It’s difficult to avoid the stories of powerful people—especially powerful men—abusing their power in every conceivable area of society, from business to politics to higher education. Credible allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, to Louis CK, to Roy Moore, to—most recently—Al Franken, remind us that horrific, abusive behavior by powerful people (especially men) has been so pervasive, and so accepted, for so long, that no industry, no political ideology, whatever it may preach, is immune.
(For the record, the recent allegations against Al Franken are as damning as those made against Roy Moore. Franken’s apology, like Moore’s denial, is wholly inadequate. Mark Joseph Stern is right. Moore should drop out of the Senate race in Alabama, and Franken should resign from the Senate immediately.)
Given the clout of the men facing these credible allegations, it is easy to forget that we, as teachers, are also people in positions of power and privilege. We are not multimillionaires, and we are not cultural icons with millions of followers on Twitter. But we are teachers. People literally pay obscene amounts of money to listen to us talk. They don’t do it because we’re funny or entertaining. They do it because they are pursuing an education. Some, as we all know, are in our classes simply because they have to be. But many of our students also honestly expect to learn something in our classes. We set an example, not only for how to engage with the content covered in our courses, but more broadly, for how to act like an honest-to-goodness grown-up in the twenty-first century.
For all of us, but especially for men, the bar for setting that good example has never been lower.
It is disgusting that, amid the constant stream of evidence and detailed accounts from victims of abuse and harassment that often go back over decades, simply not sexually harassing the people you work with, or groping them, or masturbating in front of them, might seem like an actual accomplishment. It isn’t. It’s simply the absolute, lowest-bar, bare-minimum requirement for being a decent human being. But now, as the mounting evidence attests to the many supposed role models who have fallen woefully short of that standard in their adult lives, it may never be more important for us, as teachers, to model what basic, decent, adult behavior looks like.
We teach students from all manner of backgrounds, most of which we’ll never know. Even the students we do get to know, will never reveal absolutely everything to us. That ignorance of where our students are coming from, what they’ve been through, and how their experiences have shaped who they are when they walk into our classroom, can be a barrier for reaching them. So many of my students have endured challenges, setbacks, indignities, and injustices that I never have. Some have faced circumstances I cannot—or simply choose not—to imagine. Because we can’t peer inside our students’ minds to see how their experiences have shaped them, it’s easy to overlook how profoundly they are influenced by what we do and say.
When we model respect in the classroom, and in our office, and on campus, we do so much more than preach to students about good behavior. We show them what it looks like. For those of us teachers who are men, this is especially critical. On issues of social justice, it is important that those of us who are privileged recognize how best to contribute to the fight for a more equitable society. Advocates for social justice often emphasize to allies that we need to “stay in our lane,” meaning that we need to provide our assistance without co-opting movements for progress, and making those movements all about us. It’s an important and vital lesson for those of us who are members of racial, ethnic, gender, economic, or religious groups that have traditionally held power and influence.
Having said that, I do think that men who are educators can, and should, be as conspicuous as possible in demonstrating what it means to show respect for all people. It should go without saying that this involves not sexually harassing or assaulting anyone, but it is worth stating emphatically what message that sends.
So much of what men accused of these acts have offered all boil down to attempts to somehow qualify what they did. Harvey Weinstein offered his age as an excuse, suggesting that the time he grew up was more accepting of this behavior toward women. Louis CK claimed that he masturbated in front of women who never gave consent because he failed to “learn” until “too late” that it was wrong to do so. Al Franken claimed that he meant his grope of broadcaster Leeann Tweeden (of which there is photographic evidence) to be “funny.” All of these are meant to deflect the allegations, and the evidence against them, by minimizing the transgression itself. They all send the message that such behavior is acceptable for men under certain circumstances, under which their acts all always manage to conveniently fall.
This is nonsense. It is important that we say, loudly and without equivocation, that it is nonsense. But our actions make an even more profound statement than our words. After all, Franken himself spoke out boldly against the allegations against Roy Moore, but his actions render his words hollow. When we as teachers model respect for our students, for our colleagues, for everyone we encounter, day in and day out, we provide visible, tangible proof that the excuses these men have offered are precisely that. There is no circumstance a person could be in, no mental state a person could be struggling with, no “joke” a person is trying to tell, no “lesson” an adult man failed to learn, that makes anything that these people did the least bit okay. Men and women are equally capable of operating in society, day in and day out, for the entirety of their lives, without harassing or assaulting other people. It’s not just possible. It’s not an accomplishment. It is a fundamental part of being a responsible person. It’s expected.
I sincerely hope that I am preaching to the choir here. So I offer this, not as a new or profound insight, but as a reminder to all of us—especially men—that we all offer a profound and vital rebuttal to the disgusting actions powerful figures have made, and the excuses they’ve made, simply by modeling what respect for all people looks like. That’s not a high standard of conduct, in the least. But there may not be a more important time to show how many of us meet it.