Eric Stinton: Learning To Talk About Politics From Middle School Students - Honolulu Civil Beat

There is so much for which to be thankful, despite the harrowing year. At Civil Beat, we have never been more thankful for readers like you. As we head into the final stretch of 2020, we’re asking you to support our local, nonprofit newsroom.

Civil Beat has raised $25,000 towards our $200,000 goal!

Donate


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


My co-teacher and I decided to talk about the presidential election during class time last week.

This was not a simple decision; sensitive and controversial topics can get you in hot water if you aren’t adequately delicate about how you phrase things. But we’re a math class, and math is as objective and non-partisan a way to look at an election there is. At the very least, it clarifies the process and rationale of our otherwise counterintuitive electoral college system.

After we finished the math-y stuff, we allowed students to ask questions and discuss the election in general, provided they were mindful that others may have different opinions. The result was refreshing. Students engaged in honest inquiry and respectful dialogue – a healthy exchange of intellectual bread and vegetables compared to the aggressively moronic food fights adults were having online.

The internet has always instigated our worst selves, but it feels like it’s been especially bad recently, for obvious reasons. I’m not blameless, either. I’ve found myself getting caught up as much as anyone else, lacking the measured tone and patient compassion that I instinctively extend to my students.

A woman holds up anti-trump signs at the corner of Beretania and University Ave. on the eve of election day Monday, November 2, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)

A woman holds up anti-Trump signs in Hawaii on the eve of the election. Middle school students are perhaps civil about politics in class because they have to see each other frequently.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Yet for every 10 venom-soaked diatribes there is at least one person on social media urging people to show each other aloha, asking why we can’t put political parties aside and come together.

I thought a lot about that question. I, too, want unity in this country and healing in relationships that have strained during the Trump years. So why were group discussions with seventh graders more enlightened and human than the dueling lectures I’ve been having with adults lately?

There’s something to be said about the willingness of young people to recognize what they don’t know, and its obverse stubbornness that comes with age. The classroom setting also plays a part, since the reality of having to see the same people several times a week for the rest of the year naturally regulates behavior.

Those explanations aren’t complete, though. There was something else that was different, an absence like a black hole: difficult to pinpoint but unmistakably there. This may sound like I am joining the chorus of folks bemoaning the death of civility in our national discourse, but I’m not really, though being nice to one another is always preferable.

To me, the main distinguishing characteristic of my seventh graders’ discussions was the absence of absolute lunacy.

A Return To Reality

Part of the problem right now is that disagreements are framed as mere differing opinions. In a normal world, that would be accurate: we all want America to be broadly prosperous, but reasonable people disagree about the best ways to get there. But if we are to treat fantasies seriously, we may as well commit to the bit and go live in Candyland.

Indeed, if voting for a different candidate causes people to believe I am part of a Satan-worshipping pedophile cabal – a very normal and increasingly common belief about Democrats among conservative circles – I should politely agree to disagree.

This type of unvarnished insanity is one of the main reasons why political discussion breaks down in such predictable ugliness. There is no shortage of legitimate criticism to lob at liberals and lefties – and yes there are significant differences between those two – but what has become commonplace among Republicans is often complete nonsense.

A Trump protestor in Honolulu in 2017 mocks a conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama. Conspiracy theories about Democrats abound in this election.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Take the claims of mass voter fraud, for instance. Not only are the accusations astoundingly incoherent – apparently the fraudulence only applies to presidential votes, not congressional ones – they are entirely without evidence.

 

While party leaders parrot President Donald Trump’s false narrative of a stolen election, lawyers litigating for Trump – who face legal repercussions for their claims – are taking every necessary precaution to clarify that they are not actually alleging fraud. In the larger MAGA Cinematic Universe, however, there is no doubt that the Democrats stole the election, and the aforementioned court documents are now fake news, probably.

When you’re a young adult, you’re sophisticated enough to follow the broad movements of national politics in real time, but too busy and distracted to immerse yourself in the day-to-day vagaries of political jockeying. On many levels, that’s a virtue worth emulating.

My students are, for instance, totally unaware of the numerous maudlin speeches Republicans gave in 2016 about not nominating a Supreme Court Justice in an election year, or their threats to shrink the size of the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton won – two principles that didn’t last four full years to be completely reversed when it was politically opportune. That’s to say nothing of the “Sore-Loserman” rallying cries during the 2000 Florida recount.

Unmasked Trump supporters hold flags along Kalakaua Avenue during COVID-19 pandemic. October 25, 2020

A Trump supporter talks to passersby on Kalakaua Avenue in October.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now Republicans ram through a Supreme Court Justice after many ballots had already been cast – so much for the American people having a voice in the process – and they gasp in horror at the thought of expanding the Supreme Court, because we’ve always had nine justices.

And refusing to concede isn’t the petulant whining of a sore loser; no, this is the sacred duty of every patriotic man and woman who cares about the integrity of our democratic process. Just keep sending Trump money to recount the votes, and don’t think about how that money is largely covering campaign debts instead. It’s all just fake news from the enemies of the people, obviously.

To my students, the differences between Democrats and Republicans are ideological in nature. That isn’t true – Democrats are laughably feckless and Republicans’ sole enduring principle is tax cuts for themselves and their buddies – but it at least permits genuine discussion and honest disagreement to occur. This does more to bring about unity and healing than any pearl-clutching call for uncritical civility.

Unity and non-partisan comradery should be shared goals for everyone, at the personal, local and national levels. We need each other, more than ever during an ongoing crisis like this pandemic. Achieving that kind of restorative unity is possible, but it will require everyone to treat disagreements as honest differences and not permanent indictments of character.

It will require the courage to question longstanding precedents and reject the lunatic fringes that have made startling national inroads, especially in conservative spaces. It will require compassionate humility from liberals and leftists, and baseline sanity from Republicans.


Read this next:

How Biden's New COVID-19 Task Force Could Turn Around A Public Health Disaster


Before you go…

During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.

This is perhaps the biggest, most consequential story our reporters will ever cover. And at no other time in Civil Beat’s history have we relied on your support more. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.

Contribute

About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Have the students watch the recent videos of BLM and antifa physically assaulting Trump supporters who are peacefully protesting and eating dinner.  Teach them how this is wrong.  Teach them how this kind of behavior must never be tolerated in a free and just America.  And once you and everyone else agrees with the above, and has taken committed action to remedy the wrongs by supporting prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law those evil people attacking innocent American citizens, maybe we might all have the hope of talking again.

pueobeach · 1 week ago

I'm glad Mr. Stinton is taking the time to incorporate real-life situations (especially pertaining to our political system and processes) in his curriculum. Our children need that.Regarding the discussion of political issues themselves in school however, that may easily go awry if not done carefully. It's not the job of our teachers (nor should it ever be) to teach which (lawful) political side is "right" or "wrong" regardless of how extreme (again, provided it's within the confines of the law). Instead, teachers should explain the popular positions on ALL sides of an issue and have their students decides for themselves how they feel about it.Unfortunately our general society is hyper-sensitive when it comes to discussing things like money, religion and politics. We need to raise a more open-minded generation so these things can be openly discussed without "hurting feelings", and the classroom is a great place to start as I don't realistically believe a non-partisan discussion can occur at most family dinner tables.

basic_citizen123 · 1 week ago

As a Canadian, I have the luxury of viewing this election debacle from the outside and with few immediate repercussions to my way of life (things didn't change much here when Trump was elected, and life will likely continue on much the same with Biden as President).  I frequently defend Americans of all political stripes from those who don't recognize what you bring to the world.  As long as bullets aren't flying, or you aren't sinking in the quagmire of foreign adventurism, you generally are among the kindest and most generous people in the world (I find Americans nicer than Canadians).  And the checks and balances of your political system (including the usually fair SCOTUS) is the envy of the world, though obviously a little battered right now.  The infighting we're currently seeing is counterproductive in a global sense... the world is better with a strong and united USA.  In absence of this presence, more sinister forces at work in the world feel emboldened, and we're all worse for it.  I'm really hoping that both right and left (with sound leadership from Biden) will move to the center where the reasonable people are, and avoid a modern "fall of the Roman Empire". 

SleepyandDopey · 1 week ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.