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Agreement by Annoyance

Today’s media-centric society is a haven for anyone with a suitably catchy or alarming message to send. Typical journalism’s drive to catch the next major story before anyone else results in many exaggerated or sensationalized headlines, video reports, and images being bombarded into the public consciousness. This mindset or philosophy, if you will, has become so prevalent that I think it’s starting to affect our ability to interact with each other in groups.

All major negotiations and discussions in modern times are at least partially carried out as a media war, a campaign not unlike trench warfare. Both sides adopt fortified positions, surrounded by staunch, unyielding advocates, and lob mortar shells of rhetoric and propaganda at one another, hoping for a result that benefits their faction.

A few things over the past few days have made me take new notice of this fact. They’re in no particular order, but also are not intended to denigrate the people and ideas responsible. This is more about the context and strategy that is used by many groups today.

First, in my area of the world (Alberta, Canada), we have protests occurring as of today by groups of First Nations who feel that a recently passed federal bill is going to adversely affect their treaty rights. In and of itself, there’s actually everything right with this picture: government should be held accountable for its actions, and citizens should attempt to make others aware of possible concerns. The protests in this case are taking the form of road blockades and slowdowns.

Here’s the quote that weirded me out a little:

“The first nations have met every form of dialogue with the Canadian government and nothing has worked. Our first resource is not blockades and protests and everything. It’s just, this is what it’s come to. And so, I’m sure there’ll be tonnes of angry motorists. But we need to get out message out there.” – Evans Yellow Old Woman

Retrieved from CBC News website: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/story/2012/12/21/calgary-idle-protests.html

Does it seem counter-intuitive to anyone else? Let me come back to that in a moment.

Everyone has heard about the Connecticut tragedy and has seen torrents of media coverage on this issue as gun control advocates, religious fundamentalists, and NRA hardliners, amongst others, all converge on this pressing issue of public safety. A particularly divisive point came up when members of the Westboro Baptist Church tried to protest at the funerals of some of those murdered children, drawing the acrimony of many people.

In my own situation: where we are in my home province right now is that teachers don’t have a contract. I won’t talk about the internal details of what’s going on in negotiations, but there’s bound to be rhetoric in media, government, and union corners where people say “This job is too hard, let’s make it easier”, or “teachers have it made, cut their pay and benefits”, or some other variant of “if you actually cared, you would be doing ‘X’ thing that benefits our side, and if you aren’t, you’re against us”.

Here’s my issue with all of these: you’re relying on your ability to make someone else uncomfortable or angry to convince them to take your side.

In the first example, the person who was interviewed by the CBC was clearly aware of the fact that the group’s actions would actually make other citizens angry. Somehow, this anger is supposed to turn their opinion against the government to side with the people who have disturbed them and caused this anger, when in actuality, anger towards the activists is more common. I hear that sort of anger all the time from people who think First Nations in Canada have too much leeway in our Constitution and legal system. I find it hard to believe anyone will get stopped at a roadblock today and think: “Gee, these people who have delayed my arrival at an important meeting in Calgary must have a point – let’s phone my local Member of Parliament and tell them how we should side with them.”

In the second example, people from the Westboro Baptists have the idea that if they show up to the scene of a horrific tragedy and explain that it can be related to a punishment or at least consequence for what they perceive to be godlessness, there will be a mass conversion. Trying to apply guilt to wounded and grieving individuals is seen as a tactic to increase religious faith. Again, I can’t understand the logic behind this. If you intrude on the grief of these families with any sort of rhetoric or argument that in any way attempts to twist the tragedy to your own purposes, not only will the chosen person not be receptive, you stand a good chance of turning the whole community against you (and depending on the always-unpredictable media, the larger society as well).

Finally, the sort of rhetoric and debate I hear all the time in my profession. “I work harder than you!” “No you don’t, you’re lazy because school doesn’t run during the summer!” “You don’t care about education’s future!” “You don’t care about children, all you care about is money!” Insults and ankle-biting tactics are thrown around like they’re going out of style. And somehow, in the end, all this is supposed to convince someone of my viewpoint, and to agree with me. It doesn’t matter whether I were to side hypothetically with either government or teachers or parents – telling me exactly how stupid my position is, or how bad it is for the society, or how ethically bankrupt my group is, will probably not convince me to do anything except the adult equivalent of “Talk to the hand”.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think people are going at this with the right mindset.

In my junior high language arts classes, I teach the basics of essay-writing. One of the fundamentals that they learn is that it’s better to use a constructive, logical argument backed up by a bevy of facts. There should be an absence of personal attacks because then you get the audience thinking about the objective realities of your viewpoint, not how angry you are; it doesn’t matter how angry you are if you can’t persuade someone else of the reasons for that anger. For many students, this is a new idea: they don’t have to rant in order to have a constructive discussion/debate.

I’m starting to wonder if there’s a whole society of people who need to go back to the classroom on ‘How to convince others to agree with you’. Because I find it hard to agree with anyone who thinks that attacking me personally, or anyone in general, is going to make your argument any more or less substantial than it already is. Perhaps I should expand my teaching environs…

If anyone’s interested, my rates are very reasonable; and I promise not to put you in the same room as 30 13-year-olds for too long. Now there’s a scare tactic.

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