Teacher Fired for "Joking": That's No Joke

11/02/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

A veteran teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City turned to two black ninth grade students on his first day in class this fall and reportedly said, "I hope I'll be able to tell you apart." After declining an opportunity to resign with several months' severance pay, the teacher was terminated by the school's Head. It is germane to note that the teacher is a 58 year-old white male who grew up in South Africa during apartheid and apparently acted with some moral courage during his mandatory Army service. Equally important context is that Fieldston's head of school, new on the job, is an openly gay Latino, committed to the school's roots in ethical learning.

All hell broke loose. The teacher's union immediately protested the alleged lack of process. Union arbitration is scheduled for next month. Parents are up in arms and as of two weeks ago 60% of upper school students had signed a petition seeking his reinstatement.

According to the New York Times, the teacher denies the specific allegation, admitting that the above quote was "the gist" of what he said, but insisting that it was taken out of context and that his intent was misinterpreted. The administration and some parents and students alluded to similar remarks in the past. The head of school said that it "had been a pattern of behavior, that this was not a one-time incident." One student described the teacher as "hilarious and a lot of fun." Another mentioned his "stupid, mean jokes." The Times article characterized him as a "love him or hate him" sort of teacher, with the "loves" apparently holding a significant majority.

The highly polarized responses to the teacher's termination are instructive. The Times article was followed by more than 300 comments, many from Fieldston's various constituents.

The strong reaction to the termination is surprising, particularly given the supposed liberal bent of the Fieldston community. Fieldston was among the iconic leaders of progressive education in America a century ago, with a strong commitment to social justice, inclusion and diversity and has continued to pursue those values into the present. Yet even in this progressive context a great many folks are quick to accusations of political correctness or to cite the lack of humor among the sensitive.

These are not good times for "political correctness," a phrase that has been relegated to sneering sound bite on conservative cable. It seems nearly any argument can be ended with an accusation of political correctness, thereby dismissing the other party as oversensitive, cautious, paranoid, manipulative or pandering.

Quite to the contrary. Those who use PC as a pejorative are excusing incivility, condoning insensitivity, and contributing to the coarsening of political and social discourse. We should all be politically correct if it means using language that is inoffensive and treating each other with empathy. In matters of race, sexual identity or any other aspect of an individual's existence, it is simply common courtesy to use terminology that individuals prefer and to avoid those things that they find offensive. Just because one has the Constitutional right to be offensive, one needn't exercise that right.

The Fieldston case is even clearer, as teachers don't have a Constitutional right to be offensive or hurtful to students. A student who is leading the petition process for the teacher's reinstatement said, "A lot of the teachers are worried that his firing will chill their speech." If racially charged jokes aimed at ninth graders represent a class of expression worth protection at Fieldston, the school has some mighty big problems. Many adults who should know better have also offered a "free speech" defense of the teacher, reminding me of middle school children insisting on their Constitutional right to tell fart jokes at the dinner table.

It is troubling that this teacher and some of his peers don't find this behavior problematic. If the reports of his behavior are accurate, he doesn't care if his jokes are "funny" to the targets of his sarcasm. That's their problem, he seems to think. They need to learn how to take a joke. They should grow a thicker skin.

It is incomprehensible that a 58 year-old teacher wouldn't know that "you all look alike" is historically belittling and potentially excruciating for a teenager of color to hear. It's not the phrase itself. It is the hundreds of years of accumulated oppression that come with it. It is narcissistic to insist on the right to characterize anyone or any experience the way you want to just because you don't think it should be painful.

If refraining from such "jokes" is political correctness, then call me politically correct.