Politics and English language teaching – a response

Should English language teachers be political animals? Are they already, by default, given the status of English as the first language of neoliberalism? And if so, what kind of political practice should they undertake? With particular reference to Critical Pedagogy (CP) and its top dog Paolo Freire, a kind of debate has reared up via a series of blogposts, talks and tweets by Russ Mayne, Rob Sheppard, Steve Brown and, to a lesser extent, myself and a couple of others. It’s a problem I’ve been burrowing away at for some time now – with a recent re-read of Pedagogy of the Oppressed along the way – so it’s time to see if I can surface somewhere around the right place. 

To summarise, on the one hand we have Russ Mayne, for whom there is something fishy about the leftist agenda behind Critical Practice. CP is, at best, overly selective of topics to be critical about, and, at worst, pure indoctrination. For Mayne, education is or should be primarily about learning things, and there are at least some learnable things, like “mammals don’t lay eggs”, that are ideology-free.  Freire’s concept of oppression, while perhaps relevant in his historical context, is now too simplistic, and in any case, Mayne doesn’t trust teachers or course designers to decide what constitutes oppression in the first place.

On another hand Steve Brown, an advocate of Freire’s problem-posing, dialogic approach, pulls for education as emancipation. Highlighting the role of English, and ELT, in the proliferation and privileging of the neoliberal status quo, he’d say that we teachers, alongside our students, are already implicated in oppressive discourses of power. CP therefore involves making objects of knowledge from the arising contradictions via a dialogic process. Freire’s notion of oppression, he acknowledges, is simplistic, but perhaps a Foucauldian approach to power could be more productive (pun intended: one of Michel Foucault’s crucial points is about the productivity or generativity of power).

On a third hand (third way?), answering Mayne, Rob Sheppard claims that the number of teachers pushing their political agendas on students is negligible, but that politics is ever-present in the classroom and can be addressed in various ways. He bats for a kind of CP-light – he sees CP as detachable from Freire’s revolutionary politics – in the service of expanding learners’ world-views and teaching skills (critical thinking, debate) that are transferable to political activity, if learners want to take them there. Furthermore, he advocates a zero-tolerance policy on discriminatory language from students, at least where students’ core identities are being attacked or denied, appealing to a set of liberal values that he argues ought to be universal. “Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance: these are not legitimate political views. That throughout history certain politicians have leveraged hate to sow division does not lend these views any legitimacy.”

If I have any of this wrong please tell me and I will correct it. Before moving on, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that all the people involved refer to quite different contexts: Sheppard and Brown to adult education (including immigrant/refugee education) in the USA and Scotland respectively, Mayne to EAP in England, and myself to the private ELT sector in Spain – although I do have 9 years experience in Steve Brown’s context. I should acknowledge that I worked alongside Steve for a few of those years, and in fact he was one of my Diploma tutors. I will from now on use the second names only in an attempt to keep everyone on a level, in some feint towards objectivity, although NEXT POST SPOILER ALERT!! … I probably agree with Brown the most, albeit with a ton of caveats. There’s something of value in all of the above positions, in spite of my disagreement with Sheppard most of all, and Mayne up to a point. Btw Brown did not serve up any CP on the Dip course as far as I recall (now I’m a Dip tutor myself I can see why) but then again he didn’t have a beard then, either.

None of the aforementioned contexts, however, were Paolo Freire’s first concern, although the adult education sectors of various first world countries have picked up on Freire’s ideas. In a sense, then, it’s no surprise that the two main advocates of CP here (Brown and Sheppard) have that background. I’ll get on to Freire, Brown and Mayne more in the next post – for now I’ll mainly be focusing on Sheppard’s response to Mayne.

“I’m a proud monkey”

(Kendrick Lamar, ‘The Blacker the Berry’)

I think I got off on the wrong foot with Rob Sheppard and the purpose of this post is not to get at him, it’s to gnaw away at some problems his post and Twitter comments raised for me. The example he cited on Twitter of zero-tolerance on discrimination was throwing out a student for persistently referring to black people as monkeys, and I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same myself. However, I’ve never been a big fan of being shut up or shutting other people up, even if their views are repellent, and what I took umbrage with initially was the casting of this exclusion as a moral imperative.

I also feel that the example is perhaps too toxic to be conclusive proof that, as Sheppard puts it, “the line that Russ overlooks [between what is an acceptable political topic or not in the classroom]  is not a particularly hazy one”. Even then, there are still a number of things I might try with the student and his monkeys before shutting him up and kicking him out (I’m not suggesting that Sheppard didn’t try any of this, but I’m not aware of him mentioning it). I wasn’t there, obviously, but I’ve got some form with this – a class with a Russian Jew and Turkish Muslim who hated each other, with the former also hating people of any colour other than white, i.e. the rest of his classmates.

  1. Is there anyone present at whom the remarks are directed or might feel they are the victim of those remarks? If so, and assuming that said person(s) are not now rolling up their sleeves in preparation for a more direct response, I’d want to give them a chance to speak and see where it leads us. I feel like we too often get offended on behalf of others, treating those others as automatic victims. I don’t think you’re a victim if you can speak up for yourself.
  2. If not, or if no student feels like answering (which is their right), or dialogue doesn’t get us anywhere, I’m going to give my opinion, which is pretty much Sheppard’s opinion, i.e. that in this context I think the remarks are unacceptable precisely because they dehumanise others. Secondly, they have nothing to do with what we’re trying to talk about (presumably). If the student keeps making them, then:
  3. Get them outside for the serious chat, with a warning that repetition is going to get them kicked out. Basically, it has become disruption. Disruption is something that’s stopping us doing our jobs and preventing other students learning anything. It’s not ideology-free but I feel it’s a better measure of when someone should get kicked out or not.
  4. Kick them out, send them to the DOS or whoever if all else fails.

There’s another way – maybe the Scottish way (of old) – which is probably liable to get you sacked these days, but God I wish I could use it. And no, it’s not what you think – it’s just verbal humiliation. I had a couple of teachers who were masters/mistresses of it. I don’t mean shouting and screaming, I mean perfectly calm remarks like:

  • “Yeah? Keep taking the tablets, son”. (Would now be seen as offensive to those actually on medication)
  • “Ach, away and play on the motorway” (Imagine if …!)
  • “Aye right. Go and take a long walk off a short pier. (See above)

The effect of these remarks, on the less-than-sharp teen tools at whom they were directed, was usually instantaneous. They just shut the fuck up as they tried to work out what was meant, by which time the teacher had deftly moved onto the next topic. Or the whole class just laughed. So here I’d really, really, want to say something about monkeys and dirty knuckles. We all come from apes, after all, it’s just that some of us still walk a bit funny.

Maybe it’s Twitter’s fault, but Sheppard’s view on this came across to me as too authoritarian, and I even suggested “intolerant”. He seems to assume that any questioning of such moral policing in these terms can only come from the extreme right. “There is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance.” This is to ignore the views of a significant current on the left which feels the left’s shift towards identity politics – by which I understand a primary focus on the rights and equality of the variety of racial, religious, sexual and gender identities –  has been a massive diversion from what the left should be about: tackling structural economic inequalities. The paradox of the new orthodox liberal leftism (I’m deliberately not calling it postmodern leftism or, shock horror, cultural marxism) is an authoritarian turn in which we find, for example, no-platforming of speakers whose views don’t fit into this new framework, and the branding of intolerant words by ordinary people as “hate speech”: words which cause damage – and which, like violent acts, have victims protected by law. If this is an application of Popper’s famous intolerance paradox, it is to misread Popper fundamentally. Popper did not equate the necessary intolerance of intolerant views with the silencing or prosecution of those views.

(By the way, in the Spanish context, it is the right who are predominantly responsible for censorship these days, but particularly regarding possible offense to ETA victims, the church, the royal family and the police (i.e. not lesbians, gays, trans people etc). It’s also worth noting, in an Anglo-American context, that there’s much stronger opposition to identity politics from the centre and right, especially with regard to censoring views that are intolerant towards minority identities, or (crucially for centrist liberals like Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson) can be seen as such. That’s too big a fish to fry for this blog post though.)

Sheppard, meanwhile, feels that:

No view that calls into question the humanity or equality of other people on the basis of who they are is acceptable in my classroom. The reason is very, very simple: I have students and colleagues of different races, genders, preferences, ethnicities, and religions in my classroom, and none of those people will be made to feel unwelcome simply for being who they are.

I’m not talking about the most liberal stances available, here; I simply require tolerance for those different from you. My students don’t need to agree with me about white privilege or affirmative action or immigration policies. We can disagree about these things without insulting or dehumanizing anyone.

Aside from the issue of speaking or acting for those being dehumanised, the first question for me here is where the line is drawn, and by what means we determine whether someone’s humanity/equality is being questioned. Sheppard does not offer any definition of racism as such, but the monkey guy example leaves things deceptively clear-cut. Furthermore, insofar as it relates to race rather than sexuality or gender, which is what I think Sheppard means by “preferences” (although this is obviously problematic), it might be a less complex example (but this is not to imply that categories of race are simple, fixed or immutable).

On everyday discrimination

Looking closer at how racist and other stereotypes operate, we encounter the profound ambivalence of much discriminatory language. Following Homi Bhabha’s analysis of colonial discourse, the fixing of stereotypes involves a kind of fetishism in which both affection and hostility come into play. “… [F]rom the loyal servant to Satan, from the loved to the hated; [there is] a shifting of subject positions in the circulation of colonial power” (Bhabha 1983, p. 31). This suggests that positive stereotypes emerge from the same fetishistic mechanism as negative ones – what they share is the reduction of subjectivity to a fixed, imaginary aspect. In this way, there are conflicting identities for colonised people circulating in colonial discourse.

It’s evident that much of this still applies in a multicultural, postcolonial framework. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve heard in a classroom and others which I believe could be heard:

  • “I don’t send my kids to public school because there are too many immigrants. No I’m not racist, it’s just that they don’t speak good Catalan and I want my kids to speak good Catalan.” (Immigrants as a homogenised group who don’t integrate well)
  • “Neil you’re not an immigrant, you’re basically the same colour as us.” (Northern Europeans are superior, darker skinned people inferior)
  • “The Chinese are good for this city. They are hard workers.” (A positive stereotype but reductive of all Chinese to machine-like workers to whom normal workers’ rights do not apply)
  • “We’d have Catalan independence if it weren’t for people from outside.” (Spanish and naturalised Latino incomers viewed as non-Catalan despite generations of living in Catalonia)
  • “Of course gays are equal to us but I don’t think kids should be taught about it in school.”
  • “I don’t think a man who becomes a woman is the same as someone born a woman. I don’t want trans women in my toilet, especially if they’re pre-op.” (There seem to be a growing number of women, particularly feminists, with this view, so much so they’ve been nicknamed TERFs by the trans community (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist))
  • “Well you know of course women just don’t have the brains for work in technology, it’s a biological fact” (An argument often heard from the centrist liberals opposed to identity politics, not only the right)
  • “You fucking porridge wog!” (Remark directed towards me by an English colleague on more than one occasion. He thought it was absolutely hilarious)

In all these cases, someone or some group is being dehumanised or at least regarded as not equal, which fits with Sheppard’s definition, but I don’t feel like any of them merits zero tolerance (bar the last one, although I dealt with it with some variation of the aforementioned “Scottish way”). Some are hugely problematic, of course, and any classroom discussion is going to be difficult. But it’s the ones that often aren’t seen as problematic – in my context, particularly the first four – which invoke the biggest risk in terms of wanting to get into them at all. It’s this kind of everyday intolerance that I usually, perhaps to my shame, let go and move on quickly, maybe after a remark signalling my disagreement. It’s partly because I feel I’m not really working in any kind of CP dialogic framework in my teaching, certainly not with the in-company classes that make up the bulk of my job (more on this in the next post). I also know from bitter experience, especially in relation to the Catalan independence question, that language learning tends to go out the window when opinions get heated. Hackles are guaranteed to rise, and if I wade in, at least half the class will be baring their teeth in my direction (and making lots of language mistakes in the process).

Should I be stronger in censoring or censuring this type of throwaway discrimination?  Sheppard reassures us that “the intolerance of human beings on the basis of who they are is not morally equivalent to the intolerance of particular views. Jews need not apply and Nazis need not apply are fundamentally different.” Maybe they are, but my worry is about precisely who gets to decide which views are not to be tolerated. The “Nazis need not apply” example is particularly telling. It seems to me that both in the USA and Europe, and most certainly in Spain, words like Nazi and fascist are rapidly losing meaning as they are hurled at anyone, particularly from the left, for practically any reason. I have at least one colleague in Barcelona who has been called a fascist during class discussions on independence, just for voicing support for Catalonia staying in Spain. I fully acknowledge the relatively recent history of fascism in Spain and how Catalonia was impacted, but we are losing all sense of perspective if we are resorting to that type of language for a difference of opinions on independence, and showing a profound disrespect to those who have fought against and suffered under fascist regimes. Ironically, the very act of calling out here is a somewhat totalitarian gesture.

And what happens, in the case of the comment on trans women and toilets, if I actually agree? Or at least understand how women could feel that way? There is a big issue at stake regarding at which point trans identities can be recognised as such, and for some people, an individual’s assertion that s/he is really living this identity is not enough. Furthermore, there are troubling (for me) issues regarding gender essentialism in some parts of the debate over trans identities, which in some ways can be seen to reinforce, rather than challenge, what is stereotypically feminine or masculine. Much the same, of course, can be said of many so-called cis-gendered people. So this issue for me is not about saying trans people shouldn’t have equal rights. It’s about talking through the complexity of identity because the explosion of identity politics has the potential to trouble the very notion of rights on which Sheppard’s argument rests, or in his words, “principles of basic decency that ought to be universals”.

(Sex, funnily enough for me, could be the one thing worth being binary and essentialist (biological) about here. I might get in trouble for this but I’m being not being entirely flippant. I appreciate there are intersex people and the issue there is not clear-cut at all. I also appreciate that the concept is asymmetrical. But if one could enter a toilet (and I realise how impractical this is) simply based on one’s genitals it would actually just cut this debate dead, provided that (and this is of course crucial) a safe and welcoming space is provided for people who identify with a gender that doesn’t apparently match those genitals. For God’s sake, we’re adults here. Without scaremongering we have to acknowledge the possibility of predatory non-trans men using trans identities to gain access to female-only spaces. Also, I like the idea of toilets which, rather than Ladies or Gents, are “[insert your favourite pet names for male and female genitalia]”.)

Lacan Blog 3

“A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next to the window through which the building along the station platform can be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. ‘Look’, says the brother, ‘We’re at Ladies!’ ‘Idiot!’ replies his sister, ‘Can’t you see we’re at Gentlemen?’ (Lacan 2002, p. 143)


Rights (and lefts) (or what the Butler said)

As I hinted at before, people like Jordan Peterson are entirely wrong when they attribute identity politics and PC culture to the dominance of “postmodern”, “neo-marxist” thinking in North American academic culture, particularly in the social sciences. Thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and more recently Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek – via Marx – are regarded as high priests of the new orthodoxy in their theories on the subjugation of the other. It’s just that rather than undoing pecking orders based on class, they do it with sexuality, race etc. The argument plainly doesn’t stand up, mainly because most poststructuralists have (at least) a complicated relationship with Marx and Marxism (Derrida is bitchily caricatured by Žižek as having been a liberal voter for sure); secondly, because the main thrust of poststructural thought calls coherent identity into question; and third, because Žižek isn’t really a poststructuralist at all, although he does look like one to most.

So the real background to identity politics, I suspect, has got far more to do with the history of civil rights in the USA, the power that allows an identity to claim “I am somebody”, to come to voice. This is inseparable from the principles of liberal individualism. It also, ironically, has far more impact, more discursive power, than the voice of those who claim to represent that liberal status quo. That voice represents a false neutrality – that’s to say, it can’t reveal its racial or other bias because it’s supposed to stand for universality itself. And so it cannot say “I am somebody” because that would be to particularise itself, and thereby to call itself into question. It can only omit, oppress or adapt – say, “OK yeah, you are somebody – welcome to the club. By the way, I’m nobody in particular.” 

In Foucault’s terms, there is a force of resistance generated by the oppressive exercise of power that can be transformative. In the history of sexuality, the category of homosexuality (as a coherent identity, an identity which defines someone) was in part the invention of a medical science which regarded homosexual acts as perversions to be studied. In being named, described and “treated”, homosexuality became a political category which in turn generated a counterforce of resistance from a group which now had an identity, or at least a discursive position from which to organise and fight back. Fight back they did, and the gains made by gay and lesbian people in terms of recognition and rights are fairly spectacular.

The flipside of all this is the commodification of identity itself. Žižek (in an otherwise ill-considered 2016 article on the debate over access to public toilets for trans people) finds it unsurprising that big businesses such as Apple and Google are fully supportive of trans rights because the claim for those rights is actually not at all controversial for capitalism. In a way, there’s a consonance between the proliferation of new identities (and the apparent fluidity between some of them) and the promises of capitalism itself – you can be who you feel you are, you can change, you can choose (endlessly). I’m aware that’s not how many trans people feel and that there are criticisms of this neoliberal turn from the left of the trans community itself (see e.g. Spade 2009). Žižek is also unfair to Judith Butler, on whose theory of gender identity much queer and trans thinking rests. But it has to be said that the claim to ontological integrity on the part of new identities, a basic condition for the reclamation of universal rights, is also a basic condition for having stuff sold to you as part of a group worth marketing to, as well as somewhat at odds with the apparent challenge to the concept of identity that transgender people pose.

Butler’s theory, at bottom, is that all gender is performative. She builds this on Lacan’s work on sexual difference and Foucault’s theories of the discursive construction of sexuality, along the way challenging the psychoanalytic status of the incest taboo as the founding determiner of heteronormative gender/sexuality. It’s a compelling argument which blows open the sex/gender distinction and opens a space for transformation, even in regard to so-called straight, cis-gendered identities. Just like with the status quo, as mentioned above, little was written or said about what it was to be straight, particularly a straight man – as occupiers of the default universal position, straight men are not to be particularised, they do the talking about other particularities. Regarding straight male identity as another performance or set of performances (not so much conscious acts as kinds of culturally and psychically constituted roleplays) is therefore a fundamental challenge to the patriarchal order. But it left Butler vulnerable to Žižek’s charge of pandering, at the same time, to late capitalism’s privileging of plastic identities, ever shifting with the tide.

Putting aside their differences for now – outlined most clearly in their book with Ernesto Laclau – what Žižek and Butler both agree on is a kind of Hegelian concept of universality which particular groups can fight to gain access to, but which always already has another side, some particular content which is excluded. The universal thereby becomes a battleground for hegemony, for the recognition of rights of different identities at different historical junctures. What it tends to exclude at a formal level, for Žižek, is the particular of capitalism itself, which is nevertheless the invisible ground of universality, subjectivity and the various claims to rights. 

Butler’s response to Žižek’s accusations regarding the consonance between performative identities and capitalism is a useful one, I think. Casting doubt on the success of the gay rights movement, she points to the campaigns to gain access to the military or to legalise marriage, and the dissonance this has caused among some quarters of the gay community. The thing to do, she argues

is to investigate what kinds of identifications are made possible, are fostered and compelled, within a given political field, and how certain forms of instability are opened up within that political field by virtue of the process of identification itself. If the interpellation of the shiny, new gay citizen requires a desire to be included within the ranks of the military and to exchange marital vows under the blessing of the state, then the dissonance opened up by this very interpellation opens up in turn the possibility of breaking apart the pieces of this suddenly conglomerated identity. It works against the congealment of identity into a taken-for-granted set of interlocking positions and, by underscoring the failure of identification, permits for a different sort of hegemonic formation to emerge.

(Butler, Laclau & Žižek, 2000, p. 150)

This, for me, is crucial, and what is lacking from Sheppard’s analysis is precisely this view of human rights as the site of considerable struggle, one which can indeed undo the coherence of the very identities which claim them (including the most dominant ones, of course). “I am somebody” becomes, in a way, “I’m not that somebody”. Rather than undermine any political action, this generates new sites of struggle, ones that are sometimes difficult to take a position on as they become visible. It also recognises the cultural situatedness of the various struggles for rights in different contexts – as does Sheppard when he briefly acknowledges that “context does matter”, but I think he rather foxtrots around this issue. The key point is that the line between the mentionable and unmentionable in the classroom is not only hazy at critical points but is liable to shift fundamentally at different moments in time. 

Where I agree with Žižek is on how capitalism and class relations tend to become excluded from the discussion on universality and rights. These factors are also conspicuous by their absence in the current debate on CP so far, aside from some vague references to oppression. I will get onto this in the next post, where I’ll try to take a closer look at CP, whether or not we can detach it from a radical political agenda, and where and how it could be applicable to English language teaching.

This should, I hope, signal that my criticisms of identity politics and unease at left-liberal prescriptions are coming themselves from the left. If we are to believe in something beyond capitalism, issues of economic power and structures of class have to be brought back to the table. The claims of particular groups identified along other lines are of course important, but if we ignore economic relations, we foreclose all possibility of social transformation. 


Links to the relevant blogposts and talks are given in the first paragraph.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1983. “The Other Question”. Screen 24.6, pp. 18–36.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. 2000. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary dialogues on the left. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Lacan, Jacques. 2002. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co.

Spade, Dean. 2009. “Trans Law & Politics on a Neoliberal Landscape”. Online. Accessed 3/8/18.