Saturday, November 15, 2014

Voice, Hypocrisy and Rashomon at AEI

On Thursday, Cami Anderson was supposed to speak at the American Enterprise Institute. Things did not go quite as planned. How they did go is, well, open to interpretation. We now present, "Rashomon at AEI"

One angry voice.

Bob Braun, hard-hitting journalist and defender of public education in New Jersey, recounted the events in his blog post "Cami Anderson: A National Embarassment."

Anderson, already an embarrassment to herself and the state of New Jersey, never did speak, at least not publicly. She canceled her PUBLIC speech. Why? Because a busload of 40 students, parents, and other community residents showed up to hear what she had to say and, perhaps, to ask her a few questions.  They had to go to Washington because Cami Anderson won’t talk to them in Newark. Won’t attend public board meetings. Hasn’t since January. The Hermit Queen of Newark.
So those 40 people who yesterday followed her to Washington literally scared her speechless, poor dear.

The Newark folks had registered to the event (all accounts agree pretty much on that point). But one of Anderson's aids spotted familiar crankypants faces and told AEI event organizers that barbarians were already inside the gates. Security did not evict them, but the "event" was moved, and somebody decided that a good way to roust the Jerseyites would be to turn out the lights in the room, which led to some angry chanting.

Braun notes the irony of a think tank devoted to freedom, open debate, and individual liberty deciding that some people needed to be forcibly barred from this particular conversation.

A historical voice

Over at the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton covered both the non-event and the background of anger and contentiousness that preceded it. The people of Newark have been agitated about the state-selected school boss who has become their school tsar, to rule their schools and ignore their voices as she sees fit. Anderson claims it's a small fringe group, but somehow a new mayor of Newark was elected as an agent of that small fringe, which suggests they are correct when they say they're not a finge at all.

An aggrieved voice

Rick Hess of the AEI has a somewhat different take on the events. As with Braun, his point of view is loaded right up front in the title: "Cami Anderson and the Forces of Unreason."

Hess points out the irony that this event was the end result of Anderson's exception-taking to a Hess piece earlier this year that was indirectly critical of Newarks non-achievements. He was giving her a platform on which to discuss the many great things she's accomplished that nobody has heard about. (And she still got the platform-- just as a closed room videoed infomercial)

The event was to be an examination of Newark and the lessons it holds--not a celebration of Anderson's effort. As per usual, the session was to include a presentation by Anderson on her "One Newark" strategy, and then more than an hour of conversation and questions. Is Newark's strategy the right one? Is it working? That's what discussions like this are for. Should the governor control Newark's schools? Is Anderson the right person to be superintendent? Good questions, all. Well worth discussing and debating in the nation's capital.

But Hess is taken aback. He's surprised and disappointed. He's not yet clutching his pearls, but he does have them at the ready. AEI, he says, has hosted a wide variety of speakers from many sides of the education debates. He counts Randi Weingarten and Dennis van Roekel among the "different" (non-reformster) speakers, and by my count the reformster to resistance ratio runs about 4:1, but his point that AEI is not just playing echo chamber is still a fair-ish one.

Anyway, in all those speakers he has never encountered "a group so dead-set on trying to stop someone from simply being heard as this coterie from Newark." (I really, really love that he calls them a "coterie.") He is upset that they 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!"

Voice and volume

Now, I think it's probably true that the Newark folks may have been a bit unruly. And if they weren't to start with, the videos on youtube suggest that they certainly got feisty once they realized that the elusive Anderson had slipped through their fingers again. And the accounts I've read from Newark suggest there has been a whole lot of raised-voice angry hollerization going on in NJ.

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.

Yes, there's always a small percentage of folks who think being heard must mean being agreed with. But listening isolates them as a small fringe group takes the wind out of their sails. Pro tip: trying to combine not listening with characterizing them as a fringe group doesn't do you a bit of good.

Cami Anderson and her crew have provided an ongoing masters class in how to get all of this dead wrong. They have tried to rule by edict. Anderson has taken Not Listening all the way to Not Even Being In Same Room With People She Refuses To Listen To. And the enlistment of Tom Moran and the Star-Ledger has further reduced the ways in which opponents of Anderson can be heard. The increasingly loud, shrill, occasionally vicious, exceedingly impolite ratcheting up of her opponents' volume is an absolutely predictable result of Anderson's incompetence as a leader. It's not just that her policies are demonstrably failures, but her unwillingness to even make a five-cent politicians fake pretense of hearing any opposing voices. She is not the first nor the last leader to try to implement bad policies, but not all of them manage to do such a terrible job as managers that people are willing to take a day out of their lives to travel all the way to DC on the off chance that they might be able to force said incompetent leader to listen to them.

Well, I could go on. But if you want the full context of how the AEI non-event is further evidence that Anderson should be out of a job, read this post from Jersey Jazzman.

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. Wouldn't it be interesting to go back in time to, say, that meeting between David Coleman and Gene Wilhoit and Bill Gates, and to say, "Gentlemen, you may pursue your dreams of an educational overhaul of this nation. But you must do it on a budget of $1.95, and you can't call any of your powerful friends to help you out. All you can use is a free blog and talking to people you can convince to listen to you."

"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.

Look at Massachusetts. The fight over linking teacher licenses to evaluations was only going to get uglier and uglier. But then a funny thing happened-- the commissioner listened to what people were saying. Now, not so much ugliness.

Of course, Massachusetts highlights one of the tricky parts of Really Listening. 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."

The only way to cut to the chase in a place like Newark is to fire Anderson and replace her with someone who spends her first weeks in office taking meetings, listening, and publicly disowning Anderson's work.

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.


  1. I'm not as charitable as JerseyJazzman. I don't believe two-year-TFA-"teacher"-as experience superintendent Cami truly cares about the children. I don't think she can even see them through her blinding ambition and self-importance.

    Impressive analysis of the power/money/status v. powerless/unheard/frustrated dynamic, Peter. You're not only a great writer and a philosopher, you're a sociologist too! : ).

  2. This is very similar to what is happening in Memphis. There's a revolt against the state Achievement School District that reformsters are calling unruly and uncivil. Here's a link, although this blogger is quite reformster-y himself:

  3. Bob Braun, hard-hitting journalist and defender of public education in New ...