In Defense of Passion

Do Strong Feelings--Angry or Otherwise--Have Any Role in Professionalism?

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When I agreed to give a talk to my colleagues about language that creates a hostile environment for women, I expected some negative reaction, no matter what I did or didn't say. Many people have, after all, been working conscientiously to avoid discriminating speech and action, and so it's understandable that some people feel thanklessly harangued whenever they hear more about what not to do.

Still, I was surprised at the outcome of my talk. While I had expected some listeners to question whether I'd chosen appropriate examples (and they did), I had not anticipated the most frequent criticism I received: Several colleagues complained that I had been too "emotional" and too "passionate" in the presentation. And those qualities led several people to judge that I had been "unprofessional."

Because it was important to me that this talk go well, and because it didn't, I've given a great deal of thought to this criticism. At first, chagrined by the results, I was inclined to accept the charge as valid: Yes, I had let my feelings show, and that was a bad thing. My most immediate reaction was a fervent desire to go around apologizing to my dispassionate, more "professional" colleagues.

Later, however, as I thought more deeply about events, I realized that to accept the criticism as valid was to endorse a common assumption that I'd never consciously thought through for myself. That is, it seems tacitly agreed that to be a professional means to be cool, calm, and collected at all times; professionals act always with their heads, never with their hearts. I began to wonder: Do I really agree with that notion? Do strong feelings--angry or otherwise--have any role in professionalism? Should professionals camouflage their deepest feelings with unemotional (if bland or downright anemic) rhetoric, or is there a place for passion in what we do?

On the surface, the questions seem deceptively simple. Many people in my corner of the state, variously bemused and outraged by the recent spectacle of "professional" educators engaging in fisticuffs at a school board meeting to settle a difference of opinion, would argue that emotional acts like punching someone's face in constitute anything but "professional" behavior. I'd agree, of course. Any emotional behavior which seeks to hurt others--physically or mentally--seems to me clearly out of bounds (and not just for professionals, either).

I'd also outlaw self-serving whining based on little more than ego or self-pity. I don't want to hear an administrator whining in general and in the abstract about teachers being lazy and unsupportive, or teachers whining similarly about dense administrators; I'm interested in such criticism only when it's accompanied by several specific examples demonstrating the grounds on which it's founded. "Poor me" is an opinion, not an argument. Professionals ought to know the difference, and to construct the latter.

So, I'd say that a "professional" should shun emotional behavior that harms others, and emotional claims that lack supporting evidence. But it seems to me that many other possibilities remain where judgments are not so quickly and easily made. Should we, for example, always present supporting evidence in a monotone? There has to be support, yes; but must that support be presented as if it were neutral, as if the presenter were dispassionate on the topic? I'm not sure that's always possible--and even if it is, I'm not at all sure it's desirable.

A story I often tell my students comes to mind. Once, when I was a young teacher, a high school student I had mentored improved his grades from F's to A's, despite serious problems at home. His academic and social progress were well documented by his school performance records. Unfortunately, he appeared on the campus of his private school drunk at a time the school wanted to "make an example" of someone in order to curb an extensive student drinking problem. Unlike several other students who had been apprehended in a similar condition, this student did not have a family with a history of generous contributions to the school. Therefore, despite impassioned personal arguments I made on his behalf to every member of the disciplinary board and the factual evidence I offered to support my argument, the student was expelled.

I was angry, believing that the decision had been made based on financial expediency, without careful consideration of likely consequences for the student. And I expressed my anger openly to the people who made the decision. Several negative things subsequently happened, "punishing" me for my "emotional" behavior. But what happened to me is inconsequential compared with what happened to the student. Within weeks of his expulsion, he was in a mental institution.

Given the consequences to the student (which I had anticipated would be devastating), and given that teachers may be called professionals only if they accept ethical responsibility for student welfare, how could my passionate defense of the student be inappropriate? Given that silent acquiescence to bad policy allows bad policy to continue unchecked and even unremarked, how could my insistence that the administrators' actions not be allowed to pass without public protest be inappropriate? Given that American schools boast about preparing students for active, democratic citizenship, how could it be inappropriate for a minority opinion to be expressed publicly in the appropriate community? Others might disagree with my judgment that the action was not moral: fair enough. I fully understand that my view will not always be everyone's view, and that I have no godlike claim to being always and everywhere "right." Yes, of course there has to be a place for respectful disagreement in any community, and I can't confuse my convictions with "truth." But if the minority cannot claim truth, neither can the majority--and in a democratic society, minority opinions are supposed to be protected.

Moreover, I don't see why admitting that others might reasonably disagree with me somehow precludes the appropriateness of my feeling and expressing moral outrage. Of course I shouldn't say to others, "I think you're the scum of the earth" but I don't believe that precludes saying, "I value human health above financial health, and since this action seems to me to reverse those priorities, I am morally repelled by it."

When and how did "passionate" become a pejorative when applied to professional speech? When did "emotional" come to be equated with "female" and "unreasonable" and "unprofessional?" Or perhaps those are the wrong questions to pose. Perhaps much better ones are: "How do those associations and prejudices manage to survive so late in the 20th century when feminism has accomplished so much in other areas? When will the mainstream educational establishment ever get it? When will they recognize the value of characteristics traditionally deemed feminine and the weaknesses in characteristics traditionally termed masculine?" And another question, more important still: "Why do educators, of all people, consider passion a quality that professional practitioners ought to avoid, or at least hide?"

There's a lot for professional educators to be passionate about. American businesses have made huge inroads in efforts to transform students into avid consumers of junk food for body and mind, teaching young women that "pretty" means thin and teaching all youngsters that what's "good" is what everyone else has. Worse, countless American children are today in dirty, rundown, and impossibly overcrowded schools lacking equipment, supplies, and qualified teachers, as Jonathan Kozol has been documenting for years. In America (which talks often and loudly about being the land of opportunity and justice), children routinely go to sleep hungry and routinely face numbing cold without suitable winter clothing. Are we to look at such conditions and, after years of documentation, say again, calmly, dispassionately, to those in charge, "Excuse me, but this doesn't seem like a good situation. Might we perhaps do something about it?"

I would argue that such a dispassionate attitude is exactly what enables current conditions to exist indefensibly and apparently infinitely. Calm discourse is important. But discussing well-documented conditions that harm others, especially children, in the same tone of voice one might use to order a pound of bologna or to disagree with a movie review seems to me nothing short of inhuman. And it certainly hasn't done much to change the world.

Our passion--for justice, for learning, for children--ought to be the driving motivation behind our every act, every day. If I am passionate about the welfare of children or of women or of any human being, then every day I will be moved to ask what I can do today to help others see why I care so much about certain issues and to consider helping try to change things. Lacking passion, my "convictions" become a sort of hobby, something I trot out on state occasions like job interviews or in response to national reports of atrocities.

When the tortured death of a New York City child made national headlines in 1995, for example, even the "objective" press reacted passionately, decrying the obscene event, saying maybe now something will happen to improve living conditions for abused children. A year later, we had similar reports of a four-year-old starved to death by her mother. Apparently, not much--certainly not enough--changed in the months between. If the "passion" expressed in news articles was genuine, where did it all go when the headlines moved on to new stories?

I would argue that we've muzzled moral outrage, restricted its appearance to places where it's become a staged catharsis. It's all right (and politically desirable) to vent it once in a while, to decry this or that obscenity someone else is perpetrating. That allows us to congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority--and to excuse ourselves from thinking about and acting upon pesky outrageous conditions on a daily basis.

I disagree with the notion that showing our emotions, being openly passionate about issues, is always "unprofessional." In fact, I'm not at all sure that the kind of passion that moves people to action--even unpopular action--isn't required of an educator who considers ethical responsibility for the welfare of students a serious obligation.

So, no: I won't pretend not to be emotional about some issues. I am angry that parents and teachers alike abuse children, and that administrators and authorities too frequently do little to stop it. I am angry that even after years of progress, women are still discriminated against in countless (if increasingly subtle) ways.

Yes, I'm angry. Many things are not O.K., and I'm not going to pretend they are. At this point in my life, I'm angry about a lot of things. And I don't see that hiding the anger has done anything except provide for the comfort of others. Dismissing anger about some issues as "unprofessional" is, to my mind, a cheap way to get off the hook for being unwilling to do anything about them.

Having decided for myself that it's just fine for me to let my feelings show now and again, let me also note that I won't call anyone names as I discuss these issues angrily, as I appear in public with my passion showing. I will have my evidential ducks in a row. And I won't assume the worst of those whose actions I'd like to change; while it's sad (not to mention maddening), it's also true, I know, that many people in positions of authority don't know better. And it will be much more productive to educate them than to yell at them, I know. I know.

But I don't want to hear that I have no right to be angry, and that it's unprofessional to speak with passion in public. I'm far from the only person--especially among my female colleagues--who's angry. Maybe, instead of criticizing our anger, it's time for others to take a closer, more thoughtful look at what's generating the heated rhetoric we bring to discussions of ignorance, inequity, and injustice.

Vol. 16, Issue 14, Pages 38, 41

Published in Print: December 4, 1996, as In Defense of Passion
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