Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Partisan politics and the death of civil discussion

"There is a lake between sun and moon
Not too many know about
In the silence between whisper and shout
The space between wonder and doubt

This is a fine place
Shining face to face
Those bonfire lights in the mirror of sky
The space between wonder and why"
                                                                                   ("Between Sun and Moon," Rush)

I took an uncharacteristically long time off between posts (a whole week) to do some reading and reflecting.  I’ve been getting a lot of flak from Conservatives (for whom I’m not Conservative enough), Libertarians (for whom I’m not Libertarian enough), Objectivists (for whom I’m not Randian enough) and Liberals (for whom I’m not nearly Progressive enough).

After my week-long hiatus, I've come to a conclusion, for now:  If I'm making so many people upset, I must be doing something right.

As I blogged last week:
Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.
I think that many of my posts – not just on this blog, but comments left on other blogs (Washington Post, HuffPo, Diane Ravitch, etc…) – reflect more than a willingness, but a concerted effort to not automatically regurgitate a party-line take on an issue, and I am quick to call on grotesque logical fallacies where I see them, even if in doing so, I may appear to be defending a person or a position I might not normally defend.  In this case, ideologues take my words at their most superficial level and then respond to a straw man hyperbole of what they think my words might have meant, in other words, the interpretation of my words that gives them the greatest leverage against me.

It would amuse me if it weren’t so depressing. I’d like to think that intelligent and thoughtful people read the blogs that I myself frequent – issues-based blogs of political and social import.  And yet sometimes I wonder, if the sport of sparring, the glee that comes from armchair contrariness, is just too much to overcome to have a serious discussion. 

Here is an example. In this case, the other person and I eventually made nice-nice after some rhetorical sparring, but it is a good example of what I am talking about:

A few days ago, Diane Ravitch posted up a story about a teacher who had been wrongly accused of publicly revealing a standardized test question (which these days is practically a hanging offense). When he was cleared, the administration refused to concede error or issue any kind of apology for the humiliation, his suspension, the spectacle, or their rush to judgment.  The teacher, R. L. Ratto, on his personal blog, writes:
I was placed on administrative leave, escorted out of my room by my superintendent of schools, ultimately escorted out of the building and ordered not to return until New York State ruled on my guilt or innocence . Twenty four hours later, NYS ruled I did no wrong and I was informed that I was no longer a threat and could return to my classroom.   I have been demanding a public apology from the Superintendent, as well as my school board. To date that apology has not happened.
But what happened then was amazing.  The PTA awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, their highest honor, and made sure that his wife and kids were at the ceremony to see him receive it:
The parents of my school set the record straight! Choosing me for this award and more importantly making sure my family was there as well to witness it was more than I could  ever imagine.  I am forever grateful for the support and confidence during these trying times.
This made my heart glad.  What a wonderful story, a wonderful turn of events.

Ratto went on, and this is the paragraph that Dr. Ravitch chose to highlight on her blog [emphasis in the original]:
Parents throughout the nation are also beginning to set the record straight.  Parents are organizing to opt their children out of high stakes testing. Parents are challenging the motive and research behind the Common Core Curriculum. Parents are challenging those who want to create a data base of their children’s information. Parent’s [sic] all across the nation are saying stop scapegoating our teachers, stop closing our schools, stop destroying our nations [sic] most important asset. Parents will be setting this all straight.”
All of which I agree with, for the most part, in principle.  But what I found, upon a close and careful read, was that this particular paragraph, taken in isolation, has a slightly different main idea, a slightly different (almost imperceptible!) thrust than the anecdote of the teacher’s personal experience.  The theme of the entire anecdote, taken as a whole, is something to the effect of: “Sometimes, wonderful things can happen as a result of the sense of community that a public school can engender.”  It’s a delightful Lifetime made-for-TV movie.  The theme of the paragraph that Diane Ravitch excerpted from Ratto’s blog post, taken out of context as it was, was something more like: “Parents of the world unite!  If you speak out enough, you can topple the authority structure in your kids’ school too!”

Not quite the same thing. 

I taught grades 7-12 for two decades, and I’ve got to tell you:  From my experience, suggesting that all parents need to do is be louder and stronger and they’ll get their way is not always a good thing to do.  I'm not saying parents should not be empowered, and I'm certainly not saying that parents should not be very carefully listened to. I thought this was a subtle point, and one worth making, so I posted up this comment, reflecting the balance, complexity and nuance I try to infuse my words with, to avoid sounding like I’m just regurgitating soundbites (and to avoid confusing or overtly antagonizing the simpleton trolls that invariably surface):
Sometimes parents do know what’s best, what’s right. But I’ve found in my 20+ years of teaching that the extent to which the parents’ voices are put to good use is directly related to the nature of the community. In my experience, better-off communities with more educated parents, more stable homes, tend to be more in touch with and involved in (as well as invested in, philosophically and otherwise) the education process itself and what’s “really” going on than communities with very high dysfunction, illiteracy, poverty, crime, etc… (I’ve seen entire extended families show up to school unexpectedly mass-berate a guidance counselor or administrator over something that anyone with the slightest inkling of how schools really function would have taken in stride.) Also, parents from particularly strong partisan or religious backgrounds tend to focus their grassroots energy on areas that are not pedagogy-centered, but that support their personal sociological or religious agendas (religious displays in schools, banning GSA club activity, etc…) I think overall there is a benefit to restoring more control to local (district, site) levels. I think the Conservatives who call for total parental control are taking it one step too far, in part for [these reasons].

That said, this story is remarkable, and an excellent example of the power of the voice of the grassroots collective. In this case, the voice of the masses was used to a good end. But it is not always so.
I thought it sounded reasonable - even, balanced, not too heavy-handed or overzealous.  And carefully enough worded so that no one could possibly misinterpret and think I was calling all parents idiots or blasting all Conservatives.  Yeah, dream on.  Someone quickly responded: 
blame conservatives, blame parents. ah yes the “voice” of the “grassroots” “collective”.  these low income and poverty stricken areas have been the guinea pigs of leftist curriculum for decades precisely because of their low parental participation. It is much easier to manipulate children while their parents are not watching.
*sigh*  Such drama.  This is what I try to avoid.  My response:
I’m no progressive (seriously, read my blog – TRUST me, I’m no progressive). But it’s foolish to assume automatically that the parents with the loudest voices want and know what’s best for thousands of students in their districts. I agree that there is a hyper-liberal pendulum swing in process in schools, and I think it is turning back, finally. My fear is that it goes TOO FAR in the opposite direction. […]

A synopsis: Teacher was wrongly accused. Teacher was punished, publicly admonished. Teacher was innocent. District/site administration refused to man up and admit error, apologize, show respect. Community stepped up and showed appreciation by proxy. Teacher feels redeemed.   It’s not a partisan thing to recognize how f***ing awesome that is.
 A fellow poster’s bemused interpretation of the whole exchange:  

           There is no lonelier place than middle ground, especially on Internet forums.

And in political discussions.  Especially, it seems, about education.  Last week, I wrote about my disdain about the either-or fallacy and how it stops us from engaging in meaningful dialogue and prevents people from even conceding points to an adversary even when there is agreement, out of a sense of “keeping score.”  We place ourselves in camps, teams, groups.  And we adhere to them slavishly and cravenly, and defend them with bloodlust.  Partisan politics is like political soccer hooliganism.  And I’ve never seen a soccer brawl end well.

Most children will tell you that the opposite of day is night, and the opposite of sun is moon.  But often, the moon is visible in the sky, even when the sun is up. 

We need to learn to share rhetorical space.

Am I just naïve?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…

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