’s Aziz Ansari’s profane lumping of misogynists and racists with supporters of traditional marriage.
One of the few politically correct trends I’ve found uplifting is the practice of “people first language.” In education, this means you say “a child with autism” rather than “an autistic child.” This prevents the conversation from equating the person with the exceptionality. Hearing Ansari’s comments about not minding when your grandma died because she was racist made me wonder why the same courtesy isn’t provided to those with offensive opinions. You’re not a person with racist inclinations, you’re a racist, so it’s okay to make light of your death. The keen social observer will note that jokes receiving majority approval become more than jokes.
Arguments for social equality—pick your progressive topic of choice—are premised on love and understanding. The ostensible point is to lift people up, in acknowledgement of our equivalent worth and dignity. But too often the prevalent catchphrases run on hate and shut down the very conversations they profess to start. What begins as a noble undertaking ends as another self-serving whinny. When the argument turns against humans, rather than actions or intentions, the argument loses. When hate wins, we all lose.
Yesterday I tried to “walk two moons” in one of my preschooler’s little untied shoes. He wakes before six to demolish my classroom from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., then returns to a substance-filled home without a mother. He has to go outside when we say to, sit when we say to, use the bathroom with permission, and manage his feelings when friends grab his blocks. The world is new, surprising and intriguing, and sometimes it’s more fun to toss plastic bugs all over the floor than to organize books on a shelf. Sometimes, “Miss Katie, just, don’t worry about it,” is a sensible response to a request to wipe off his face, which shows remains of breakfast, lunch and snack. Maybe, with a glance at my untied sneakers, I could address his emotional outbursts with more compassion.
This preschool practice of perspective-taking, which we strive to exercise as educators and to encourage in our flock, serves as a nice litmus test for an argument’s flotation. “If I was on the other side, would I feel edified or wounded?” When I firmly remind students where to keep their hands while in line, I occasionally receive glares and crossed arms. When I take the time to explain why, and show the love from which my instruction stems, I get invited over on Saturday to play with dolls.
When seeking to educate, it behooves one to remember that snapping at a juicy-looking piece of meat in the form of another’s dignity may lose you the whole gamble.
Katie Petrik teaches at a Head Start in Las Vegas. Send her edifying lesson plans at email@example.com.