Op/Education #3: Invective for Social Change

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?

Comments (6)

  1. AmandoB

    Here here! I can’t stand listening to Olbermann’s rants anymore. I may agree, but it’s not constructive. After 9/11 (you were dead on here) he was saying what needed to be said once every couple of months, now it’s every other day. Preaching to the choir, nothing more. Ratings be damned, don’t give me your opinion, give me the news. I can’t even watch the news anymore without wondering if it’s biased in some way.

    The non-violent approach is commendable, but is not the same as quiet activism, MLK was another good example; yet, today those fighting the most effective battles seem to be lobbyists, paid to duke it out for the rights of anything, because they’re the least upsetting voice to hear from. That’s sad, and I’m hoping that changing as I type. Daniel Son, Hindu’s and Buddhists know the will of those who stand before you can be broken only with one thing: patience. Still, the big detail activists, lobbyists, and the like who feel scorn, seem to have missed in their strategies is something Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism knew well, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” Peace duder, I like the post.

  2. Melia

    I’m glad that I found words to describe why I can’t watch the fast-paced talking heads shows where people yell over the top of each other. Angry exchanges simply don’t bring about any results besides ratings. Even in roundtable political talk shows like George Stephanopoulos, there’s usually so much ego involved that people really listen to each other. They’re not open to having their minds changed. If they were, it would seem weak. Authentic discussion just doesn’t make good TV.

    It’s unfortunate that lobbying is one of the best ways to make policy change on a large scale these days. It’s a game that a lot of small businesses and nonprofits can’t afford. I’m glad that community organizing is also making serious national change. My friend Alicia is part of the PICO network that has gotten amazing results, like getting government health care coverage for millions of uninsured kids around the country.

    The nonprofit that Alicia leads, ACT, gets local people — often immigrants, and others not usually involved in politics — to come together around specific requests from lawmakers. They don’t just protest against the current system. They’ve created a realistic alternative and have a plan to make it happen. That’s much more productive than ranting.

  3. Katie

    As far as Keith Olbermann goes, not only would I not consider his show a news source, I also wouldn’t consider it a vehicle for social change. It’s not because it’s an ineffective vehicle; it’s because that’s not what it was designed to do.

    The show holds the same time slot as Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” for a reason. It is MSNBC’s attempt to produce a political talk show with a liberal angle. “The O’Reilly Factor” gets consistently high ratings, and MSNBC is attempting to cash in on their model from an opposing viewpoint. The shows are designed to bring in two types of viewers: those who already agree with the standpoints being presented and those who adamantly disagree. It is the nature of these shows to be one-sided, extremist and abrasive. That’s what sells to the target audiences.

    I’m not sure if Olbermann honestly believes everything he says (just like I can’t say whether Bill O’Reilly believes everything he says). In a way, it doesn’t matter; These shows are there solely to drive ratings, and they work. Occasionally, Olbermann delivers a talk that really touches my heart (the Prop 8 one comes to mind), but I feel weird about agreeing with it, knowing that I’m buying into this TV gimmick that I’m not comfortable with, no matter what side it’s coming from.

  4. Darren

    I think that as much as possible egos need to be left out of ideas and debate. Bill O’Reilly & Sean Hannity are both egos first and foremost, and once you get past the yelling, their ideas hold little substance. It’s easy to present a side when you’re on your own show: there are graphics splashing your name across the screen; producers & writers have created an environment that delivers the hosts as the protagonists.

    While I happen to agree with more of the words that Keith Olbermann says, ultimately I am too distracted by the ego. If Denis Rancourt is so busy tricking people into taking his class and flagrantly insulting his university and bosses, am I noticing his ideas or him more prominently?

    The fact is, there are people out there who are going to disagree with “us” no matter what. Republican lawmakers are proving that by opposing Obama’s stimulus package as a kneejerk reaction. However, I think there are more people out there who have been nurtured to not understand why certain ideas are better. For those of us who think we’re right (or left!) about those ideas, we have to take it upon ourselves to do a better job of convincing them. I support there being a government-sponsored health care option. If someone doesn’t support that, let’s learn about their objections and modify our proposals or dismantle the objections one-by-one. If the idea’s strong enough, it can survive that scrutiny.

  5. Pingback: Democratic Education Blog » How to Talk to People about Democratic Education

  6. Melia

    Katie, good point about shows like Olbermann’s being designed to get ratings rather than make any kind of change. And Darren, O’Reilly and Hannity themselves definitely overshadow the actual issues with their one-sided egotism. It’s unfortunate that people like me often end up tuning out the issues themselves along with the yelling and sensationalizing. I wish that the right-wing media in particular would “Stop hurting America,” as Jon Stewart put it.

    Stewart’s approach is brilliant for a lot of reasons. He claims to be just a fake news show on cable, but he’s impressively knowledgeable and interviews weighty politicians and authors on the show. He attracts viewers with satire, not ranting, which influences people more than even they realize. For example, analysts say that Tina Fey’s spot-on impression of Sarah Palin, for example, influenced people’s votes in the election.


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