I used to admire MSNBC Countdown host Keith Olbermann for saying what everyone else was thinking. On 9/11/08, he wasn’t afraid to declare that the Bush administration was trying to profit from using “9/11 TM” as a brand. After listening to just a few of Olbermann’s Special Comments, however, I’ve gotten tired of his diatribes. They are so extreme that I don’t think they’re very effective, and they hurt my head. I think we can learn an important lesson from Olbermann when it comes to social change, including education reform: Yelling doesn’t get you anywhere.
I honestly wonder what Olbermann is trying to accomplish with his nightly rants. He may sincerely be trying to raise awareness about the former administration’s misdeeds, and to spur viewers into civic engagement. He may also just be trying to attract ratings by being a living caricature. What Olbermann may not realize is that probably the only people who will listen to his one-sided tirades all the way through are people who already agree with him. Heck, I agree with him, but I can’t stomach more than five minutes of quick-tongued indignation, no matter what the content.
Ben Affleck’s spot-on impression of Olbermann had me laughing so hard I gasped for breath (especially the Special Comment), and it showed that overdramatized arguments are easy to dismiss. Olbermann has become a punchline, which clearly doesn’t serve his cause. “It is time for you to desist or to be made to desist….” he says about former Vice President Dick Cheney. “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” He speaks like a Shakespearean king ready for battle. Even if what he says is true, how are we supposed to take it seriously?
I’m especially sensitive to communication style when it comes to changing the education system, because the issue is so important to me. Yesterday I read an example of what not to do. Stanley Fish’s New York Times Opinion article reported that Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa Professor, is getting attention this week for his own antagonistic approach to education reform.
Rancourt has alienated the university with his outright defiance of their policies, to the point where the administration had banned him from campus and arrested him for coming to school anyway. Rancourt says that “universities are dictatorships . . . run by self-appointed executives who serve capital interests.” He describes himself as an anarchist and believes that “our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet.”
Believe me, I have my own critiques of academia, and other flawed institutions, but I would never choose such a bitter way to express them. For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on why the angry activist approach bothers me so much. It wasn’t until I came across Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance that I could articulate why. Gandhi said that an effective activist “will express no anger” and “will never insult his opponent,” which would be contrary to ahimsa, the spirit of nonviolence.
Anger, whether it’s physical or verbal, is violent. And it just feeds the beast you’re fighting.
Not surprisingly, it’s not working very well for Mr. Rancourt. The university administration recommended last week that he be dismissed from the University of Ottawa faculty. Fish reports that Rancourt has “infuriated his dean, distressed his colleagues (a third of whom signed a petition against him) and delighted his partisans.”
What you resist, persists. Accuse the university of being a dictatorship, and surprise! It acts like one. And the only people you convince are the ones who already agree with you.
In my experience, a nonviolent approach like Gandhi’s may change the way people think, but an aggressive approach like Olbermann’s or Rancourt’s won’t. I know that I stop listening once I sense anger in someone’s voice, whether or not I agree with their argument. My brain senses an attack and demands fight or flight, so I usually leave the conversation as quickly as possible. I think that there’s something unnatural about people whose careers revolve around yelling, like Sean Hannity. Passion can feed the exchange. Aggression does not. Look at how the election turned out for Barack Obama versus John McCain.
Instead of raging against what it is we don’t want, why not envision what we do want, so that we have a clear goal to work toward? It’s a lot easier to complain about what we don’t like than to suggest alternatives for how to improve. Mother Theresa had it right when she said that she’d never attend an anti-war rally, only a peace rally.
If Denis Rancourt wanted to change the institution of higher education over the long term, rather than getting merely a burst of notoriety, he might have done it more effectively by keeping his position as a professor. He could have won allies among the faculty and students by introducing them to his ideas through discussion, or by doing innovative research. He could have also drawn international attention to education reform without insulting the supervisors who had given him a paycheck and platform. And most importantly, he could have publicized a vision for the kind of higher education that would inspire people to help him make it a reality.
To the Keith Olbermanns and Denis Rancourts of the world, if you want to change the system, consider spending less time railing against what’s wrong with it, and more time envisioning what would make it right. And then share it with the public — with more hope, and less yelling.
Thanks to Brendan Riley for sending the New York Times article. Read the full article here.
Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!
How do you react to rants, either when you agree or disagree with the argument?
When you do change your mind, what tends to convince you?