Pointing out that our culture wars, and politics more generally, are toxic isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. But the past several years the weaponizing of disagreement in and around the schools is an increasing problem for anyone actually trying to improve the schools.
Now we have a new creature in education’s fever swamp: The Groomer.
The conventional wisdom on the whole “grooming” thing is that it’s conservative payback after a few years of being called racist or transphobic for all manner of things – and sometimes casually or cavalierly. I’m not sure this is right, though. Human events often aren’t that strategic. Rather, it seems like it might be the latest turn in the Rorsarch test approach to political warfare? Throw stuff up under a broad banner, make it toxic, rinse and repeat.
Over the past year or so we talked a lot around here about the debate about critical race theory or CRT, generally in quotes because the debate about “CRT” wasn’t really about CRT. No, not in the sense that CRT wasn’t being taught in schools because it’s only taught in law school. That was a dumb semantical dodge parents saw right through. Ideas from CRT were, and are, being taught in school. That’s worthy of debate like other curricular and pedagogical choices public schools make but we might as well be more forthright about it.
To the extent we’re talking about things like how racism becomes embedded in American institutions or whether we should discuss the role race plays in things I don’t have any problem with that, nor do most Americans. It was the clumsier and more political things that caused problems – the talking to very young kids about who was an oppressor or how to think about privilege. Yet the clumsier stuff was enough of a wedge to spark the whole “CRT” debate and let in not only the folks concerned about things that even – at least until recently critical race theory adherents agreed were problems – and also folks who really did go into spasms when someone bought up race or racism. Everyone took their places. That was why the “CRT” debate was bonkers.
Seems like that is happening here as well with the groomer nonsense.
Now, as you’ve surely and unfortunately heard, the accusation du jour is “groomer.” It’s a way to imply someone is OK with pedophilia without saying that, because it’s so absurd. It’s coming up in the debate about laws like the recent Florida law banning instruction about sexuality and gender identity before fourth grade and fights about curriculum and books elsewhere. Maybe “OK Groomer” was sort of funny one time as a quip, but it’s surely not amusing when it’s on repeat. And it’s a serious allegation, and an overwhelming spurious one. A groomer is someone who takes intentional steps to set a child up to be sexually exploited or abused. It’s a toxic allegation. And one that has roots in some historic – and factually inaccurate and harmful – myths about homosexuals and pedophilia. Myths that until recently seemed to have receded.
Parallels to “CRT” debate? Overall the country has made great strides on inclusion for LGBT people. Yet there are still some folks who want to live back in the 1950s. And, as with “CRT,” there are some excesses it’s easy for people to latch onto – making sure schools are inclusive and accepting of all students, teachers, and a variety of family arrangements does not necessitate instruction in theories of gender for kindergartners. That’s not a hill to die on.
The good news? Most Americans don’t actually have that much trouble parsing these distinctions. The bad news? Culture warriors deliberately inflame them. With CRT, activist Chris Rufo said he was going to basically lump a bunch of different things under the brand of CRT and make it all toxic. To some extent that worked. We’re now seeing the same with “groomer.”
Perhaps groomer is the more toxic tactic. It’s hard to equate calling someone a race essentialist with saying they seek to sexually exploit children. One of those is a political position, the other is a felony. What it all has in common though is dumping these social issues at the doorsteps of schools in a less than constructive manner. And right now doing that at the very time schools should be laser focused on addressing the damage caused by the pandemic.
There has been some pushback on the groomer rhetoric from folks on the right, David French, Grant Addison, Jonah Goldberg are three I’ve seen. So maybe in some small way nature is healing. But it’s not enough. And for a lot of kids trying to figure out who they are things are challenging enough without the culture war circus coming to town. Human decency alone might occasion a pause in the arms race here.
Groomer, like racist, or transphobe, is a serious allegation that should be used judiciously. That’s because they at once poison debate and render these terms meaningless – when those terms should have meaning.
And all of this, I don’t need to tell you, makes it impossible to have sensible debates about schools. At a time we really need them.
OK, after probably telling you what you already knew, here are two provocative takes on this and the broader issues you might want to check out. Andrew Sullivan and Josh Barro.
Here’s part of Barro:
A majority of the public is bought in on acceptance of LGBT people, including opposing legislative efforts like bathroom bills, and therefore accepts the idea that some people’s gender identity diverges from their sex in a way that demands both legal protection and social acceptance. But the public is not bought in on Judith Butler, or on the idea that gender is essentially arbitrary or unlinked to sex. The ideas underlying the current orthodoxy on the relationship between sex and gender were, until just a few years ago, obscure academic ones. And as those ideas have started having consequences — as Andrew Sullivan notes, there are a substantial number of schools using teaching materials that take a truly avant-garde stance on this issue — liberals have become aggressors in a piece of the culture war without even considering what we were fighting for, whether it’s worth it, and whether we even really believe in it — or whether we just went along with it because we were afraid that otherwise we’d get yelled at.
On a lighter note, here’s an education music question:
OK, best “To Sir With Love” cover?
10,000 Maniacs not surprisingly pretty good. Roberta Flack’s amazing. But @soulasylum version at that 1990s post-flood prom concert is hard to beat for atmosphere and general decency. Martha Reeves? Shawn Colvin?
Any strong views?
— Andrew Rotherham (@arotherham) April 13, 2022