Earlier, Ben Newmark, a history teacher from the UK, tweeted details of a lesson he was planning. I hesitate to describe what this lesson was about because any words I use could potentially cause offense. Newmark’s post on the lesson is titled, “Why did the Sioux come into conflict with settlers on the Great Plains?” but he then goes on to clarify that he will actually use the word ‘Dakota’ rather than ‘Sioux’.
Newmark should not have shared this lesson. As a result, he has been subjected to criticism, a small proportion of which is fair and reasonable and much which is plain abusive. One warrior against privilege who teaches at an eye-wateringly expensive international school in Brussels, pointed Newmark’s post out to his followers from the U.S. Which is when the witch-hunt really took off.
The pillorying followed a well-worn path. Rather than provide Newmark with the constructive feedback he sought, the Twitter mob shouted past him to their own followers, eager to demonstrate how offended they were. When Newmark took issue with some of the inaccurate inferences people were drawing about him and his teaching, he was accused of making it about him. Which it already was. To the mob, all that it is appropriate for someone with his privilege to do when placed in this position is listen, repent and ask for forgiveness.
One person who joined the discussion to try to defend Newmark even found himself being reported to his employer via Twitter. It got that crazy.
The way we teach the history of North America is rightly contentious. Newmark may have got it wrong. He may even have got it way wrong. In this case, he needs feedback which, at least initially, he was keen to receive. But nobody wants to be monstered even if Newmark has held up better than most while having bricks thrown at him.
So I have to ask what calling people out in this way is intended to achieve? What do Newmark’s critics want?
Well, one objective may be to influence the way history is taught in British schools so that North American history is taught in a way that better aligns with their insights. That would be a rational objective.
Yet this objective clearly has little chance of being achieved. The internet has provided a great opportunity for teachers to share the way they teach and gain feedback from across the globe. Potentially, this could disrupt parochial views of history. And the way that history is taught in Britain can be pretty parochial – lots of World War II and not much British Empire. But what history teacher in their right mind would share the way they intend to teach a contentious topic when they know that a monstering is the likely reaction? Better to just teach your lessons quietly and eschew the potential for feedback.
If influence is the objective then the method achieves the precise opposite.
So why are people doing it? Well, I guess people are not always rational and do a number of self-defeating things. Perhaps it is performative. Perhaps it arises from fear – by loudly denouncing the witches we hope to avoid being denounced as a witch ourselves.
If it is the latter then I fear it is misguided. If history has taught us anything about revolutions then it is that the chattering classes of the kind you find on Twitter who are the ones they come for first. It does not matter how much you decry privilege or genuflect before the revolution’s ideology.