“The pen is mightier than the sword.” So said English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. Essentially, Bulwer-Lytton meant that the written word is more effective at achieving lasting results than violence or the threat of violence.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case. The threat of violence might lead to outward compliance, but a well-crafted argument can and will change hearts. A changed heart means a lot more than outward compliance, particularly if a lasting change is wanted.
Like any other tool, the pen can be used for good or for bad. Words can build other people up, share valuable information, and be used to convey effective arguments. On the other hand, words can also be used to tear others down, promote harmful misinformation, or to peddle discredited arguments. This is why our teachers told us to choose our words carefully.
Today, thanks to social media, the pen is mightier than ever. It used to be that our words had a limited reach and only impacted people we personally knew. But now social media makes it easy for our words to be read by millions of people around the world.
The impact of social media on teachers has been profound. Through platforms such as Twitter, teachers now have unprecedented access to colleagues and students. There are many reasons why this is a positive development.
For example, no longer do teachers have to wonder whether the latest fad being promoted by the guest speaker at their school’s in-service is actually supported by research. If you want to know whether a theory has any validity, a single tweet is all it takes to get dozens of responses from fellow teachers who will happily share links to research studies either supporting or debunking the claim.
In addition, teachers can use social media to share teaching ideas, collaborate on lesson plans, and provide emotional support to each other. Clearly, social media has done a lot of good for the teaching profession.
Sadly, however, social media is not an unmitigated good. While the pen is said to be mightier than the sword, this does not make it more virtuous. In far too many cases, social media has become a cesspool where teachers tear each other apart, launch personal attacks against politicians, and try to bully their colleagues into silence.
For example, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been the target of a torrent of personal abuse from teachers on Twitter. While these teachers have every right to disagree with Lecce’s political decisions, they do not have the right to attack him personally. Reading some of the horrible tweets directed at Lecce makes me embarrassed to be a teacher.
Similarly, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is being heavily criticized for introducing controversial changes to the K–6 curriculum in that province. Again, criticisms of the curriculum are fair game, but the constant barrage of personal insults directed at LaGrange on Twitter are not.
It gets even uglier when teachers launch personal attacks against other teachers. I’ve experienced this myself. Last August, I put out a single tweet endorsing the Manitoba government’s back-to-school plan. Within hours, there were dozens of tweets attacking me, and many of those individuals identified themselves as teachers.
These critics accused me of being a shill for the provincial government and even claimed that I didn’t care if kids died from COVID-19. Some even went so far as to mock my religious beliefs and used the fact that I wrote a book about the Bible to claim that I’m a religious nutcase. Needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience.
The unfortunate reality is that many teachers have been victims of social media mobs. It gets particularly nasty when people try to get dissenting teachers in trouble with their employers. This has a chilling effect on free speech. It is also a surefire way to enforce conformity rather than allowing creativity and different opinions to flourish.
A pen used to destroy other people is still mightier than the sword, but it’s a whole lot deadlier today because of social media. Considering how much social media amplifies our words, it’s more important than ever that we consider carefully the impact of the things we post online. An important rule is to not post ad hominem attacks. Keep your disagreements to issues and opinions.
Social media is a mighty pen in the hands of teachers. Let’s make sure we wield it wisely.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “The Naked Man Flees: Timeless Truths from Obscure Parts of the Bible.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.