Volume and Power (A Borrowed Post)

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Almost a year ago, Peter Greene of Curmudgucation wrote a piece (well, several actually – but I’m zeroing in on one in particular) about the kerfuffle then occurring in Newark, NJ. A number of students and adult supporters had begun showing up various places where Cami Anderson – their District Superintendent at the time – was speaking, and demanding their concerns be heard. 

Greene of course effectively tackled the specifics of the issue, but his analysis included some broader thoughts which resonated with me rather strongly:

{Rick Hess of the AEI} is upset that they {the protestors} aren't called out more for being so vicious, but he is especially bothered by their hypocrisy. How can they demand to be heard while stifling the speech of others? And not even get ripped for it in the press?

Rick Hess is a smart guy. I often refer to him as one of my favorite writers that I usually disagree with. But I think he's missed a point or two here.

The Hypocrisy Defense.

This is always a lousy defense, no matter which side is using it. The situation is usually something like this - I punch you in the face, and you holler, "Hey, man! It's totally wrong to punch someone in the face!" But I keep punching. When you finally punch me back, I call "Hypocrite." It has two benefits. One is that it keeps the conversation away from discussing whether or not I'm punching you in the face and whether or not that's bad behavior. The other is that you can only win the hypocrisy argument by letting me punch you in the face without ever hitting back.

"Hey, you're being hypocritical" is often a rough translation of "No fair! You promised you weren't going to fight back!"

I really enjoyed that part. It was the next bit, though, which I’ve paraphrased repeatedly in the year since – with students as well as adults:

Voice and Volume

Now, I think it's probably true that the Newark folks may have been a bit unruly…

But instead of looking at this kind of hollering as a moral failing or a breach of etiquette (one simply doesn't holler at a think tank luncheon), let's look at it for what it really is-- the demonstration of a simple principle. I learned it years ago running committees, and confirmed it in many situations since then. It's a simple two-part principle of voice and volume.

1) People want to be heard.

2) If they do not believe they are being heard when they speak, they will keep raising their volume until they believe they are being heard.

I can't begin to count the number of difficult situations that I've seen defused by one side actually stopping and listening to the other. I can't begin to count the number of difficult situations I've seen made worse by one side trying to deal with dissent by silencing it.

It's Basic Leadership 101. You cannot get rid of disagreement by silencing its voice. I don't mean you shouldn't, as in a moral imperative (though I believe it is one) - I mean you can't, as in it just doesn't work. People want to be heard. If they can't be heard when they speak, they will keep raising their volume, even to the point of rude and untoward behavior at proper thinky tank luncheons.

He ties this in to Anderson and the specifics of the situation, then returns to broader principles:

Volume and Power 

I want to make one other observation about this raised volume thing. It's almost always a class and/or power thing.

When people with money and power feel they aren't being heard, they also raise the volume. But because they have money and power, they can raise the volume by spending $12 million to set up slick websites, or establishing "advocacy groups" to push their agenda out through their connections, or having polite luncheon dates. If Bill Gates thinks people aren't really hearing what he has to say about education, he gets out his checkbook or makes some phone calls. If Anderson and Hess feel that they aren't going to be heard, they retire to the studio in another room to record a professional-looking video to distribute through their internet channels; meanwhile, the folks they left behind are stuck recording their chants on cell-phone videos on the hope someone might pick them up on YouTube.

Ordinary folks like the citizens of Newark don't have the rich and powerful options. They can't drop a few million dollars on an ad campaign or make some quick calls to highly-placed people of power and influence. When people without money, power or status want to raise the volume to be heard, they don't have any options except literally raising the volume and getting loud and unruly and even obnoxious. And then we can cue the complaints about their tone and rudeness and general misbehavior. Why they can't just be quiet and polite and unheard? Goodness!

The fact is, civil discourse is great-- if you have money and power and connections to back it up… "Let's all calm down and try to speak nicely," are the words of the people with power. "Listen to me RIGHT NOW DAMMIT," are the words of the powerless, unheard, and frustrated. 

There is a solution

I learned this ages ago. If you don't want people to scream at you, do not try to overpower them, shout them down, or force them to shut up.

Listen to them.

The formula is not, "If he calms down, I will listen to him." Or, as I used to tell my children, the only person you can control is yourself. So make yourself do the listening. Then the calm will come.

Am I saying that this dynamic resolves all individuals of responsibility for how they conduct themselves? No, it does not. In a perfect world, people should be polite and respectful most of the time. But in the immortal words of the philosopher Dr. Phil, you teach others how to treat you. And if you teach people that approaching you quietly and respectfully will get them ignored, you can't be surprised that they learn the lesson that being quiet and respectful and civil is a waste of their time. When it comes to these interactions, you can teach them whatever lesson you wish.

Teachers know this, by the way. We learn it – easy ways or hard – every day dealing with teenagers who don’t want to be where they are at the moment, doing what’s asked of them at that juncture. We learn that when we try to stifle their frustrations, they tend to get louder. 

We cannot, as a practical matter, give them full vent against ‘the man’ all day, every day – but a little listening and validation goes a long way calming the more blatant demonstrations of discontent. 

Sometimes when you Really Listen, you discover that you really do need to really change your plan. At the very least, it may require you to explain yourself more clearly than you have. 

You can have civil discourse and reasoned debate. But you have to go first. And you have to listen. And you also have to accept, if you're dealing with a horrific festering mess like Newark, that you are going to have to listen to huuuuuuge amounts of fairly angry stuff, because all the things that you've been refusing to listen to all this time have not gone away-- they've gone into a big escrow account and now they are going to come out with interest. You don't get to say, "Can't we start fresh? You forget all the times you didn't have a say, and I'll forget all the times I didn't let you have one, and we'll start even."

I wish he’d explained this to me before my first three marriages. 

The first rule of civil discourse and debate and free speech is you have to extend the opportunity to everybody. What would have happened, I wonder, if AEI had said, "Tell you what. Let Cami speak, and then when she's done, we will give you the podium, and the only rules is that everybody has to let everybody else have their say" instead of "Security, get these hooligans out of here."

But in the US education landscape, we have far too many places where reformsters have decided that the route to success is to just stop listening to large chunks of the population. This is a recipe for disaster, and if wannabe leaders keep pursuing it, a few dozen cranky paid registrants at a thinky tank luncheon will be the very least of their problems.

I’ll spare you my thoughts on how this insight is best applied at this particular moment, but it reaches far beyond the realm of #edreform.

My whole goal in quoting Greene so extensively here is, in fact, to allow easy reference to what I believe to be an essential reality - however persistently it's ignored by those clinging shakily to power. 

Listening should be more than token nodding, but certainly need not be conflated with ‘concurring’ or ‘acquiescing’. Even if your primary goal is to convince someone else of just how right you are, surely understanding them better makes that job easier, rather than more difficult?

Whether we're debating education policy, social norms, politics, interpersonal relationships, or issues of faith… if our rules, ideas, and pathways forward are as wonderful as we think, are they really so very threatened by a little honest dissent?

Xavier & Magneto

**My thanks to Peter Greene for his permission to quote his work so extensively. Follow @palan57 on the Twitters, ‘Like’ Curmudgucation on Facebook, and of course follow his edu-bloggery at http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com.   

 

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