Monday, February 28, 2011

Stonewalling Takes Brickheadedness

It is odd having my home state in the news as much as it has been lately.

Overall, I have been impressed by the way Wisconsinites have conducted themselves.  They've treated this like a tough issue that deserves careful consideration.

For example, the Journal Sentinel's Patrick McIlheran is an editorial columnist on the right side of the spectrum. He doesn't like collective bargaining, and he has made that clear. And when someone from the Daily Kos misinterpreted McIlheran's argument, McIlherandid did not shy away from getting into the details. This is a complicated issue, and a real debate is not going to be sound-bite friendly.

Then there are the protesters and the counter-protesters. By all accounts, they are passionate yet reasonable people

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Governor.He's presenting an argument to the people of Wisconsin (oh, and incidentally the nation - the man seems to be enjoying the attention) that the State Senators who are holding up the vote are on the verge of costing the state millions of dollars.

There some truth to that. If the State Senators don't return to Wisconsin, state money will be lost.

But the Governor's assertion would not hold up well as part of an essay submitted in my composition classroom.

His argument suggests that members of his opposition are the ones being overly-stubborn. A critical reader would need some evidence to support that.

Sadly for the Governor, the evidence suggests that he and his fellow hard-liners are the people refusing to compromise.

His opposition has offered to compromise on the financial issues. They don't, however, want to lose collective bargaining rights. I believe the thinking there is as follows: We are willing to give up pay and benefits when times are bad (now), but we want to retain the right to bargain so we can recoup those cuts when times get better (later).

The Governor has forced his opposition to give up a lot, and so far he has yielded nothing - and he has said he is unwilling to yield anything.

His assertion that a stubborn opposition has held up the process is problematic.  When one side is ready to compromise, while the other side refuses to do so, the label of stubborn is applied to the latter.

The Governor is the stubborn one here.  He sees this as a zero-sum game. That is an obtuse understanding of democracy, a view that is putting his state and his constituents at risk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Michael Sandel on Democratic Debate

This is the video we watched in the class I'm TAing.  We're starting a unit on civic engagement.  Good stuff.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I recently re-posted a statistic on Facebook.  I thought it was a nice piece of persuasive evidence in a heated argument.  But it was actually a misleading set of figures.

I hate to admit this, but I was seduced by numbers that were too good to be true.  I should have known.  I should have looked into it, but like most people, I saw numbers that supported my argument and my blinders went up. I didn't need to think anymore because I had numbers on my side.

Let me explain. The labor issue in Wisconsin has got my attention (along with a few other people). I don't agree with the governor's position. So I couldn't help myself when I saw the following stat: "Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows: South Carolina - 50th, North Carolina - 49th, Georgia - 48th, Texas - 47th, Virginia - 44th. If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country. Let's keep it that way. Repost."

Doesn't that seem like great support for people who oppose the governor's plan?

The problem is that those stats are misleading.  They are not wrong, but they paint a picture that is very different from reality. Most Wisconsin universities don't require the SAT, so the in-state SAT participation rate is very low.  So the numbers can't be compared in a meaningful way.

I know that now, but only after Jason pointed out some problems with my evidence. I learned this because Jason was willing to engage in a real debate. He questioned evidence and looked at the bigger picture.

Wouldn't it be nice to see elected officials do the same?

Anyway, if a student presented my argument in class, I like to think I'd encourage them to take a more critical look at their evidence.  I should have examined where the data was coming from and who was presenting it.

The good news is that I have friends on Facebook who aren't afraid of debate and discord. I maintain relationships (albeit mostly digital ones) with people who will call me out when I step over the line.  

There should be at least two sides to every debate, and I hope to always know and respect people on the other side of each issue I argue. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How We Don't Argue

This past summer I came home to the US after living abroad for six years.

It wasn't long after my return that I started to notice how divisive public discourse has become.  That was the primary motivation for making this blog about the rhetoric of current event debates.

I've become uncomfortable with the way major issues are presented to the public by both officials and experts. Everything has to be spun.  Outlets have to pick a demographic.  And people end up picking a side - listening to commentators that pander to one specific worldview.

We've seen scientists meddle with information in an effort to make their findings on climate change more 'understandable.'

We've seen blatant demagoguery in the health care debate. 

We've seen Glen Beck.

Despite all the trouble spots I worry over in American public discourse - despite my concern over the failure of cool heads, I think it is important to point out this:

It could be a hell of a lot worse.

Iranian lawmakers are calling for the execution of opposition leaders.

Hungary enacted a law restricting the media from reporting anything a government-appointed panel finds "unbalanced or immoral."

It seems increasingly dangerous for governments to take such harsh stances against dissenters.
The era of centralized powers restricting the freedom of their peoples is coming to an end, and I expect a few of the dying giants won't go without a fight.

In times such as these, it's nice to live in a society that values freedom of expression.  Our debates might not always be eloquent, critical, or informed - but at least there aren't any gunmen preventing such exchanges.

Friday, February 04, 2011

What Do You Mean We, Kemosabe?

I like to pay attention to the smaller words - prepositions, articles, and pronouns to be specific. I find these often-overlooked words can have tremendous impact on meaning.

My interest stems largely from experience teaching English as a second language. Try to explain the logic in the difference between 'look up' and 'look down on' to someone learning the language.

So after jumping on Congressman Paul Ryan for his misplaced article, I feel it's only right to turn that kind attention on my own choice of words. 

I decided to call this blog How We Argue. I think the title has a nice ring to it, but I am guilty of the use of an unclear pronoun. The we in my title is troublesome.

We as in 'you and I'?
We as in 'a group I belong to'?
We as in 'a group I belong to, but you don't'?
We as in 'a group I belong to and a different group who argues with my group'?
Oh, I could keep going. My use of an undefined pronoun leaves a lot for readers to decipher. Here on a public blog, that's not a very wise choice. I don't know the profile of all my readers, and while one reader may read the 'we' as inclusive, others may read 'we' as exclusive. This could change the meaning of my blog from one reader to the next in ways I hadn't anticipated. It's sloppy.

So, who is this 'we' I'm referring to?

In the composition classroom, a defensive student presented with this question typically comes up with a variation on the following answer: I'm going to leave that up to the reader. It is the reader's job to decide if they are with me or against me. 

That sounds nice, doesn't it? It acknowledges writing as a social activity, and puts agency into the hands of the reader.

If it were my intention to give a reader that responsibility, then I could stop right here. Readers could decide whether they are with me or against me.

But I do not think that is a productive purpose for my writing. That describes the work of partisan pundits, a group who may be included in the 'we,' but I don't want to join a group exclusively composed of such people.

No, I don't want this blog to be an exercise in drawing lines in the sand. And leaving the 'we' undefined would move the effort in that direction.

In composition class, if my students use undefined pronouns such as 'you,' 'they,' or 'we,' I try to get them to describe the who behind those words. All to often, the words are lazy shorthand for a subject too complicated or uncomfortable for students to wrestle with. The 'they' often refers to a shadowy group of people who control everything, as in, "They knew the financial crisis was coming, and they choose to do nothing about it." Or maybe the 'they' refers to a miraculously homogeneous group of people different from the author, as in, "They have trouble succeeding in school because they lack support at home." There's a lot of unexplored complexity hiding behind those theys.

An undefined 'we' often hides similar complexities.  So again, what does my 'we' refer to?

If my aim here is to examine public discourse in America, then I think I'm talking about the Constitutional 'we,' as in "We the people..." That seems vague, I know, but I'm going to pull another overused quote to tighten the focus a bit.

At the end of his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln describes the US government as "of the people, by the people, for the people" (What a graceful use of parallel structure).

I count myself among the people in that quote, but I don't think everyone in America can say the same thing. A lot of people seem to be ignoring the "by the people" part of the quote.  Many people don't vote. Many people don't work to understand public issues that affect them personally. Many people don't try to understand the views of people with whom they disagree. All important parts of participating in the public discourse of a democracy. My aim as a teacher and writer is to encourage more people to actively assert themselves as members of Lincoln's people.

I think the best way for people to do so is to become thoughtfully engaged.

So that is the 'we' I'm aiming at.

Do you count yourself among us?