Social workers say the far right’s adoption of “pedophile” as an insult is hurting real victims


Labor leader Randi Weingarten is perhaps best known for her work as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest union for teachers in the United States. Speaking to Salon, Weingarten made it clear that she cares deeply about the welfare of both the teachers and their students — but unwanted partisan politics keeps getting in the way.

“I’m a school teacher and a lawyer and a union leader, and I know when you deal with something that is so illegal, we need to protect the victim,” Weingarten told Salon. “We need to believe the victim. So when all of a sudden this word — this thing that is so evil and so inappropriate and so horrible — gets used this much, it has no meaning anymore.”

The word in question is “pedophile,” or perhaps sometimes, “groomer.” Amid a bitter culture war, many on the right, from playwrights like David Mamet to politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, have seized on the word as an evidence-free way to discredit their culture war enemies. It is now being employed as one might use a slur like “idiot,” albeit with a far darker connotation. And it has particular currency among believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, who aver without evidence that a Satanic cabal of pedophiles is running the world. 

Yet for actual victims of child sex abuse, however, the term “pedophile” or “groomer” recalls actual lived experiences — and for the people who spend their careers helping children, these words are used in ways that can only be described as unjustified and malicious.

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Take Cory Bernaert, a Florida kindergarten teacher who has expressed concern that the state’s new “don’t say gay” bills will harm both his students and himself, as Bernaert is part of the LGBTQ community. After discussing his concerns on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and a live interview on MSNBC, Bernaert was targeted by waves of abuse and harassment.

“The distrust that these LGBTQ students are going to have in their school and in their teachers is going to be magnified and there won’t be a space place for them anywhere if they can’t feel safe at school,” Bernaert told Salon. “Where can they feel safe if they’re already feeling unsafe at home?”

This, predictably, included the insults “pedophile” and “groomer.” Not accusations, mind you — no one was seriously accusing Bernaert of a thing — but simply to be used as slurs.

“The major concern that I have for teachers is really their mental health and their mental stability, once these words ‘pedophile’ and ‘groomer’ are being used to describe them,” Bernaert explained. “The reason being is any educator has devoted their life and really everything they have in their being to fostering a love for learning in children. It’s very common for everyday people to have a complete misunderstanding of the actual work ethic and the amount of time that goes into being an educator.”

When you add these built-in problems with dealing with the bigotry of being an LGBTQ teacher who gets slurred for nothing else than your identity and/or political views, Bernaert says it lowers morale — and that is just for the teachers. By smearing good teachers with these labels, it also hurts both children who are actually victimized by child sex abuse (whether in school or anyone else) and LGBTQ children who may have problems at home and need a safe space elsewhere.


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“The distrust that these LGBTQ students are going to have in their school and in their teachers is going to be magnified and there won’t be a space place for them anywhere if they can’t feel safe at school,” Bernaert told Salon. “Where can they feel safe if they’re already feeling unsafe at home?”

The problem with these false charges is not limited to our schools. Jennifer Thompson, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, spoke with Salon about how these slurs negatively impact social workers.

“We are in a profession, and are called to be in a profession, of being helpers, inherently,” Thompson told Salon. “We are trying to improve our clients’ lives, help them with difficult situations and be the voices for communities who are often disenfranchised. We go in to be helpers and we are being villainized now. And I don’t think we can underscore enough the emotional toll that takes on people who are already in a very difficult role.”

Like Bernaert, Thompson noted that much of this rhetoric is used when social workers try to help LGBTQ children. She described the attacks as “politically motivated” and having “absolutely no basis in reality, science or fact.”

“Social workers who are trying to protect the rights of LGBTQ children and youth in our schools, they are often associated with language like ‘Oh, they are trying to groom our children,'” Thompson told Salon. “One that I heard on a webinar recently was that teachers and social workers alike who are creating safe spaces for children are told they’re trying to indoctrinate our children into being something. And that’s really harmful.”

“It’s so hard to walk away from a belief that somebody is a monster — that somebody is doing something so pernicious, that somebody is doing something so horrible that if you believed it already — how do you believe it anymore without feeling bad about yourself?” Weingarten told Salon.

Of course, there are real issues with child sex ring scandals — it’s just that they don’t typically happen within the spheres the right is targeting. Everything from the Jeffrey Epstein-Donald Trump parties with underage girls to the horrors within the Catholic Church reveal that child sex abuse is a rampant problem. Yet the people who draw attention to those scandals are often the same ones who work diligently to teach children in classrooms and protect them through careers as social workers. People who use terms “pedophile” and “groomer” as political insults, and particularly against people in those occupations, do so to the disservice of the people they ostensibly wish to help.

As other commentators and reporters have noted, the far right appears to be borrowing a rhetorical tactic pioneered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to discredit his own political opponents. Whether being used against teachers and social workers or ordinary liberals, the “pedophile” and “groomer” insults exist not to protect children, but to make monsters out of people simply because their social philosophy differs from one’s own.

“It’s so hard to walk away from a belief that somebody is a monster — that somebody is doing something so pernicious, that somebody is doing something so horrible that if you believed it already — how do you believe it anymore without feeling bad about yourself?” Weingarten told Salon. She noted ruefully that these disinformation tactics are already being used even in the most absurd situations, such as Putin convincing millions of Russians that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy is somehow a Nazi despite being Jewish. It is “all part of the autocracy playbook,” Weingarten explained, and has no place in any kind of educational environment.

“Teaching is relational and teaching is all about creating trust with kids,” Weingarten told Salon.

Read more on the emergence of “grooming” rhetoric:


Source : https://www.salon.com/2022/05/22/social-workers-pedophile-groomer-slur/

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