Civic Discussion, Ideological Diversity and the Humanities Classroom

The issue of political polarisation and bias in classrooms is a time-honoured one, having been an issue as old as the profession itself. Students, parents and the community, at times understandably, have been weary of teachers being biased and partial in the way they approach contentious issues in the classroom. These concerns are particularly relevant in Humanities classrooms, which deals extensively with societal issues and debates. Recent political events, including elections and terrorist attacks and the resulting divisive discussions and rhetoric, have only further enhanced these issues and concerns. As Humanities teachers, it is crucial that we naviagate these issues with students in an even-handed, calm and thoughtful manner.

Such concerns around ideological diversity and debate in classrooms have been heightened for a number of reasons. One of these are widely-reported  protests on college and university campuses across Western countries, Australia included, in which speakers are de-platformed, shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking freely. Ongoing research has shown that there is a lack of ideological diversity on campuses. A report from Heterodox Academy, an organisation led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt which seeks to increase ideological diversity in academia, shows just how pervasive the problem is. Data shows from the report shows that at some colleges, there is a ratio of more than 10 faculty members identifying as liberal or left-of-centre for every conservative or right-of-centre member of faculty. Although less often mentioned, there is also a problem with ideological diversity in primary and secondary classrooms.

When teaching Humanities subjects at a Secondary level, it is important to remain impartial and not push an agenda onto students. As teachers, we are rightly mindful of diversity in terms of gender, race and so on. At times, however, the profession fails to promote ideological diversity. Too often, classrooms can resemble echo chambers, where only a narrow set of views and opinions are discussed and explored. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the main reasons for this, unsurprisingly, is that school classrooms generally reflect the ideological viewpoints of the community in which they are situated (Hess, 2009, p.6). By extension, teachers may, without realising, internalise the dominant viewpoints of the school community in which they are a part of.

In order to cultivate ideological diversity in the classroom, at a minimum, clear, effective and strong principles of classroom and behaviour management must be implemented. Students speaking and voicing an opinion must be able to talk uninterrupted, even when raising points which may go against the consensus thinking of the classroom or may be controversial in some way. It is also essential to model to students how to respond, in terms of what constitutes and appropriate and inappropriate response to challenging ideas. It must be made abundantly clear, for example, that personal insults or denigration are completely unacceptable and that clear consequences will occur for students who violate this basic classroom expectation.

In order to do this effectively, a significant level of introspection and critical reflection on our teaching practice, particularly our manner of communication is necessary. At times, this will require also reflecting on our own belief systems, political beliefs and so on. Research has found that teachers who are willing to explore confrontational and controversial issues with students implicitly encourage students to do likewise (Hess, p.6). In order to teach students the skill of civil discussion on complex and contentious issues and encourage diverse viewpoints on them we as teachers must model these behaviours ourselves. This means conducting ourselves in a professional manner, not only in the classroom but in other avenues where such topics may come up, such as social media. In the same way we must avoid our classrooms becoming merely ideological echo chambers, we must avoid falling into similar habits when discussing contentious issues online or in person outside the classroom.

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The Orlando Shooting and the polarised response

The Orlando shooting, as now appears to be the norm when such a tragedy occurs, has resulted in a deeply polarised response on social media and through society in general. Once, such incidents would unite communities in mourning and grieving. In the wake of Orlando, however, people of all political stripes wasted no time in reducing the shooting to a single cause, even before facts pertaining to the shooting have been verified and confirmed. On the political left, it has been framed primarily as a result of a lack of gun control. On the political right, the attack is seen as further confirmation that the West is losing the fight against Islamist terrorism. Each side blames the other for enabling the attack to happen, resulting in further entrenching and division. Responses from political leaders in America have reflected this. President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in the aftermath of the shooting, called for tighter gun control. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, excoriated Obama and Clinton for not acknowledging the role of ‘Radical Islam’, calling for their resignations for not doing so.

As more facts and information come to light, it has become clear that there are several factors at play behind the actions of Omar Mateen. Firstly, the attack was jihadist in nature, with Mateen having pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call made during the shooting. Mateen had been investigated by the FBI since 2013 as a sympathiser of the Boston bombers as well as to Al-Qaeda, though he was not believed to be directly connected to any of these groups. The attack is also directly homophobic in nature, despite attempts by some in the media to downplay this element of the attack. The targeting of the Pulse nightclub was a calculated, intentional move on the part of Mateen. It is important to acknowledge this in addition to the link between Mateen and Islamism. As former Islamist turned counter-extremist Maajid Nawaz argues, the strand of Islamism which Omar Mateen prescribed to is deeply homophobic in nature.  The attack occurred as a result of Mateen being ‘angered’ by the sight of two men kissing. In the months prior to the attack, he had attended a speech by radical preacher Farrokh Selakeshfar, who declared that ‘Death is the sentence’ for homosexuals.

There are also important issues raised in respect to mental health as well as firearms access. According to his ex-wife, Omar Mateen had issues with bipolar disorder and would regularly beat her. Mateen also allegedly had issues with steroid abuse. Despite these issues, Mateen worked as an armed security guard for several years. Even as he was being investigated by the FBI, Mateen was still able to easily access firearms, including the AR-15 assault rifle used to carry out the attack. This particular rifle has also been behind several other major mass shootings, including the San Bernardino shooting late last year, as well as the Aurora and Newtown shootings.

There is another, less discussed aspect of this attack and similar ‘lone wolf’ attacks, which is that of radicalisation occurring as a result of disenfranchisement and resentment at society, often related to an individual’s failure in their own life. These individuals, sometimes referred to as the ‘lost boys’ of society, seek revenge in dramatic, violent fashion in order to settle these grievances. This often includes attaching themselves to an extremist ideology, such as white nationalism or Islamism among others. In this instance, Omar Mateen attached himself to a radical Islamist ideology as a means of enacting this revenge. Such occurrences of this type of violence have increased in recent years and do not appear to be lessening any time soon. As well as the issues this raises for society in general, the ‘lost boy’ phenomenon also poses an issue in terms of national security. These individuals can easily be radicalised, yet are hard to track down, as they are often not directly tied to a larger organisation.

Whatever angle you look at the Orlando shooting, the incident raises hard questions for society. The attack simultaneously involves jihadist terrorism, homophobia, mental health and firearms access issues as well as broader national security issues and questions of civil society. All of these are polarising, divisive issues in society on their own, let alone dealt with simultaneously in the context of an event such as the Orlando shooting. For any progress to be made on any of these fronts, a mature, honest and nuanced dialogue is essential, which does not reduce events like Orlando to a single pet issue. Given the ever more polarised and partisan nature of discourse and debate in society, however, this appears to remain unlikely.

Social Media Hoaxes and Disinformation/Podcast Announcement

The issue of hoaxes and disinformation within news and current affairs, particularly on social media, is an issue I have been exploring for a while now. A large portion of my History Honours thesis which I wrote last year, concerning the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, concerns this topic. Within this thesis, I explored how distorted and falsified information, often starting on social media, would be reported on, legitimised and subsequently presumed to be truthful. Apart from this specific example, however, the issue of disinformation, hoaxes and false information is an important and increasingly prevalent one on social media.

Social media disinformation and hoaxes occur in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways in which this occurs is through viral hoaxes, often on topical or controversial issues. On sites such as Facebook, this often takes the form of a post on a topical issue such as vaccinations, terrorism, climate change, or a geopolitical issue. A large factor for this occurring is the way in which Facebook is set up and how it prioritises certain posts appearing in a newsfeed over others. According to an article from the Washington Post, people who are inclined towards sharing conspiracy theories over Facebook and other forms of social media tend to post much more frequently than other users, despite there being relatively few users who think this way. In addition, these users are often organised and work together closely, helping to push these type of posts across the site, resulting in viral posts. On Facebook for example, a very popular and consistent hoax is about Facebook supposedly asking for a fee to maintain a private profile. Some users feel threatened by this idea, regardless of there not being any evidence of this actually being planned, so create and share posts warning of this coming fee, as a way of comforting or protecting themselves from this perceived threat. This effect of seeking out information and forming posts which fits a predetermined narrative, despite evidence, is known as confirmation bias. Other people, having seen this and also becoming nervous at the prospect of a fee, share the viral post too, despite it being false, which furthers the effect of confirmation bias. Eventually, the hoax has attained such a reach and has been posted so many times that many users simply accept the hoax as being true, due to an echo chamber effect.

For the average user, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is not. Sites such as Snopes.com help to debunk many of these viral hoaxes and conspiracies, though it cannot keep up with every hoax and false post going around. These examples underscore the need to be careful before sharing a news item or a viral post on social media, to prevent the spread of false or distorted news and information. Take just a few minutes to research and get some background on the topic in question. If possible, find another source which can verify and confirm claims being made

Social media manipulation is not just done by individuals, however. Some governments, such as the Russian government during the Russia-Ukraine war, have employed similar tactics in order to influence and manipulate social media debate of an issue. Throughout this war, the Kremlin has been sponsoring ‘troll houses’, buildings where hundreds of people work around the clock creating blog pieces, writing comments and creating memes which support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The evidence of this can be seen in the comments section of any Facebook, Youtube or other site’s comment section which reports or comments on this conflict, including in this article describing the troll house phenomenon. This deliberate manipulation of information for propaganda purposes in a modern context is often referred to as information warfare. In an upcoming podcast I am working on, I expand on this topic in much more detail.

As I alluded to earlier, the subject of this post is one which I will be discussing in much more detail in a soon to be released debut episode of podcast I am working on. The podcast, which will be co-hosted by myself and Tom Price will examine contemporary political and international issues, as well as exploring various historical topics. Those of you familiar with podcasts such as Foreign Policy’s The Editor’s Roundtable podcast or Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast will particularly enjoy this podcast, though the subject matter will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary politics, geopolitics, current affairs and history.