Let’s talk about playwright and author David Mamet’s recent comments about teachers. We aren’t linking the interview here, and I listened to it so you wouldn’t have to. You’ve probably seen the social media uproar.
To summarize, Mamet claimed that teachers, and male teachers especially, are prone to pedophilia. He accused teachers in general of grooming students through sex. First, let’s be clear about something: these statements were not made in the context of an otherwise enlightening and informative interview. The conversation began with both the host and guest lamenting the state of a nation that would dare oppose the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida. Mamet went on to connect the discussion of homosexuality or trans rights to the practice of male teachers.
This is an attack on teachers, on gay men, and on non-traditional (non-patriarchal) roles of all types. Let us count the ways Mamet is wrong, with some inspiration from a few 20th-century American playwrights whose words actually matter today.
1. Truth matters
There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity…You can smell it. It smells like death. —Tennessee Williams, ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’
Okay, I’m an ELA teacher, and I still had to look up “mendacity.” But now that I know what it means (“dishonesty”), I can see exactly what Tennessee Williams is talking about. Nothing about this interview was true. It is untrue to say that teachers, male or female, are prone to abusing children.
The nature of sexual abuse in schools is complex and shrouded in shame and secrecy, so the real numbers will likely never be fully understood. The fact is, all abuse is wrong. The nonprofit Innocent Lives Foundation has a lot of great facts on the subject.
Mamet’s interview, however, isn’t about protecting children. It’s about preventing nonbinary children from experiencing a true sense of belonging at school and preventing all the other students from being able to understand those experiences. These are the same people who believe that trans-positive health care is child abuse.
2. Sex, gender, and orientation aren’t choices
People are not so dreadful when you know them. That’s what you have to remember! —Tennessee Williams, ‘The Glass Menagerie’,1944.
This is not a political question. This is science. Very simply, getting rid of conversations about nonbinary humans—in our schools and families—isn’t going to change the fact that some of us are nonbinary. As a society, we have a responsibility to move forward together, and we can’t do that when we pretend that some of us don’t exist. Do we talk about these things, or do we refuse to? Do we act to support people whose needs we just learned about, or do we pretend those needs aren’t there?
In “Belonging: A Culture of Place,” bell hooks wrote, “What has become clear is that education for critical consciousness coupled with anti-racist activism…on the basis of openness, shared struggle, and inclusive working together offers us the continued possibility of eradicating racism.” As educators, we have a special responsibility to create a place of belonging for all students, and that doesn’t mean we are grooming. It means we are treating students with respect.
3. History’s lessons
The details of our struggle to survive and prosper, in what has been a difficult and sometimes bitter relationship with a system of laws and practices that deny us access to the tools necessary for productive and industrious life, are available to any serious student of history or sociology. —August Wilson
Mamet is also wrong because his interpretation of history is inaccurate, while good teaching and learning is about being truthful and curious.
Both men invoke Margaret Sanger, whose beliefs about eugenics and race are frequently employed to vilify the abortion rights she also advocated for. Context matters, however. This can be a teaching opportunity—about false equivalencies and about how supporting nonbinary youth to develop a positive and real sense of personal and social belonging is not the same as eugenics.
Acts of exclusion and acts of inclusion are very different. We can teach our students, as well, about fear-mongering and scapegoating. History matters, because we have to understand the past just as we must be willing to move into the future.
4. Our existential threat
Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion. —Thornton Wilder
Mamet is wrong in a dangerous way because his words reinforce attacks on educators from all sides. The substance of these arguments barely matters anymore—they’ve taken on critical mass, and now every word of criticism just adds to the chorus of voices weighing us down every day.
In some states, simply teaching the truth can get teachers in trouble. Many teachers risk their careers simply for sharing the most basic information about their lives. We don’t have time or energy to argue each point or address each ridiculous “argument,” and comments like his only make things worse.
We’re tired of defending ourselves from these straw man attacks, and we shouldn’t have to do it anymore. Period.
What should we be doing? Let’s advocate for diverse voices in literature and entertainment, and let’s bring them into our classrooms, too. Many of the writers on this list of great American playwrights have had their work beautifully adapted for the screen, from Tennessee Williams to August Wilson and beyond. That’s how we go from fearing the future to embracing it.