Complications with the ROTL: Should you get the Right to Speak, Listen and Be Heard… even if those ideas are rooted in stereotypes and biases?


Yesterday and today news surfaced that a software engineer at Google wrote a 3,300 word memo outlining why there is really no bias in the workplace that is against women. The author claims that the real truth is that women are just not equipped to handle high-stress jobs (From the source: Women suffer from “Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”)

The author of the ten-page memo goes on to say that he knows his words will not be received well by Google and the executives, but hopes there will be an open dialogue about the ideas he is presenting. The author claims that he sees the need for equal opportunities (namely for women) as affecting the bottom line of Google’s product, service, and quality of product and service. As a result, Google fired the engineer who wrote the memo. And then the internet broke itself.

Suddenly there were claims that his first amendment rights to voice those concerns were being trampled.


This to me this story is reminiscent of many stories in the recent past about those from both sides who cry foul when their speaking engagements are canceled due to protests or when they don’t get enough equal airtime on the TV shows, especially those speakers who are fairly controversial. One famous event was Ann Coulter speaking at UC Berkeley. Coulter claimed that Berkeley was a place where radical left/liberals only embraced their own perspectives;  it was not she who was intolerant, but Berkeley themselves by caving to public pressure and forcing her to withdraw.

What I found fascinating about this story was watching an interview with Coulter and Robert Reich (professor of public policy at Berkeley) where they discussed the very premise of Coulter’s argument: Should Berkeley uninvite Coulter simply because some students on campus disagreed with her position on immigration, public safety, education, etc.? (Full disclosure: I find nearly everything that Coulter says are inflammatory and rooted in biases, stereotypes, and racism… and more racism. I’d prefer to not repeat anything on this blog, but you get the point if you read a page from any of her many books.) Not surprisingly, Dr. Reich said in the interview that no, Berkeley in fact made the wrong move, according to a constitutional interpretation, and that Coulter should have been allowed to speak.

[Record scratch] Wait… what?

Coulter should be allowed to say inflammatory things that are so fundamentally skewed that her very speech potentially disseminates misinformation and hate?????? His response was yes, and I paraphrase, because the first amendment gives us that freedom, everyone including Coulter, to state your opinions AS WELL AS the freedom to protest against those stated opinions.

Fair point, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re a teacher and you have impressionable students that are still learning how to discern what’s just, what’s fair, what’s an authentic interpretation of the law and someone else’s truth, what’s just straight up crazy spin, and to decide WHO will benefit from those ideas.

I don’t know that you can always afford equal platforms for all voices… or should you?  Well, if we return back to the Google issue, according to Daisuke Wakabayashi at the NYT the Google engineer claimed that if he were to be fired or fear retribution for his memo, then those actions were treading on the right to speak your mind and raise your concerns with the boss and it reminded me of my practice as a teacher:

James Damore, the software engineer who wrote the original memo, confirmed in an email to The New York Times that he had been fired. Mr. Damore had worked at Google since 2013. He said in his memo that he had written it in the hope of having an “honest discussion” about how the company had an intolerance for ideologies that do not fit into what he believed were its left-leaning biases.

Mr. Damore, who worked on infrastructure for Google’s search product, said he believed that the company’s actions were illegal and that he would “likely be pursuing legal action.”

“I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does,” Mr. Damore said.

Here is where the Rights of the Learner get complicated for me.

Where do (or should) I stand if in my classroom I have the following to consider:

  • I am a tenure track assistant professor who’s job security is at stake like everyone else on the tenure track. Giving an open forum for people to say anything and everything is just as dangerous and risky as silencing speech.
  • I want to help my students grapple with important topics like race, class, gender, power, and privilege as a way of getting more students to exercise their power to dismantle those oppressive structures and systems
  • I want to promote a safe place for my students to share their ideas
  • I cringe when I receive poor teaching evaluation comments because of the things I talk about in my class and students disagree with the premise of those discussions, but that doesn’t stop me from positioning myself in a stance of social justice and equity
  • I fundamentally refuse to let my classroom be a place where students can present ideas rooted in bigotry, hated, and misinformation AS FACT and not check them on credible, reliable sourcing
  • I live in Texas where there is now Open Carry laws in effect on college campuses (Which is not to say I am against the second amendment, but honor the fact that a student who disagrees with me can openly. carry. a. gun. to. my. class).

And STILL, I write about the Rights of the Learner.  I write about how I believe it is crucial, important, and critical for my students to have the right to speak, listen, and be heard. Period.

Really? Is that a full stop? Well, that doesn’t seem “right” either.

Shouldn’t I step in and address misinformation and hate that I hear? Does the Right of the Learner include the right to say something like “9-11 was an inside job, we know for a fact that vaccines cause autism, or that all immigrants are lazy and want to live off the government welfare system?” Well, I guess because I believe in the constitution and freedom of speech. (Interestingly, I’ve had students actually say ALL OF THESE THINGS in my Theory of Curriculum and Instruction class before). Don’t I also have the right or duty to challenge you on those ideas, to present you with facts, quality analyses that present an objective approach to discussing these ideas AND for you to listen to me present those ideas without getting defensive.




#IAmOKWithThat #DotDotDot #ForNow

I am anxiously ready to engage with you about these ideas if you’re willing and ready too. Just know, I don’t have all the answers and have never claimed to either.

Update: I have thought a lot about this post and others have helped me to think more deeply about this complication with the ROTL with respect to stereotypes and biases. Below is my reflection after more than a week. 

I apply the ROTL to nearly everything that I do, especially in my work as a math teacher educator. I teach graduate courses in curriculum and instruction and I similarly feel that my graduate students deserve the right to be confused when I talk about heteronormativity and/or why the Mexican American Studies fight in CA and AZ is important for interrupting how we have taught Eurocentric perspectives of history in our schools. But specifically with my new teachers, some of them come to my class with stereotypes about the children that they might teach, about the communities they might work in/with, and the families that they should actively work to engage and collaborate in their work. When I first started teaching math methods, I had students say “but I don’t want to be placed in ‘these schools’ because their parents don’t care about education, kids don’t come with a pencil, and they don’t even speak English. I bet probably aren’t even legal citizens. How am I supposed to teach them?” I have always encouraged my students to speak their truth (ROTL 3), but have equally struggle as a teacher when those “truths” fundamentally dehumanize children, families, and communities that are constantly under attack. At what point does the ROTL that I profess as a cornerstone to my practice become counterproductive and potentially reifies those stereotypes? I think where I am at right now is that my students should have the ROTL, BUT what they say, write, or do should NOT go without critique or question. The ROTL shouldn’t give you the absolute right to make others feel less-than-human or to make others feel unsafe. We truly are stronger together and that includes honoring the rights of others. #SmarterStrongerTogether

One Reply to “Complications with the ROTL: Should you get the Right to Speak, Listen and Be Heard… even if those ideas are rooted in stereotypes and biases?”

  1. Well, I thought the rights in the bill of rights just meant that you would not be ARRESTED for exercising freedom of speech. I don’t think that first amendment means you get to keep your job at a private company or that you get to give a speech on whatever you want, whenever you want. You just don’t get arrested and put in jail for speaking.

    My current thinking about your wonderments here — which are important and I share them! — is that the rights of the learner are important to explore in the context of intellectual courage, intellectual honesty, and wise restraint — see Lampert’s (1990) “When the Problem is not the Question and the Solution is not the Answer.” By this, I mean that we not only need the courage to speak our (current) truth and the space to do so, but it’s important to explore these (current) truths with a disposition of humility, an openness to being wrong, a willingness to revise these “rough drafts” (if you will) and to assume our current ways of thinking are potentially revisable (but It is also good to make judicious decisions about when and how to revise).

    When humility comes into play in these discussions, they’re slightly easier to have, maybe? But how can we promote humility? We can model it, I guess? Is that enough?

    Just some current ideas. This wonderment is a hard one for me.


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