Teacher Surveillance: How to Culture War
This time, we can beat them at their own game.
Culture wars are about setting political traps with language. The term “curriculum transparency” is already starting to take hold. We have to stop it in its tracks by never, ever using that term, and by replacing it with “teacher surveillance.”
ALSO: What to say and what not to say on CRT, parental choice, anti-elitism, grooming and more.
How do culture wars work?
Conservatives set traps that we fall into. They do this by either introducing a new term or phrase or redefining an existing term or phrase in such a way to make what’s good seem bad and what’s bad seem good.
They redefine something bad as good, and then attack us for opposing something good. Or they redefine something good as bad, and attack us for supporting something bad. Then, when we object to their language, we spread their definition of the term throughout the public debate.
Culture warriors use reframing as a form of tactical assault.
Freedom is good. Culture warriors reframed discrimination by shopkeepers against GLBTQ+ customers as “religious freedom.”
Life is good. They reframed religious oppression and state control over women’s bodies as “pro-life.”
Racism is bad. They redefined teaching children about our history and about diversity into “critical race theory” which they reframed as racism against white children.
The New Attack: Teacher Surveillance
Christopher Rufo, the strategist behind the “critical race theory” attacks, is working with major conservative groups all over the country to push something they are calling “curriculum transparency.”
Transparency is good. They are trying to redefine “teacher surveillance” as “curriculum transparency” and “vigilante parenting” as ‘parental rights.”
The idea is catching fire in state legislatures, with bills proposed in 19 states, by Rufo's count. He sees "curriculum transparency" as a "political winner" and the "next phase" in the debate over public schools after Covid-19 school closures and critical race theory.
"The Left will expect that, after passing so-called 'CRT bans' last year, we will overplay our hand," he tweeted in January. "By moving to curriculum transparency, we will deflate that argument and bait the Left into opposing 'transparency,' which will raise the question: what are they trying to hide?"
Rufo's strategy for passing curriculum transparency legislation rests on using the "non-threatening, liberal value" of transparency to put conservatives in a "rhetorically-advantageous position," he tweeted in January.
How do we block their attacks?
We stop their terms by never ever using them, not even to argue about why they are wrong.
The term “curriculum transparency” is already starting to take hold. We have to stop it in its tracks by never, ever using that term, and by replacing it with “teacher surveillance” in every conceivable opportunity.
Why does arguing against their terms help spread those terms in the public debate? Because when you use a term in the context of a political issue or piece of legislation, you cause the people observing that conversation to associate that term with whatever is going on. You can read more about this in my post, Inflation and the Association Game
In this case, the context is the bills that radical Republicans are trying to pass that force teachers to post every word of their teaching material in public and allow parents to “police” what teachers are teaching.
DON’T SAY THIS: “Curriculum transparency is not about transparency at all.”
All people’s brains hear is that “This bill has something to do with transparency, which is a good thing.”
SAY THIS: “This teacher surveillance bill is right-wing censorship and an invitation to harassment by vigilante parents.”
People will hear, “This bill has something to do with surveillance, censorship, harassment and vigilantism, which are bad things.”
That is how they do it. That is what we have to do.
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Reframing the Culture Wars
Framing is about getting people to see the situation from our point of view. We do that, not by responding to their claims, but by providing a counter-narrative that describes the situation from our moral perspective.
Let’s take a look at how that works in this debate:
They frame themselves:
“This bill is about curriculum transparency. Parents have the right to know what their children are being taught. This bill would give parents the ability to hold schools accountable for what they teach our kids.”
They describe the situation from their perspective, making a positive statement about what they are for. The radical right always starts by defining what they are doing as morally good.
They frame us:
“We need transparency so we can stop radical leftist teachers from teaching our kids their woke agenda: teaching our children critical race theory or grooming them for predators.”
They describe us from their perspective, portraying us as morally bad.
We defend ourselves (and repeat their bad framing of us):
DON’T SAY THIS: “These people are completely nuts. Teachers shouldn’t have to show everybody what they are doing. We have no so-called “woke” agenda. We don’t even teach critical race theory in our schools! The idea that we would be “grooming” children for sexual predators is patently absurd.”
WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: We are actually describing ourselves from their perspective. This gives more exposure to their claims - causing people to make the wrong associations. We insult them, which triggers backlash. We also fail to provide a counter-narrative to their original claims.
NOTE: Any time you feel the need to put their words in quotes or add “so-called” to the beginning, you are most likely repeating their negative framing. Stop and rephrase it from our perspective.
We frame ourselves and them (our counter-narrative):
SAY THIS: “We strongly object to this teacher surveillance bill. These bills are part of a coordinated attack by people who want to privatize public education for corporate profit and to politicize public education to further divide our society.”
“Parents already have plenty of legitimate ways to learn about what is being taught to their children. This bill is an invitation to vigilante parents with radical minority views to harass teachers with complaints and even nuisance lawsuits. It is an attempt to censor teachers by radical right-wing parent groups bankrolled by Republican/corporate SuperPACs as part of their political strategy to destroy trust in our public schools.”
“Democrats always fund our schools and support our teachers and our children because we believe that every child deserves a great education. We believe that public schools are what unite us and make us all Americans. They are where our children learn core American values like equality, fairness and responsibility for each other.”
“Republicans politicize public education to distract people from the fact that they routinely vote to slash school funding and don’t want our public schools to succeed.”
That is how we portray ourselves as the good guys. That is how we portray them from our point of view.
For more language about why public schools are good for the country and how they create the common culture that makes us all Americans, read my previous issue: Can Public Schools Save America?
Say This, Don’t Say That – More Culture War Issues
SAY: “We trust teachers.”
Part of our fighting back against teacher surveillance and vigilante parenting is to remind people that we trust our teachers.
SAY: “We trust teachers. We hire and trust people to teach (and to develop curriculum) who have spent a lifetime studying how best to help kids learn.”
SAY: “I want the people teaching my children to have the right training and experience.”
Don’t get baited into arguments with people who spout anti-expert rhetoric. Do not criticize them for being anti-expert. Just talk less in terms of “having a degree in…” which is about access to the right institutions and more in terms of having the training and the experience.
SAY: “Teachers know what they are doing because they have dedicated their lives to teaching. Educating children is not something people can just do walking in off the street. Teaching isn’t easy and it is critically important that the people we entrust our children to really know what they are doing both in terms of the subjects they teach and the skill of teaching itself.”
SAY: “We take all parents beliefs into account.”
DO NOT SAY: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (like Terry McAuliffe did)
SAY: “Of course, what parents believe should be taken into account, but we take all parents beliefs into account, not just those who complain the loudest. We get input that reflects what the majority of parents want. We don’t get bullied into submission by a handful of people with their own political agendas.”
Don’t get baited into arguments about parental choice. Don’t even recognize their interpretation of the term “parental choice.”
SAY: “We believe in teaching the truth.”
SAY: “We believe in teaching the truth about our history, the good and the bad. We are a great country because we learn from the past and keep working toward becoming a better nation for everyone.”
DO NOT SAY: “Critical race theory isn’t being taught in our schools.”
This just feeds into their frame that there is something wrong with critical race theory, when in fact, it is a perfectly legitimate subject for many people, including graduate school students, urban planners and civil rights lawyers.
Do not get baited into arguments about critical race theory. Never use the term critical race theory at all in this context. That just gets more exposure for the false conservative reframing of critical race theory. The more people hear “critical race theory” in a conversation about public schools, the more people’s brains connect the two.
SAY: “No child should ever be made to feel that there is something wrong with them because of who they are.”
SAY: “Every single child should be respected and welcomed. We want to raise children to be physically and emotionally healthy. End of story.”
Do not engage in arguments about grooming and the like. The more people hear about “child abuse” in a conversation about public schools, the more people’s brains associate the two.
SAY: “Every child “has the right to” a great education.”
DO NOT SAY: “Every child should have “the opportunity for” a great education.”
This is a subtle nod to conservative framing that suggests that people have to demonstrate that they are morally worthy of receiving public benefits.
In this context, adding the term “opportunity” implies “if they are willing to work for it.” This implies that some children won’t be willing to work for it and therefore don’t deserve a good education. There is no such thing as a child that doesn’t deserve a good education. If a child isn’t “working hard enough,” it is because we have failed them in some way.
SAY: “Public schools are there to prepare every child for a successful life.”
Conservative framing is all about competition: that there must always be winners and losers, but the world is full of parents who love their “C” or “D” student children too! We want them to know that public schools are there to prepare every child for a successful life, not just the “A” students. That is, in fact, one of the most important things about public education.
The Bottom Line:
Democrats believe that every child has the right to a great education. Public education plays a critical role in bringing Americans together and preparing every child to have a happy and successful life.
That is why we support funding for public education and why we support our teachers. Teaching is incredibly hard work. We need teachers who have training and experience and we should trust those teachers to do their jobs.
We take all parents’ beliefs into account, not just the ones who yell the loudest. We oppose teacher surveillance and harassment by right-wing vigilante parents bankrolled by SuperPACs with political agendas.
We believe in teaching the truth. We believe that no child should ever be made to feel that there is something wrong with them because of who they are. We want to raise all of our children to be physically and emotionally healthy.
These “culture war” bills were fabricated for the sole purpose of attacking Democrats and destroying people’s faith in public schools. They are part of a coordinated attack by national right-wing organizations who want to privatize public education for corporate profit and to politicize public education to further divide our society.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!
I look forward to your feedback and ideas.