Tuesday, September 16, 2014

TPM & the Anti-Core Attack Problem

Over at Talking Points Memo, Conor P. Williams uses the pushback against Campbell Brown as a jumping off point for addressing what he diagnoses as an anti-core ad hominem attack problem.

In the attacks sites, the heated rhetoric, the strong language, Williams sees an echo of the virulent opposition to She Who Will Not Be Named. And he draws a line to his own experience, in which he finds anti-core folks tend to personally attack him when they disagree, while pro-core disagreers approach him with rational responses to his arguments.

I can't deny that his experience is his experience, though I suspect his own e-mail inbox disparity reflects how he is perceived by his audience-- reformsters see him as fundamentally friendly, while members of the resistance do not. But there's no question that some of the shots at She Who Will Not Be Named as she left the playing field were just nasty, and some of the attacks against Brown have been unnecessarily personal as well.

Conor thinks that the "rhetorical imbalance reveals something about the current state of intellectual and political momentum in education." He thinks that the resistance is stuck fighting defense, and therefor resorts to ad hominems. I think there's a little more to it than that.

The Other Imbalance. Of course the resistance is mostly on defense. The resistance is not rich; the reformsters movement is rich, and well-connected. When Brown wants to hold a press conference about her cause, people show up. When Brown wants to have a local activist squeezed out of the lawsuit, she can make it happen.

The resistance is financially outgunned by a factor of giant whopping money piles.And they have not sought dialogue or conversation or equal exchange of ideas for most of the reformy cycle, because it didn't suit their needs and besides, they had all the money and the power and they didn't need to bother.

I learned something about running meeting and organizations years ago-- people want to be heard, and if they don't feel heard when they're talking, they will just keep raising their voices louder and louder until they think somebody is hearing them. The reformsters didn't think they had to listen to anybody. Result: a bunch of people screaming at them.

Nor have reformsters been free of ad homniem. Ravitch has been accused of all manner of personal shortcoming. Arne Duncan took to calling everyone who disagreed with him silly. For a while every opponent was labeled a tea party kook. And just this week we got the idiot granddad video.

 Facts aren't ad hominem. It is ad hominem to attack a person, well, personally. But you don't get to cry "personal attack" just because somebody pointed out an inconvenient fact. Attacking a person because of their race or gender is unconscionable, inexcusable. But pointing out that the person said something stupid, or advocated a policy that doesn't hold up, or behaved abominably in the performance of her duty-- those are not ad hominem attacks.

"Pro hominem" attacks. Why is Campbell Brown leading the New York attack on tenure? Is it because she is an educational expert, an experienced thought leader, a person with standing in the world of New York Schools? No-- she's leading the attack because she is a famous celebrity. And when you start out with a stance of "Pay attention to me because of who I am personally," your pushback will necessarily be personal in nature. If you want to discuss your point of view on its merits, then garner attention for its merits, not your personal celebrity.

Motives matter. Conor charges that opponents suggest "Brown’s message shouldn’t be heard—because of who funds her efforts. Brown’s claims can’t be correct—because her husband manages a hedge fund." (He also accuses opponents of dismissing her for being Republican, but given the huge number of anti-reform GOP folks out there, that just doesn't hold water.)

Motive matters. If somebody announces that he wants to devote millions to debunking claims that cigarettes cause cancer, it matters if all his funding is coming from R J Reynolds. If someone wants to fix public schools, and all their backing is coming from people who want to dismantle public schools and profit from the pieces, that matters.

Policy is personal. I'm often bemused that reformsters can be so taken aback by teacher response to some of their policy ideas. "I don't understand," they say. "All I did was suggest that you are lazy and ineffective and probably a liar and certainly have no professional expertise worth consulting, and all I want to do is make it ten times harder for you to pursue your life work as a career. Why are you taking this so personally??"

Maybe it's that policy makers are usually better-insulated from the people affected by their policy ideas, like button-pushers who don't ever have to actually see the people they drop bombs on, or like business school students who are told to live fifty miles away from their company so that they never have to see the people whose employment they affect.

But they need to understand something-- these policy changes and reformy initiatives affect teachers in their students in profoundly personal ways. Teachers and parents and students who become the lab rats for these grand ideas do take it personally.

I completely and absolutely get the value of keeping discussions about policy focused on policy. But when you punch somebody in the face, their first response does not tend to be "Let's have a discussion about the uses of violence in civilized society." I can believe that many reformsters simply don't get that they are figurative face-punchers (though I think She not only knew it, but relished it, and that's what made her such a lightning rod). But that doesn't make anybody's figurative face feel better.

Useful policy discussions are possible. I frequently manage to have civil, respectful, interesting, illuminating conversations with persons with whom I disagree. But the first step in having such conversations is to check yourself-- ask yourself what conversation you are starting, and what does your side of the conversation look like. There will always be whack jobs on the edges of conversations (on the internet, you can find people who are violently opposed to cute puppies). But if the bulk of your conversation is ugly and unproductive, your next step is to take a good look in the mirror. Even if you are famous.

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