“Did you hear what Mitt Romney did? He totally roasted Donald Trump!”
I wonder what message our current political discourse is sending to students. Before this year’s election, so many students already felt cynical about politics and politicians. When I discuss political rhetoric with my juniors, they are quick to point out the logical fallacies in many politicians’ words. No doubt this is a useful skill; as informed citizens, students need to be able to discern what is genuine conversation versus political manipulation.
But pointing out such manipulation also feeds into students’ cynicism about the political process—so much so that students simply disengage. I think this cynicism—rather than general apathy—better explains why young people vote in much smaller proportions compared to the rest of the electorate. When I try to tell students that it’s precisely because of this dishonesty in our political discourse that they have to get involved. “If good people and concerned, informed citizens don’t step in,” I implore, “then what?”
Some seem almost convinced; others shrug their shoulders.
When I overheard my ninth grader ask his friend if he had heard how Mitt Romney had “roasted” Donald Trump, I had two different reactions. My immediate reaction was to be glad—glad that this 14-year-old sitting in my classroom was actually paying attention to politics. But my next reaction was to be a bit worried—worried that the reason he was interested in politics at all as for the spectacle it has devolved into.
Today on the news, I watched clips of a Trump rally in which a protester—a young man—was escorted out. Throwing the protester out wasn’t good enough for Trump, though. As the protester left, Trump snarked, “Go home to mommy” and “Tell her to tuck you into bed.”
Trump’s remarks today didn’t garner the same attention that his other hateful speech has—like his now (in)famous suggestion that all Muslims be banned/deported or that all Mexicans are “rapists” who just bring “drugs” and “crime” to the United States. These statements are so full of vitriol, so clearly mean-spirited and distasteful, that most people can’t help be outraged. But I would argue that it’s comments like the ones he made today—to suggest that a young man “go home to mommy” and “tell her to tuck you into bed”—that are equally dangerous. Perhaps more so because they go largely unnoticed.
By invoking the protester’s “mommy,” Trump was essentially doing his version of calling the young man a “mama’s boy.” I find it sad that some of the worst insults young boys—and men like Trump—use against each other are those that feminize their targets. One only has to look among the most common insults—words like “sissy” and “crybaby” or other crude names for female body parts. Trump has repeatedly painted himself as a “man”—and quite literally when, in the last debate, he referenced certain male body parts. As Frank Bruni pointed out in the New York Times,
We actually witnessed an interchange — in the first 10 minutes, no less — about how well endowed (or not) he is.
It’s worth stopping for a second, letting that sink in and wondering what it says about our country and political process right now.
Trump also repeatedly referred to Senator Rubio (and I’m no fan, but still…) as “Little Marco.” It’s like Trump can’t help himself—he gains power by emasculating those around him. It’s no wonder that phrases like “don’t be such a girl” or “you throw like a girl” are still devastating to boys today. “Be a man’s man,” society argues, “or else face ridicule by the likes of ‘manly men’ like Donald Trump.”
As a woman, I grew up understanding the issues of identity and self-esteem that plague many women, made all the more clear when I read texts like Reviving Ophelia as an undergraduate, and more recently, Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman. But after I had my second boy (I have three sons altogether), I started to look at the lives of boys. Two books, Real Boys and Raising Cain, and a third more recent title, Masterminds and Wingmen, deepened my understanding of the way boys think and see themselves in relationship to their peers and society. While we seemed to focus a lot of attention on telling girls that they don’t need to be princesses waiting to be rescued, I’m not sure if we’ve told boys enough that they don’t be the Prince Charmings who do the rescuing either. Girls can rescue themselves, after all.
I understand I’m speaking of gender in terms of “boys” and “girls.” Gender identity, of course, is more complicated than this. I don’t mean to oversimplify. I guess my point here is that when I see the pervasive manner in which people like Trump—people with power—perpetuate such stereotypes of what it means to be “a man,” I worry for the boys I teach at school and those I raise at home. I worry when I see otherwise morally questionable behavior dismissed by some as “boys will be boys.”
This year, students bring their personal devices to school under the new BYOD program, and next year, our school district begins a new 1:1 computer initiative. As many teachers know, any technology initiative needs to be accompanied by a strong education in digital citizenship. One of our district technology teachers works tirelessly to ensure that students know how to “respect and protect” themselves and others online.
But for all our warnings to students about treating each other with kindness and respect—whether online or in person—I worry that all that work is simply undermined by individuals like Trump, who bully anyone who disagrees with them. When I see Trump’s Twitter feed, I can’t help see it as anything else but cyberbullying. How can we teach our kids about ethical and responsible digital citizenship when one of the leading contenders for the presidency is a cyberbully? How can we teach kids the value of civil discourse when so many people are shouting over each other?
And so I worry.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 250 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.