The dangers of ‘educate yourself’

By Stefan Herlitz

(Collegian File Photo)
(Photo by Cade Belisle)

A phrase that has become increasingly common in discussions of modern social issues, “it’s not my job to educate you” has, alongside its sibling “educate yourself”, become one of many things socially-minded people say when fighting the good fight against ignorance and intolerance. There comes, after all, a certain point at which someone’s views not only seem wrong, but outright repulsive, a point encompassing everything from misogynistic Facebook and Twitter posts to racist speeches by politicians. Surely, we tell ourselves, at this point there is no longer a debate – there are just people who are right, and people who maliciously insist on upholding outdated, backwards views. To a degree, we are right – some things are simply not morally debatable. The existence of institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia, among numerous other social ills, is not a topic of discussion but a cold, hard fact, and no one should have to pretend that refusing to acknowledge this is okay for the sake of a debate. Those who tell people to go educate themselves do so because it isn’t their job, and shouldn’t be, to explain things that all decent people should already understand.

This does not, however, mean that it’s ever actually a good idea to tell someone it’s not your job to educate them. The phrase, while a statement of fact, has no redeeming value. It ends a conversation on a negative note, and doesn’t do anything to fix the problems of society – rather, it does the opposite. To the person to whom you say it, “It’s not my job to educate you” is just a more erudite way of yelling, “you’re wrong,” and storming off – to them it’s both unconvincing and incredibly condescending. Because of this, bigots who are told to go educate themselves not only will not do it (as “you’re wrong” is a universally weak argument), but will more than likely use the incident as a reason to justify dismissing valid social issues.

In trying to fix the systemic and institutional problems in society, one will inevitably encounter people who disagree, who do not believe and who do not understand the cause. Since these problems are endemic to society as a whole, they can only be solved if everyone understands, and that means that one of the most important things that must be done is simply persuading and explaining them to people. People are not obligated or required to act as missionaries and explain society’s problems to everyone with flawed beliefs- it’s not their job, and it’s extremely taxing. Because of this, not wanting to be the missionary of social justice and choosing not to participate in such conversation is understandable. This is a delicate, complex and burdensome process, so only those willing and capable of dedicating the time and effort to fully engage and persuade people ought to take up the task; all others may simply avoid the conversation. Both pursuits are completely justified.

Telling a person with flawed beliefs that it’s not your job to educate them, however, is never justified, and is an act of intellectual elitism rather than social justice.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]