On moral neutrality

As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.

We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma. 

In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:

 “‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”

I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.

But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:

“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”

For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?

Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?

Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?

When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?

Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”

Herman further explains:

“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”

Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.

Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”

Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.

But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.

So: what will you choose?

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