When silent agreement just isn’t enough
I have good reason to believe that by writing the following I am risking my professional registration as a secondary school teacher. That’s because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, things are getting pretty dicey in the workplace for supporters of freedom of speech. Why?
The Teaching Council of NZ decided in June of this year to deregister a high school Mathematics teacher after he refused to use the new name and preferred pronouns of a fourteen-year-old female student who wished to be recognised as male. I, and many other teachers, who for reasons of conscience would also refuse to comply with such directives, are now left with a none-too-subtle ultimatum from our professional governing body: affirm transgender ideology in our classrooms or face deregistration too. But it isn’t just teachers. Currently two nurses are being ‘disciplined’ by the Nursing Council for taking stances on controversial issues such as Covid vaccines and gender identity. Similar cases have already been occurring in fellow liberal democracies for some years now. Canada, the UK, Finland and Australia afford us plenty of examples. Now it appears to be our turn.
What makes this predicament more bizarre is that in a nationwide Curia poll published last week 65% of respondents disagreed with the proposition that teachers who refuse to use transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns should be deregistered. While a further 19% of respondents were unsure what they thought on the matter, only 16% of those surveyed agreed that ‘misgendering’ was an offense serious enough to warrant professional deregistration. Now, yes, I’ll admit that the poll was commissioned by the conservative lobby group Family First. And, well, no, they didn’t survey every single Kiwi. But there is nothing wrong with the survey for the following reasons: (1) the questions were unambiguous, (2) it was run by a professional market research company (Curia), and (3) it was geographically diverse enough (spread across NZ) to constitute a valid sample group. So, if two-thirds of Kiwis believe ‘misgendering’ is not worthy of deregistration from one’s profession, why aren’t we hearing more of these voices speaking up when professional bodies such as the Teaching Council expel members for refusing to tow an ideological line? If the general public in NZ is opposed to such draconian, undemocratic treatment, and yet these cases are only increasing, then we need to consider why.
Obviously, there is a small, yet vocal number who have been standing up for free speech rights – groups like the Free Speech Union and Let Women Speak. But if many more people are against the erosion of free speech in principle, why aren’t they speaking up? Well, I’d suggest there are several reasons. One particularly important factor is information asymmetry. In other words, the full facts just aren’t getting past the gatekeepers – most of our traditional media outlets – who rather than simply report the news, cannot help but curate the narrative. Real people in the real world who find themselves wrestling with real ethical dilemmas are now, thanks to the efforts of activist journalists, being categorised into a reductionist binary of either heroic or villainous depending on whether they support the new activist orthodoxy or not. There is now no complexity or nuance permitted on issues of social justice and many people are simply not realising the degree to which media-driven de-facto censorship is responsible. We are now seeing instances that go well beyond the shaping of the narrative to outright prohibition. In July Family First were approved advertising space in at least six NZ newspapers for a coordinated nationwide campaign for the ‘What is a Woman?’ screening events they were running. Family First then suddenly received word via the office of the Otago Daily Times that all of those publications’ editors had conferred with each other on the matter and agreed to a joint embargo of the advertisement. According to Stuff the advertisement did not “align with their values”.
The internet has long been touted as an alternative to the increasingly restrictive siloes of traditional media outlets. But we recognise there are profound problems with alternative news platforms too. Customarily, editorial controls grounded in principles of free speech, robust inquiry, and journalistic accountability, while never perfect, at least offered the public some level of confidence – a generally trusted shared forum for the ferment of news, commentary, and debate. But social media and the internet still pose seemingly intractable problems: reliable standards of journalistic integrity are almost non-existent, the incentive for fracturing into a plethora of virtual echo chambers grows worse by the day, and even internet providers like Spark and Vodafone have recently been wooed by activists such as Shaneel Lal into attempting their own form of corporate censorship. For years YouTube and Facebook have engaged an opaque internal ‘moderation’ of content. In searching for alternative news sources people today are far more anxious and suspicious when navigating the online space. For these reasons, I think it is fair to assume that not all traditional media outlets will become obsolete. In times of upheaval, many people return to what is familiar even if they have serious qualms about its reliability.
While we struggle to trust media gate-keepers these days, and we see the capacity for online protest is under threat while prone itself to misinformation and disinformation, I think we are also witnessing a resurgence of old-school avenues of protest. And I’m not talking simply about waving placards in the street. For instance, the growing public unease at the way in which language (especially on the transgender issue) is being policed online and in the workplace has provoked a form of passive-aggressive resistance. Jokes concerning pronouns and self-identification are extremely common. These age-old acts of defiance remain largely surreptitious – you hear it in the relative safety of small offline gatherings and such behavior is nowhere more prevalent than in school playgrounds. The young, who by their nature cannot help but test social boundaries and taboos, are more pointed in their critique of gender diversity than even the most provocative Netflix comedy special by Dave Chappelle. As a teacher, I overhear it all the time. Historically humour has served as a pressure valve for all kinds of frustration and it’s making a comeback for good reason.
Yet subversive acts of sarcasm and satire can only relieve the pressure so much. Without open, good-faith dialogue and debate many who are in support of free speech find themselves starved of the facts necessary to continue their initial protest. As precedents of free speech suppression become routine the violations will still occur, but cease to be publicised. We therefore need to not only speak up right now for individual cases like the teacher I’ve mentioned, but do so with detailed knowledge, telling the full stories, pointing out the inherent contradictions within the ideology. To be more confident in calling out violations of free speech we need to be in full possession of the facts.
For instance, it’s easy to dismiss the case of the deregistered teacher by suggesting he is a dinosaur who loved to preach fire and brimstone to a captive audience of students from the bully pulpit of his classroom. This is how he’s largely been characterised in articles in Stuff and the NZ Herald.
However, the primary source material for the media narrative is the recently published report from the Teaching Council’s Disciplinary Tribunal, an official summary of the case which is riddled with incongruities. The first point to note is that aside from the specific disagreement between the teacher and student over preferred name and pronouns, the relationship between the two was entirely unremarkable. Throughout their interactions, the pair had a positive relationship in the classroom and even when the disagreement occurred neither spoke with hostility towards the other. Eventually, when the teacher resigned and was preparing to leave the school, the student approached him in the playground to let him know that she did not want to part on “bad terms.” The teacher felt exactly the same way. He never spoke negatively of the student in person or in writing, but only ever expressed concern for her personal welfare. His “objectionable” actions – specifically his repeated refusals to address the student with the new language as requested – appear to have been motivated by a deep conviction – in this case informed by his Christian faith – that were he to acquiesce he would be complicit in harming her. He never stopped her from expressing herself. He never suppressed her right to state the new identity she claimed. He only drew a line when she expected him to participate in the dysphoria she was experiencing. He remained adamant in his stance even after being directed by the school principal to speak as requested by the student.
Perhaps the more troubling issue was how things escalated at the initiative of the school principal who seems to have taken even greater umbrage than the student at the teacher’s response. By this stage, the teacher could clearly see the writing was on the wall and so chose to resign. Despite his departure from the school, the case was referred to the Teaching Council which, believing there to be an “ongoing danger” of “repeat offending” initiated the professional disciplinary process.
Don’t be fooled by the way various journalists have attempted to frame this story. They’ve worked from the same set of facts from the same tribunal report which is accessible to the public. Yet it appears that with ideological blinkers on they have been unable or unwilling to see the wood for the trees. Yes, the teacher’s written defense at a superficial level admittedly lacks tact and is not well formatted. At a substantive level, yes, he details biblical opposition to homosexuality and abortion, highlights the Christian foundations of the NZ national anthem, and reminds the tribunal of the constitutional significance of the Queen’s dual political and religious status as NZ’s head of state. His writing has the appearance of a wandering set of doctrinal missives regularly interspersed with verbatim passages from the Bible. I can just imagine the collective cringe it elicited from the tribunal members. Full disclosure: I’m a Christian too and had I been in his shoes I would have composed my defense differently. But I also have to admire his candour and consistency of character. He does not appeal solely to his Christian beliefs but also quotes at length a psychologist who is equally sceptical of gender ideology. The tribunal sagely (or cynically) avoid engaging in psychological evidenced-based argument. They feel they are on much safer ground by feigning shock at the man’s religious belief. The Bible basher is a much easier figure to scorn, a familiar established trope in our culture with no natural allies. If the teacher is guilty of anything, we are left to infer, it appears to be the secular sin of taking the Bible literally. So are all Christians who take this ‘high’ view of scripture unfit to be teachers? Or nurses? Or doctors? Or lawyers? If so, wouldn’t Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims, just to name a couple of religious cohorts, also fail a similar test?
The teacher, so saith the tribunal, had treated the whole matter in an “extreme, offensive and hysterical way”. Descriptions of this kind regarding the teacher helped shape the headlines in June as the main news outlets duly reported the matter without ever raising the pertinent issue of compelled speech nor what “emotional harm” the tribunal believed had been done to the student other than hurting her feelings, nor how the profession of teaching in this instance had been brought into “disrepute”. The news stories contained quotes from transgender activist groups and parties sympathetic to their cause yet were absent of legal commentary or any counterpoints that might undermine transactivist orthodoxy.
In reading the full tribunal report the teacher doesn’t strike me as a bigoted tyrant. At worst, he is a Quixotic knight, guided by an archaic code, pursuing what he views to be a form of chivalry. The reasoning he gives is entirely consistent with a worldview which may be intensely disliked by some but is still common enough today that one would have thought it fairly unremarkable. The Teaching Council clearly didn’t see it that way and unfortunately for the teacher, his response went down like a lead balloon.
Equally important is the obvious intention behind the ruling – this professional body wished to send a message to its members. The Council will tell you that this isn’t the way to understand what happened and that they take no pleasure in meting out such a punishment. I’m not so sure. Going through the summary, and I don’t think I’m reading anything into it, the reader is left with the distinct impression that the tribunal panel members relished the opportunity to burnish their transactivist credentials.
Having said all this, I’m not sure the outcome necessarily is having the effect they were hoping for. There is a small yet growing reaction and the Teaching Council, under pressure from certain quarters, has since suggested there are situations in which teachers could conceivably avoid disciplinary action for refusing to comply with the use of preferred names and pronouns. The Free Speech Union’s chief executive Jonathan Ayling in meeting with his Teaching Council counterpart Lesley Hoskin received this sort of grudging assurance. The only difficulty for teachers like me is that quite what those exceptional circumstances outlined might be, the Council haven’t deigned to say. They still maintain that this case isn’t at heart about freedom of expression.
Well, I don’t know about you, but if this isn’t a case of compelled speech, what is?
As a teacher, I’ve spent the past seven years challenging high school students irrespective of the subject matter to be brave, ask difficult questions, share what they think and if necessary be willing to respectfully disagree. I tell them that when they’re faced with a new knowledge claim they ought to expect it to be coherent, that it should correspond to the evidence, and that whenever possible further credibility is gained if the knowledge claim can be shown to work in the real world. Don’t automatically believe someone’s claims just because they speak with conviction or the trappings of authority. In other words, don’t believe what I say just because I’m a teacher. Investigate the matter for yourself.
Respect in education, as in life, means carefully and critically examining knowledge claims rather than rushing to some superficial judgment based on a hasty heuristic or emotive appeal. No matter how different we may be, if we seek to reason together then each of us inevitably sharpens the thinking of the other – even if we ultimately fail to reach agreement. Emotion undoubtedly accompanies reason in debate, but emotion cannot be allowed to supplant reason altogether. Our democracy depends on the ability to parse emotion from reason and then determine whether we can live freely and justly with the consequences. Our institutions and professions are supposed to operate on these forementioned principles in order to help coalesce policies of best practice based on reasoned argument and evidence, to ensure implementation of these standards, and to impartially conduct investigations into potential misconduct or malpractice.
I know, I know. If only the teacher had handled the situation more delicately, less polemically, and with the situational awareness required in the fraught landscape of modern discourse. I’ve no doubt that some of us would have played the game more strategically. But sometimes we will be clumsy in what we say, unusually provocative or just plain contrarian. Some days we just won’t feel like engaging in complicated semantics or sensitive diplomacy. And that’s the beauty of our right to free speech – you shouldn’t have to live in fear of making a verbal misstep or being the odd one out.
Remember too, just in case you think there was more to the teacher’s behaviour, that it was only in offering justification for his refusal that the teacher’s religious viewpoint was ever expressed. This happened in an explanatory function. Further negotiation ensued and finally, he resigned so that he would not have to concede to the compelled speech demand of the school principal. His designated subject was Mathematics. He delivered the curriculum as required and there is absolutely no suggestion anywhere in the tribunal report that he ever spent his days doing anything other than talking about parallelograms and variables and adjacent angles. There is no accusation that he ever used the classroom to solicit inquiry from his students into his religious views, let alone that he used his classroom as a pulpit. When asked to comply with a highly unconventional request he merely responded with his personal religious views by way of explanation for his refusal to comply. The fact that he outlined more extensively his worldview for the disciplinary tribunal in his written defense is evidence of his willingness to be honest and transparent, even if he knew the more detailed version of his views would likely make him more unpopular. Call me old fashioned, but it seems entirely reasonable to say something by way of explanation for your actions when giving a defense, as opposed to, “I refuse to use the requested name and pronouns because I do not agree.” How does that offer any clarity whatsoever in a dispute?
Some may suggest that the teacher’s Christianity in this situation by its very nature sought to smother a student’s self-expression. To this, I would reply that for all the shameful moments in history when freedom of expression proved unpopular within the hegemony of the church, such failings have been due to the hypocrisy of some of its leaders – not the example of its founder. The gospels describe Jesus as an incessant debater and incurable free thinker. Christians are exhorted in the Bible to do likewise.
And when it comes to the case of the teacher all that is beside the point. These days Christianity is just another minority prepared to rub shoulders with everyone else in NZ society. Even if many Christians believe certain behaviours lead to harm, we welcome discussion and debate in seeking to explain our reasons for believing so. The real trouble for not just Christians in NZ, but most other groups as well, is that we are currently facing a new worldview which – by no means representative of all transgender proponents, but still influential enough to access the key levers of government and sway second-tier institutions – demands that our liberal democracy be redefined to meet its own particular radical philosophical requirements. This appears to have begun with their attempt to redefine the parameters of free speech.
The new philosophy comes with its own moral calculus which operates on the following set of contingencies: certain types of speech are defined as hateful, and hateful speech causes emotional harm, and emotional harm is equivalent to emotional violence because it can result in the recipient physically self-harming or even committing suicide. Free speech on this line of reasoning can therefore be redefined as violence. Yet it only gets more complicated. According to such activists the identity of a trans individual is their argument. To argue about the issue of transgenderism, therefore, means we are attempting to negate the actual existence of a trans individual. This is a nonsense of an argument. Or to be more precise it is linguistic and ideological tyranny. That last statement might sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t – a tyrant by definition determines the rules for others. Add an academic gloss to the mix by citing tenuous psychological theories, use language with meanings so distorted as to be unrecognisable, insist that suicides amongst the young will increase if you refuse to affirm their self-identity – a form of emotional extortion if you ask me – and you end up with an ideological tour de force that sweeps all before it with a ruthless humanitarianism unassailable under the terms of its own discourse. It is promised as a powerful solution to the anguish of a significant number of distressed young people. It appears to give righteous satisfaction to the highly incensed and uncompromising activists who crusade on their behalf.
When an ideology is championed at the expense of our civil liberties, and at great risk to many of our kids, we ought to be ready to speak up regardless of the social and professional backlash. We must examine transgenderism and its implications for our young people openly, thoughtfully, and compassionately, without dehumanising or censoring each other. Religious or not, parents and teachers around the western world are feeling deeply unsettled by this kind of state-sanctioned radical activism in schools. Let’s be firm in demanding that if activists want to put forward some of the most radical existential propositions we are likely to see in our lifetimes, there must be freedom for all of us to express our concerns, no matter how cringeworthy, archaic or unpopular our philosophical beliefs may seem to others.
So, believe me when I say I don’t want to be writing this letter. Because I love teaching. And I still love the school at which, until recently, I taught before I resigned in order to help my family through a health crisis. I want to protect that school, so I won’t name it, but it has a fantastic bunch of staff, students and families who make it a dynamic and compassionate environment in which young people thrive. They have diverse opinions on the transgender issue and many other topics. I only say this because if I’m going to make myself odious to certain people by openly sharing my views, I want wherever possible to avoid any collateral damage. There need not be any ad hominem attacks. It should be a given that I am not speaking for anyone other than myself. A given, that is, to those of us who can still distinguish an argument from a person’s identity.
History has taught me to be sceptical when I hear talk about ‘the good old days’ or a ‘golden age’ or a ‘future in which society is completely free of discrimination.’ I’m not nostalgic for a bygone era in education nor do I hold my breath waiting to realise some utopian vision for tomorrow. I’m clear-eyed about the genuine inequalities that have existed in our society, the degrading and humiliating treatment of people due to differences of race, sex, or wealth to name but a few of the most common human prejudices. But I have always wanted better for my daughters and their generation, and as a teacher I work towards that end. This ambition to be better not only informs the content of what we teachers teach but also informs how we teach. I know of few teachers who would disagree with these general educational aspirations.
Education has always been a messy business of trial and error. We frequently get bored with the status quo and we Kiwis have a love for tinkering with things to the extent that we like to think of our self-proclaimed practical ingenuity as evidence of a natural social progressivism. But who thought it was acceptable that we run a giant social experiment in the classroom with our young people without stopping to give the nation the opportunity to debate openly and freely the irrevocable damage that could quite conceivably result? There is every reason to be concerned that an untested, morally prescriptive mode of thinking and behaviour has been promoted by the Ministry of Education and similarly minded institutions such as the Teaching Council without regard for reason, evidence and any genuine democratic consultation. The so-called evidence for transitioning cited by transactivists is at best anecdotal, but the science just doesn’t support it. Trouble is, so many researchers have been institutionally muzzled that they fear to get the word out.
And please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want those who support transgenderism to be silenced or compelled to speak against their will either. Let Shaneel Lal and other activists speak. I absolutely support their right to freedom of expression without the threat of professional excommunication or social ostracism. That’s kind of the whole point. Just let me speak also with that same protection and assurance. Ensure such protection is given to parents and family members who are wondering how exactly transactivist ideology suddenly became the incontrovertible truth. And whether or not you agree with her, let Posie Parker speak.
While I’ve never been under the illusion that I’ll ever win any Teacher of the Year awards, I’m sure I’ve made some positive difference to the lives of my students. I, like so many other teachers, care deeply about the lives of young people in this country. This concern for the young, and a belief that inquiry and freedom of expression in school will allow them to face a complex future as adults, has sustained me in the profession despite the long nights of marking, the occasionally obstreperous student and the well-publicised financial drawbacks attendant to such a career choice. For me it is a deeply fulfilling vocation because I care about the students. And I believe that I have a moral duty as a teacher to put the welfare of those I teach before my own professional security. To be compelled to speak something believe to be untrue goes against my conscience and beliefs, especially when these untruths defy any tests of rationality and evidence and are already causing the very sort of harm to the young they were supposed to prevent. I need to be an example of the very principles I teach.
So, given the Teaching Council’s actions have now forced me to respond to this precedent, I will not comply with compelled speech ordinances. I care too much about students – of every stripe – to stay silent on this matter. I only hope that other teachers are prepared to not only respond to polls, but also to speak up, before free speech in respect to this vital issue, and any other issue that may arise, is cancelled along with my teacher’s registration.
I’d encourage you to check the Teaching Council findings out for yourself. Names and places are redacted, but the written report can be found online here: CAC v Teacher, 19 June 2023. Disciplinary Tribunal Decisions:: Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand
The Curia poll can be found at www.familyfirst.org.nz