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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

This Feels Familiar: An observation

And I feel

Like I've been here before

Feel

Like I've been here before

And you know

It makes me wonder

What's going on under the ground

 

from Déjà Vu by David Crosby

 

I was a paperboy.  From the time I was around 11 until I was 15, I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood.  And once a month, I’d go “collecting.”  For those not old enough to remember paper carriers and home delivery by children, “collecting” was when I’d take the receipt book that the newspaper company gave me and knock on the doors where I’d been delivering papers.  When someone answered, I’d say, “Collecting for the [name of the newspaper]” like every other newspaper carrier did.  Then the adult who lived there would reach into a wallet or purse for cash, or they’d go over to a desk to write a check.  I was responsible to collect the household’s subscription fee for the month.  I’d give the majority of what I collected to the route manager, and I’d keep a percentage as my salary.  At a time before automated, computer-driven billing, it was an ingenious system that saved newspapers all over the country from having larger billing and collections departments; and it helped me learn the responsibility of earning and managing money.  The job also led to lots of adventures that adults never intended, and those adventures helped shape my world view; but those are for another time. 

 

For the most part, the people from whom I collected were pretty good about my collecting.  While some of them didn’t otherwise treat me especially well, they seemed to understand the relationship between my providing a service and then showing up at the doorstep requesting payment.  The exchanges were polite and formally cordial.  There was an exception, however.  The John Birch House.  That was what I called the house where members of the John Birch Society in the neighborhood lived.  I don’t remember ever having any discussion beyond being handed payment, giving a receipt, and wordlessly being expected to leave as the door closed.  Like just about every other house in the neighborhood, they had children in school, so the lack of communication wasn’t because the adults didn’t know how to converse with children.  There was always silence and the tacit understanding that even in this most American of commercial interactions, having a Black kid on their porch wasn’t what they preferred – no matter the reason.

 

This less-than-amicable interaction won’t be surprising to anyone who even casually knows the John Birch Society.  Think of all of the crackpot conspiracies fomented in recent years by the “Q” crowd and White-nationalist groups that stormed the nation’s capitol building on January 6.  All their ideas and beliefs have their antecedents in the John Birch Society of the late 1950s and 1960s.  Disbelieve government experts?  That was a hallmark of theirs, whether it was water safety or education.  Mistrust “mainstream” journalists?  The Birch Society believed them to have been infiltrated by communists and communist sympathizers who sought to destroy the nation.  Don’t believe that the current president is legitimate?  They believed that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, the man who’d led Allied troops a few years before, was a communist dupe.  The list of whacky beliefs goes on.  So much so that the Republican Party of the era renounced the John Birch Society as being outrageous and dangerous to democracy.  John Birch Society members were especially hostile toward the civil rights movement that they saw as fueled by communist conspirators who were teaching Black folks to step out of line.  Black folks who didn’t know their place as subservient weren’t welcome where members of the John Birch Society lived, even if they were just collecting for the newspaper. 

 

I don’t remember any specific collecting moments during my career as a newspaper carrier except for one at the John Birch House.  At that visit, I knocked on the door.  When it opened, I offered my standard introduction, expecting the usual silence that accompanied it at that house.  The mother of the house who had opened the door, quietly turned and walked back into the living room where a group of men and women sat.  As she retrieved her purse, the group that had been talking became suddenly silent as they stared at me.  Because I was the paperboy, and because I went to school with the children in our area, I knew all of the adults who lived in the neighborhood.  These men and women were unfamiliar.  I grew up in a family that was politically active, and I immediately recognized the signs of a meeting, rather than a social gathering.  It was mid-day on a Saturday, and seating was arranged in a circle.  Some chairs had been brought from the dining room to complete that circle.  People’s postures weren’t casual.  The group was arranged for a discussion, not in an informal gathering.  Some of the people needed to shift their position to look at me.  They continued to stare motionlessly at me as the woman of the house brought back her purse and paid me.  I wrote her a receipt and she held out her hand to take it, then stepped back and closed the door.  It was only as the door closed that I began to see some movement in the group that had been observing me intensely for the few minutes that the exchange took.

 

When you’re one of only a few Black kids in a White community of over 30,000 people in the 1950s and ‘60s, you get used to staring and silence.  But I also immediately realized whom and what I’d seen.  This was the local John Birch Society having a meeting.  They were a very active group in that community as they sought to protect the community from godless communism and fluoride in the drinking water.  They weren’t out burning crosses in people’s yards, but they were clearly about maintaining a system that benefitted White men at the expense of all others.  Their beliefs were very widely known, but it was difficult to know who was a member.  I only knew about the people in this house’s membership because my parents had told me.  Catching this rare glimpse of their meeting was as rare as finding an undiscovered flock of endangered birds. 

 

While there were lots of community groups that people could join, the John Birch Society wasn’t a group where you could attend a membership recruitment meeting or an open forum they offered.  They met in small groups like the one I’d seen, and they did their work behind the scenes.  They started rumor campaigns that employed coded language to rail against Jews as greedy or African Americans as lazy or dangerous in letters to the editor.  They ran for the school board under the banner of protecting traditions and history.  They were quietly persistent, preferring to be cautious about being open about their group membership.  They would never, for example, speak at a school board meeting as the president of the local chapter of the John Birch Society.  Their public posture was that they were individuals who cared about values and tradition and their interpretation of important concepts like liberty and freedom.    

 

They never stood up as a group to say, “We’re the John Birch Society, these are our members, and this is what we believe.”  That openness of their beliefs often happened at the national level, especially through their founding leader Robert Welch.  However, despite their local collective silence, there was a clear local agenda that tied to the national agenda, and that became clear through the actions and comments that aligned to the national organization’s policies.  You only knew that local neighbors were members of the John Birch Society if you paid attention to what they said and how they said it when they engaged publicly.  Again, as a Black kid who grew up in a White community and who was raised by an activist father, I paid attention. 

 

At the local level, they stayed in the background and created small agitations.  They’d fight for the recall of a school board member.  They’d launch a formal complaint against a curriculum or a particular teacher in schools.  They’d appear as concerned citizens at city or county council meetings.  On the surface, it looked like these individuals were good citizens who were exercising their individual rights by advocating for their communities.  In truth, in the pre-social-media-era, through books like None Dare Call It Treason or Robert Welch’s Blue Book, that they could get from the right-wing American Opinion Bookstore in nearby Oakland, they developed a common ideology.  Through meetings like the one I accidentally witnessed, they would plan collective action.  But it never looked like collective action; instead, each action appeared like an individual, citizens-led initiative.  This was the late 1950s and early 1960s, and their insidious, concerted actions that occurred simultaneously in suburban communities around the country helped to shape actions and beliefs that would later emerge as the anti-taxation movements in the 1970s and, eventually, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. 

 

At that moment on that porch in the mid- ‘60s as the door closed and I walked away from the porch, I was left wondering what they were discussing.  Were they planning the next attack on some unsuspecting teacher because she had students reading To Kill a Mockingbird?  Or were they intending to have members of the group show at the next county planning committee to complain that fair housing laws were just a smokescreen to bring down their property values?  Or were they planning a letter writing campaign to thwart new taxes that were the result of the wasteful government spending they believed existed?  Whatever their immediate topic, I suspected that the conversation shifted to my family and me after the door closed.  In the wake of their silent stares, I was certain they would be they talking about the dangers of having a politically engaged Black family around the corner.  If nothing else, the family of the house would have to explain how someone like me could find himself in their neighborhood.  Guessing their conversation was the best I could do.  And that’s the way it was at that time in that place with that organization.  I could see the outcome of their actions when they did act, but they planned clandestinely behind closed doors.  It was like that often-cited metaphor of only being able to see the top half of the duck as it swims on a pond.  There was much happening underneath, even though what was visible didn’t show it.

 

I’ve watched the news in the past year with much interest. 

 

The nation has now had an attempted insurrection that sought to subvert the most recent presidential election.  There are also movements all over the country to create new legislation that restricts voting.  Republicans who stood up for the rule of law and fought the subversion of democracy are quietly being replaced by radically extreme people in many localities and states.  A woman’s right to make decisions for her health is being challenged.  Groups are showing up at school board meetings to protest teaching practices and curricula.  There are demands and protests against mask mandates and vaccinations.  All these actions appear to be grassroots efforts among concerned conservatives who are answering the call of patriotism.  That’s what the defenders of the insurrection attempt, the voting restrictions movements, and anti-women’s choice all suggest.  But that’s what the John Birch Society looked and sounded like 60 years ago.  While their national leaders made wild claims that were easily refutable, the local followers quietly and persistently agitated for the changes that national leaders suggested. 

 

Donald Trump, his My Pillow sycophant, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Steve Bannon, and the others who have a national profile are easily dismissible as buffoons, incompetent, devious prevaricators, or worse.  None of what they say is ever proven, and their antics are easily dismissed as laughable.  But here’s the danger that my childhood observations taught me:  These nationally visible influencers have acolytes at the local level who are much less outrageous, much more covert, and much more dangerous.  These local workers push toward the larger vision that the national leaders articulate in a choreographed pas de deux.  National and local dance partners each take their steps to move the nation toward the same kind of exclusionary ideology and practices that the folks meeting at the John Birch House 60 years ago would find familiar.  It wasn’t the prominent, national figures of the movement that made that shift.  It was the local advocates who remained true to the cause and maintained a determined message that never wavered over time.  

 

An insurrection doesn’t organically happen; it’s not by accident that these voting exclusion laws and vote “audits” are popping up in multiple places; and it’s not by serendipity that women’s rights are being challenged in many places all at once.  There’s some serious organizing behind all this.  And a significant part of its danger is at the local level.  For these actions to happen simultaneously as they have, folks have to be exchanging ideas online, and also they have to be meeting regularly and quietly to plan like my childhood neighbors did.  While the national news looks at, and generally dismisses, the national-level nonsense, the lack of local reportage means that these local efforts go unchecked.  At a time when local journalism is waning, there aren’t enough local reporters to ferret out the story of local groups and what the impacts of these groups are.  The best that local reporters seem to be able to do is to identify the most radical of these groups:  the Proud Boys, The Three Percenters, etc.  Those are easy to spot, and it’s easy to see what their impacts are.  Less visible are the soccer parents or and PTA factions who also meet to plan action.  They meet on social media to arrange for the next school board protest or the next campaign to denounce vaccines.  We see the duck moving, but don’t know anything about what’s causing the movement.

 

We’ve seen this happen in the past, and the result isn’t good.  Over time, the Republican Party evolved to adopt many of the beliefs and perspectives of the John Birch Society – beliefs that it rejected as laughably too radical in the 1960s.  That group patiently acted locally and like a drip that eventually breaks a dam, it persistently pushed its agenda until the party eventually started to believe what the John Birch Society members offered.  With time, the steady messaging of these groups from the base creates a narrative that becomes commonly accepted.  That slow movement toward the extreme is how two-thirds of Republicans in recent polling have now come to believe that the last presidential election was stolen by the winner – despite all the evidence to the contrary.  At the local level, and online, the lies they hear and see are being spread by people they trust.  That trust extends to national leaders like Trump, but it begins in living rooms and in online postings.  Over time, those mistruths become facts, despite any evidence to the contrary.  These mistruths are spread even more virulently than they were 60 years ago because of pervasive social media.  We’ve learned in recent months how a virus can spread physically.  In the world of the Internet, viral ideas spread as quickly and as dangerously through contacts that happen every day. 

 

So here’s my question to you:  If you’re seeing what looks like concerned individuals who are pushing for the current anti-democracy and fear agendas in your community and state, what’s the local organization that’s really behind what you’re seeing?  Like you would for any virus, do some contact tracing.  Look for the names that keep getting mentioned in these actions.  Look for the names of groups, especially fundamentalist churches that have become a hub, that are involved.  In many ways, the fundamentalist church has taken the role that the John Birch Society had in its growth era.  Look for the patterns of who is doing what, and you’ll soon find who and what groups are active in your community.  I think you’ll be surprised when you uncover the answer to that question.  Even more importantly, you’ll discover who is spreading what story.  Once you make those connections, then you can encourage the few remaining local journalists who cover your area to look further.  There are definitely many local stories there. 

 

Because, like David Crosby ended the song, “We have all been here before….”


Friday, July 30, 2021

About Systems Failures and a Pandemic

I’m annoyed.  Really annoyed.  I live in a community where, as of today, 92.3% of the population, 12 and older received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.  That’s the highest vaccination rate in our county.  We have an incredible volunteer medical and emergency response corps who put together a vaccination campaign that even attracted folks from outside the community to come here and be vaccinated.  Our small, independent pharmacy took a leading role in becoming a hub for vaccinations, and even my dentist’s office purchased a specialized freezer to become a vaccination site.  This is all one outcome of living in a community where large numbers of medical professionals and talented organizers live.  It’s an older population with a median age of 54 where a lot of experienced professionals – many of them retired – are available to organize and participate in making all this happen.  I’m grateful to these people.  My wife and I didn’t move here 24 years ago with the intention of someday living in a secure bubble that protected us from a pandemic.  We came for the forests and connection to the waters that surround us.  But, as it turns out, living here gives us resources that we couldn’t have anticipated – that’s confirmed by our community having the lowest COVID-19 infection rate in the region.  So why am I annoyed?

 

I’m annoyed because these privileges stop at the community’s edge.  The more ethnically/racially and economically diverse communities in my county have higher infection rates and lower vaccination rates than my community.  These other areas also don’t have a large cadre of volunteer medical professionals at the ready to educate them and to organize the medical services that a community like mine can muster.  It’s the same problem that the nation has always had.  Medical service has historically been available to those with resources.  Even in a pandemic where the impacts of no medical service cross geographic lines, the privileged get more services.  In truth, though, I am no more safe from the pandemic than the neighboring communities are.  In truth, I can’t live in a bubble.  When I have an appointment in a neighboring community, when I shop in another community, when someone in those neighboring communities comes to mine – we are all exposed to each other.  The effect of that borderless exposure becomes more real with reports of “breakthrough cases” among the already vaccinated like me – even if my risk for being infected is small.  It’s clear that the folly of the well-resourced being served and others continuing without those resources doesn’t serve anyone well.  That’s always been the case, and a pandemic just makes the interdependence more apparent. 

 

I’m also annoyed because of how the politicization of this pandemic has ensured that some areas of the state and nation choose not to take caution.  We have counties in our state where significant numbers of people see public health precautions as a political issue.  Significant numbers of people in these communities are convinced that putting on a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and, ultimately, getting vaccinated are actions that that somehow connect to their personal liberty.  Certain politicians, television networks, religious leaders, and online media outlets fuel these ideas.  As a result, their followers choose to remain defiant to the virus, or they choose to remain ignorant of its impact; or they believe themselves protected from it; or they believe unreasoned conspiracies about vaccines, masks, and social distancing.  These people ignore the warnings of health professionals and the unfolding facts as over 600,000 of our citizens died and over 35 million were infected.  All of the current data suggest that these folks being convinced to be intransigent contributes to the pandemic’s spread and impact on all of us – as do the inequity of resources and the politicization of public health measures.  Seems to me that I have a right to be annoyed by this as much as I’m annoyed by the inequitable medical system that favors people who live in communities like mine. 

 

Finally, I’m annoyed that economic and political pressures forced an early end to public health and safety measures that were limiting the pandemic’s effect.  Those pressures have supported an anti-science approach where political and economic considerations have equal or more authority as scientific ones.  During a December, 2020 NPR interview, Dr. Fauci said, "I would say 50% would have to get vaccinated before you start to see an impact.  But I would say 75 to 85% would have to get vaccinated if you want to have that blanket of herd immunity."  Throughout December through February, as the vaccines were just starting to be reviewed for use, Dr. Fauci and other epidemiologists noted the importance of getting 75 to 85% of the population vaccinated.  The current federal administration and state administrations lowered that to a more pragmatic goal of 70% when it became clear that people were hesitant to be vaccinated.  Science gets put aside as leaders set about mollifying anti-science believers or their voting base or those with economic interests.  Now we’re being warned about another surge in cases.  I understand the economic forces, and I understand the political forces, but understanding doesn’t lessen my annoyance.

 

So is this just a rant, or do I have an idea of substance to offer here?  Maybe a little of both.  On the other side of this pandemic, when it does end, I like to hope that the lessons of an inequitable health system, the dangers of politicization of matters of social good, and the discounting of science will offer lessons for how we handle the next crisis.  I have this hope, but it’s a dim hope.  Given the issues above, I hear few people, and almost no leaders, discussing the fundamental flaws that led to the problems.  Instead, I hear conversations about the need for technical fixes to existing systems – like providing funding for one short-term solution or other – not the systemic causes we should be discussing. 

 

We’re faced, in this pandemic, with broken economic and political systems that created divisions and favoritism for some.  These systems poorly serve all but the very few who benefit from them.  These systems are intended to ensure their own perpetuity, yet they can’t continue in the models of failure that is their hallmark.  We’re also reaping the rewards of a decades-long anti-intellectualism that generated skepticism for even the most common-sense measures.  All of this is leading to a clash between perceptions and reality.  This clash will either reshape the fundamental ways in which the society operates, or it will generate little change that will eventually lead to a future clash. 

 

What to do?  It seems to me that the first task is to be aware that the failures during the pandemic were systemic.  If your car’s motor stops working, and you notice that the lights aren’t working, changing the headlights isn’t going to get the car moving again.  A dead motor is a system that needs to be fixed.  We need to look beyond what’s immediately visible to get at root causes.  In addressing the post-pandemic future, now is the time to discuss the systems that failed us.  What in our systems allows significant numbers of people in ethnic/racial groups and within certain economic groups to be less well served?  What in our political and social processes allows leaders to lie and manipulate their followers with impunity?  What caused suspicion of science to become so widespread?  These are the questions we should be discussing now as we examine the struggles of the past 18 months.  Answering these questions will determine the nation’s future.  Creating piecemeal technical fixes to those systems isn’t enough to ensure we can address the next crisis.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

And How Do We Learn…? Pandemic Lessons

When I began as a teacher, I thought that teaching was about having good ideas and convincing people of the goodness of those ideas.  First, let me apologize once again to those poor students who had me as a teacher in those first couple of years.  I wasn’t any worse than any of the peers who worked alongside me, but I had a lot to learn, and being no worse than the average isn’t what learners needed.  In the time since, experience has taught me that learning is a whole lot more complex than giving someone an idea.  I've seen folks get angry and bitter about that reality when the world doesn't understand the ideas they offer; but I choose to understand it as part of the human condition.  In truth, we don't learn from ideas as much as we learn from necessity and circumstances.  When I realized that as a teacher, I also realized the importance of three critical requisites for leaning to happen.  These three are:

  1. Establishing learning environments where people were engaged in solving real problems that mattered to them. 

  2. Building a tripartite relationship among the idea, the teacher, and learners. 

  3. Sequencing so that people begin engagement where they understand and continue through an engagement that keeps them stretching their knowledge. 

 

The pandemic is the perfect exemplar of how all this works.

 

To explain:  For 30 years, I’ve been pushing the idea that technology-mediated learning has benefits.  I came to that awareness through my experiences as a teacher and through primary research I’ve done to measure the impacts of technology-mediated learning.  I began using computers in my teaching in 1984 and evolved a set of activities that took advantage of technology-mediated learning from that point forward.  In my scholarship, I’m second author on what I believe to be the first, published controlled study that measured the effects of the Internet in K-12 classrooms[1] in 1997.  If having a good idea and being able to explain it were enough, I would’ve successfully convinced educators to develop technology-mediated learning years ago.  People tell me that I’m pretty competent at explaining things.

 

However, despite my interest, knowledge and experience, the response from most colleagues and educational systems to my insistence that technology can aid instruction has ranged from tepid to hostile.  When I was hired for what turned out to be the last university position where I worked for 10 years before retiring, I asked what the interest was in distance or hybrid learning.  Each person I asked, without exception, said that the institution had a long history of education that didn’t include any kind of distance-based learning.  No one was interested.  I took the job anyway because I figured that there were other reasons to work there – most significantly because it was one of only four professor positions that focused on adult education in my state.

 

For years in that position, I worked with other organizations to develop online and hybrid learning.  I also created some workshops and certificates that were organized or delivered through video conferencing, course management systems, and other technologies.  Educators in those sessions were always, at first, hesitant to participate.  With time, though, they found that the flexibility of participation when they could join sessions from wherever they were made up for any physical separation.  Also, we ensured that lessons were organized to be active learning environments that paralleled, and in some instances, exceeded the capacity of face-to-face instruction.  We also ensured that there were lots of opportunities for personal relationship building.  As a result, these were all successful at attracting and engaging learners.  Still, though, the response of the institution and colleagues where I worked was to minimize any benefits in favor of what they were comfortable doing.  Actually, that reaction was common among many people in education.  The response was something like, “That’s just not what we do.”

 

Until the pandemic.  When states forced education institutions to close their doors because of the pandemic, schools had to find ways to deliver instruction to students at a distance.  They suddenly needed to learn to use technologies they hadn’t previously considered.  From the educators I talked to in kindergarten through graduate schools and from Seattle to Riyadh, teachers needed to develop systems and skills that would rapidly replace face-to-face instruction.  Teachers and systems scrambled to build distanced-based instruction.  As I noted in March, 2020, that’s no easy task. However, since that challenging beginning, educators learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  Their efforts were sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful, but educators I encountered began looking at technologically mediated models differently.  That extended into personal lives and professional meetings as video conferencing and webcasting often became the only choice when considering connections to others.  Instead of “that’s not what we do,” people began to understand, “this is now how we can connect”; and, even more importantly, many educators began to see the potential benefits of how these technologies can positively impact their work. 

 

During the past 18 months, I helped to evaluate a statewide professional development project for K-12 teachers in 140 teams around Washington state.  The project was conceived as a traditional professional development project, but it began just as the state enforced pandemic rules.  The project designers made rapid changes and adapted.  The year-end evaluation of the project this year had some surprising outcomes.  One of them is the lack of complaints from educators about having to adjust to online education.  Some of the teams even identified positive benefits.  They attributed much of that to the project coordinators who provided distance-based, customized supports to the teams and developed the relationships needed to create that customization.  The technologies used (video conferencing, online modules, and a course management system) supported those targeted customizations.  Because the project’s content focused on helping these educators address a real need, it engaged them and helped them to learn and begin applying new ideas.  By all measures, the project worked well to meet its aims. 

 

Don’t miss the point, here.  My point isn’t that technology is better, or that the pandemic had positive benefits, or that I was ahead of or behind anyone.  The point is an answer to the question asked by this essay’s title:  “How do we learn?”  We learn from necessity and circumstances that are based in our real needs.  We learn by developing that tripartite relationship among the instructor, the learner, and the content.  We learn through a sequencing of experiences that takes us from what we know to what we need to know.  During the pandemic, educators, as evidenced by the project I mentioned above where we evaluated their experiences, seem to be discovering new ideas that they would’ve otherwise dismissed.  It’s these factors that create the moment in which we can learn. 

 

This lesson on how we learn seems to be a lesson worth keeping, and it offers opportunity for us to examine what we think learning and teaching should be.  Rather than seeing education as simply the transmission of ideas, maybe we should think of it as the engagement with ideas.  The adaptations that global education systems made during the pandemic should help us realize the importance of that engagement, the importance of ensuring that learning and teaching are about more than relaying information.  How do we learn?  We learn, as education systems did over the past 18 months, by solving problems, addressing needs that are real to us, and by connecting to those ideas that solve our problems.  If that’s how we learn, then school and schooling should look differently. 

 

This challenges much about what we think of education.  If we learn through personal engagement with ideas that address our needs, then how we measure learning should focus on that engagement as much as the knowledge and skills.  If that tripartite relationship among teacher, subject, and student is critical, then we need to prepare teachers to create and maintain that relationship – and what we define as “good teaching” should be based on teachers’ abilities to do so.  If creating opportunities for sequenced, relevant and meaningful learning is important, then educational systems need to emphasize that as much as they emphasize the knowledge which should be an outcome of that.

 

Given I believe this, I don’t expect that the educational system will change itself after a few people read this essay.  After all, what’s here are more abstract ideas that I argue above don’t lead to learning.  However, abstract ideas can have a place in helping people to wonder what might be possible.  I hope this is a spark to think back on our own learning over the past 18 months and to see if the ideas here resonate with those experiences.  If you do see a resonance, then perhaps you’ll start an exploration within your sphere of influence, as a community member, as a parent, as a teacher, as a leader to discover how the ways in which you learn can be applied to the places where you, your children, and your community are educated. 



[1] Follansbee, S., Hughes, B. ,Pisha, B, & Stahl, S. (1997). Can online communications improve student performance? ERS Spectrum Journal of Research and Information,15(1), 15-26


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Silence of Complicity, the Complicity of Silence

Three years ago, I wrote about personal attacks.  I described the experiences that leaders have when confronted by people who seek to destroy those leaders for personal gain.  I’ve watched that phenomenon over the years and am appalled and saddened at how pervasive it is.  Organizations lose many wonderful leaders because those people tire of the relentless struggle it takes to lead while fending off the attacks. 

 

As I explained in that essay three years ago, these attacks are ruthless efforts to damage someone in a zero-sum game that intends to diminish the attacked and elevate the attacker.  The behavior is sickening to watch, yet it’s so common that I continue to talk with leaders regularly who experience these attacks.  These ongoing conversations have me thinking:  How are these attacks so successful?  What I’ve come to realize is that for attackers to be successful, others have to stay silent.  Within that silence, people become partners with evil because their silence allows attackers to continue.

 

This isn’t a Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative issue.  It’s no different within any organization in business, education, health care, local government – any place where personal attack becomes normative and is allowed to fester unchallenged by silence.  You probably don’t have to work too long in a career to see it.  In some organizations, it’s become the common model for showing any dissent to the organization’s direction.  There’s no obligation to work out solutions or to talk openly and honestly about concerns.  The attack becomes a substitute for solutions, and attackers continue to attack because no one will say anything.

 

I’m always taken aback when I ask group members to explain their silence in these circumstances.  They typically acknowledge that what they see happening is wrong.  “I’ve seen [the attacker] do that before,” they’ll explain in a private discussion.  Or “It’s really awful what’s happening,” they’ll quietly whisper.  Or they’ll express remorse at seeing the outcome of losing a leader because, “I really liked her/him.”  They seem to believe that because they’re not the one participating in the attack, they’re absolved of complicity.  But, in fact, they’re silent partners with the attacker.  They’re partners because their silence emboldens the attacker and, thus, aids in the attack.  It’s what Elie Wiesel warned about when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1986:  “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

 

Silence affects more than the leader, though.  It fosters unhealthy organizations that live in cycles of dysfunction.  I’ve seen that there’s a direct correlation between silence and the rise of organizational pathologies like distrust and dishonesty.  People who stay silent as they see someone unfairly attacked also stay silent when they see other kinds of wrongdoing.  The silence fosters a culture of looking the other way about everything, no matter how egregious.  Enron, the financial collapse of 2008, the Wells Fargo Bank counterfeit accounts disaster – they all began with complicit silence that eventually led to an escalating cascade of unethical acts. 

 

The opposite of silence is action.  Action is really the only antidote to the pathology of attacks.  It’s really a simple formula:  The passivity of silence allows attack; being an active problem solver prevents them.  I understand that some people in an organization are marginalized and feel powerless to speak.  I also understand that, in some organizations, the ones who feel the power to attack can (and often do) pivot their attack to others.  Fear of retribution can come from a fear of colleagues’ actions as much as it can come from a fear of what leaders can do.  But here’s the reality:  If left to fester and succeed, attackers create a climate of fear and reprisal that permeates all parts of an organization.  I’ve seen that climate take hold of organizations and become the common culture that gets passed to succeeding generations of the organization – and last for decades. 

 

I’ve taken a different approach.  If I’m part of any group, I take a responsibility to question the group’s behavior.  When I see attacks happening, I go to the attacker privately and ask what internal remedies they’ve attempted.  Oftentimes in my experiences, they can’t answer that question because attackers aren’t seeking remedies and have tried none.  Their point is to destroy, not repair or build.  I then ask them, again privately, if they are willing to follow potential remedies.  If they’re not willing to do that, my reaction is to publicly call out attacking behavior – note that I didn’t say the attacker, but rather the behavior – and publicly ask people in the group if the behavior is acceptable to them.  Having open, frank, and inclusive discussions that address the behavior is, I’ve learned, important. 

 

My starting question is to the group is typically, “I keep hearing personal attacks continue, and I don’t see where these attacks are helping us do what we’re here to do.  Is this behavior an example of who we want to be?”  I am careful not to further the culture of attack by calling out the person or people, but I do feel responsible to bring light to the attacking behavior.  That conversation can allow for the development of new norms where attacking is unacceptable.  However, if the group shows by its actions at that point that it wants to stay silent and allow bullying attackers to continue, I reconsider my affiliation with that group.  I choose not to affiliate with a group that is willing to allow personal attacks through its silence because, ultimately, that would also be unhealthy for me.