Tag Archives: media

Poisoning the well of public debate

Following up on my previous post about talking points for the #MeToo backlash, I did a google search for the phrase “meet the women worried about metoo” and found two articles of interest, one rebutting talking points and another, earlier article, that was propagating them for somebody’s profit. Exploring these articles and the connections between them can lead us to insights about how propaganda happens in the twenty-first century and some potential solutions.

Poison and its rebuttal

Since it’s more pleasant reading, I’ll start with the rebuttal: “People Still Have No Idea What The #MeToo Movement Is Actually About” by Callie Byrnes, January 11th 2018.

It appeared on a site called thoughtcatalog.com, which I hadn’t heard on, so my first step was to wonder, “Okay, who’s funding this?” If I’m going to do true critical thinking I can’t simply criticize sources that challenge my own world view but must also suspect those that confirm them. To my pleasant surprise, their funding appears to come from the sale of products (such as books) rather than the pockets of the ultra-rich.

Byrne summarizes her main points here:

It’s as if people have taken the #MeToo movement and twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions that it’s stopping them from focusing on what it really is: a movement against sexual harassment and assault. It’s not anti-men. It’s not anti-sex. It’s not Victorian or puritanic. It’s not meant to create victims on either side. It’s about stopping a problem we’ve always had but have always overlooked — and the only reason it seems like a “revolution” is because people are finally paying attention.

Nicely argued, and if I were debating #MeToo on social media, I’d do well to start with these points. But there’s another question: Why do we have to bother? Why can’t we just get on with our work rather than continually answering irrelevant questions?

I’d suggest the answer is right there in her quote, with a few tweaks (in bold and strikeout). It’s exactly as if somebody has taken #MeToo twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions in order to focus attention away from it’s central message.

Then who is that somebody? Yesterday I pointed to the “Meet the women . . .” article, published in Spiked Online, December 19, 2017. That article was pushing the talking points anti-sex (“Real feminists don’t think sex is dirty”), Victorian victims (“Women as victims/fainting flowers”), Puritanic (“Witch hunt”), and victims on both sides (“innocent people destroyed”).

But that’s only one among many of well-funded think tank pieces, so today I’ll pick on an article published in The Federalist, “The #MeToo Movement Is DestroyingTrust Between Men And Women” by D.C. McAllister.

First, what is the Federalist and who funds it? It’s an online magazine with a tag line “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray” (meaning: get involved in social media fights). It’s free and with limited advertising, which suggests funding from another source. Well, what does that mean? It’s operating under capitalism. There is a buyer, a seller, and a product. FDRLST Media is the seller, the buyer is unknown, and the product is manipulation of public opinion.

The product of this article is talking points, specifically Glittering Generalities, Destroying Trust, Demonizing Men or Masculinity, Naive Touch/ Innocent Kiss, Destroying the Rule of Law, Propagation of Fear, Totalitarianism, Policing of Sex and Love. Here are the examples:

  • Glittering Generalities (all of which are theoretically threatened): “Freedom and community flourish in a culture of trust,” “free, civil society,” “free society,” “we must have faith,” “free and happy,” “relationship freedom”
  • Destroying Trust: “breakdown of trust between the sexes,” “distrust is generated,” “environment of suspicion”
  • Demonizing Men or Masculinity: “cannot be labeled toxic, brutal, or evil,” “all men with their masculine sexuality intact are dangerous,” “become eunuchs,” “abandoning their natural sexuality”
  • Naive Touch/Innocent Kiss: “When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape”
  • Destroying the Rule of Law: “men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a “sexual abuser”
  • Propagation of Fear: “when fear of the other sex becomes generalized, society simply can’t thrive,” “women assume a man’s sexuality is a threat,” “fear is generated on both sides,” “live in fear of a woman’s accusation”
  • Totalitarianism: “as was done in the past by certain totalitarian religions regarding feminine sexuality,” “political freedom breaks down,” “silenced through threats and intimidation,” “totalitarian regimes incite fear to maintain power,” “totalitarianism thrives on distrust,” “court of injustice”
  • Policing of Sex and Love: “harmless flirting is stifled,” “love is eradicated,” “sex being policed as a result of the sexual harassment with-hunt,” “in [1984], sex was severely regulated and loving relationships between men and women forbidden,” “robbing ourselves of mutual affection,” “one day we will wake up and feel the hollowness within, find that we’re alone”

These talking points are manipulating peoples’ basic values, deep insecurities, and genuine need for love. So they’re powerful and they get replicated. Like a cold virus. Replicated how much? Well, according to the traffic analysis website SimilarWeb, the Federalist gets five million visits every six months. So it’s replicated a lot.

(Replicated . . . for free. I already said there’s a buyer, a seller, and a product. There’s also unpaid, volunteer labor. All those folks who read the magazine and recycle its talking points are doing it on their own time.)

So that’s why authors like Byrne end up having to rebut such manipulative talking points: because the points come at us so hard and so fast and in such great numbers. Like a swarm of angry hornets or a cloud of mosquitoes. Or spam in our email inboxes.

Even worse: they’re coming at us from our friends and family members. People we trust. Even people who are on our side of whichever issue.

Is there an antidote?

On an individual level, the solution is to turn off social media and walk away. I know a few people who have done that. But let’s be realistic: social media is here to stay. And we need a collective solution for the problem.

What would it look like? Let’s use spam as an analogy. In the early days of the Internet, a few enterprising people learned you could make money by emailing huge numbers of people. At first the emails came in a trickle, and people read them carefully and emailed back saying “I don’t want your emails!” Eventually somebody got annoyed enough to name them, spam, after a Monty Python song. Eventually people built tools to automate it.

I don’t know if people can build tools to automate propaganda detection (it’s all about the context, the motivation of the entity spreading the phrase, etcetera) and in any case that sounds like a hazardous experiment in deliberate centralized censorship.

But we could name it, catalog it, learn to recognize it, and develop a quick and easy response. I have some ideas, which are just for starters.

On naming it: I’ve been using the term “think tank talking point” or “propaganda” but neither really work for that short, seductive, manipulative nugget of language that causes so much trouble. Maybe there is a word and I just don’t know it? Is there a linguist in the house?

On cataloging it: Somehow, seeing all the points in one list robs them of their power and makes them easy to recognize in casual use.

On developing a quick and easy response: A good response doesn’t shoot the messenger. If my friend says, “Oh, sure I support #metoo, but I don’t support policing kisses,” I could call my friend all sorts of names, or I could cuss at the Federalist and either ignore the statement or ask my friend to kindly put it in their own words.


Information Overload

Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin, Libya.

Governments taking up arms against their citizenry.

We’re in the midst of social change, and the reports are coming instantly.
One Facebook, three blogs, one set of forums, two email accounts, one wiki, one blog reader.

Ten books about Sumer.

Kids off school for the week and myself not writing, to say any of what I am thinking about any of this.
Information overload, and I am not alone in that. It’s hard to write online thoughtfully and especially hard to give the online written word the sustained attention it needs.

On top of this, I have commenced my second weight loss attempt through Weight-Watchers, which I expect to be successful, but which I bitterly resent, especially having recently read somewhere that at any given moment, thirty percent of women are dieting.

For most of human history, though, and in most places in the world, the main struggle for humanity has been to get enough food in our bellies.

Which brings us back to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Full circle.

Time Magazine’s Education “Reform” Articles

The Seattle teacher’s union just negotiated its labor contract with the district. In the middle of August, during contract negotiations, I got a letter from a teacher that raised all sorts of red flags for me. The district superintendent had just introduced a proposal that would a) base teacher evaluations on the results of standardized tests given to students; and b) give her broad powers to lay off teachers. Once I started looking into it, I learned that this proposal was part of a national push for some dangerous education reforms. The reforms are an attempt to:

  • Weaken teacher’s unions
  • Replace schools that failed under NCLB with charter schools;
  • Staff those charter schools with inexperienced teachers; and
  • Expand standardized testing and “teaching to the test”

Although the superintendent’s proposal was weakened in the final contract, I remain concerned about the future of education in Seattle and nationwide. The reforms are coming quickly, and most people are not well informed.

I’ve been looking for ways to frame this conversation when talking to other parents, which is especially difficult because many parents and teachers did ask for some of the reforms in the teacher’s contract, and some of those reforms are an attempt to solve longstanding educational inequalities of race and class.

However, as the PR gets going for education reform, it is becoming easier to see and discuss the big picture. The September 20th issue of Time Magazine has two articles in support of these two reforms. They’re part of the national PR effort for education reform. Read uncritically, they paint a rosy picture. But we can read them critically to expose their lies; to see the hidden reform agenda; and inform ourselves about the dangers of this reform.

Lies About Charter Schools

The first article, “How to Fix Our Schools,” argues for charter schools. It begins with an announcement of a movie, “Waiting for Superman,” which depicts failing public schools and successful charter schools. It then goes on to state in big, bold numbers in a graphic that 17% of charter
schools significantly outperform traditional public schools (p.38). But it buries the proof that charter schools on the whole do worse than traditional public schools. The article states, “But only 1 in 6 charter schools significantly outperforms traditional counterparts. And more than a third underperform.” This means that twice as many charter schools (2/6 vs. 1/6) underperform as overperform.

This is lying by burying statistics.

It’s true that some students leave schools with poor student test scores to attend schools with high student test scores. Leaving aside the problem that student test scores completely leave out the social/emotional development of our children, there is also the problem that a greater number of students attend poor charter schools than quality ones. The scenario depicted in Waiting For Superman, therefore, is essentially an emotional appeal. The final paragraph of the article builds on the emotional impact of the movie, by describing scenes in which “mothers weep and children cross their fingers in hopes of a desperate future,” and quotes an education reformer in saying “The rawness of the emotions of the parents gets to me – that unbelievable, desperate hope” (42).

This is lying by appealing to emotions rather than facts.

Lies about TFA Teachers

The next article, “How to Recruit Better Teachers,” makes an extremely sneaky argument for staffing “the toughest classrooms” with inexperienced teachers. It starts out with “beloved teachers” who “came to the profession after holding other jobs first.” So far so good. But the next paragraph subtly links these beloved teachers to poorly trained teachers. “It has never been easier for nonteachers to become public-school teachers, sometimes with just a few weeks of training” (p.46).

The next page talks about Teach for America (TFA), a program that places teachers in schools after a few weeks of training, and subtly links them to Ivy League graduates by saying that TFA got “a crush of applications from Ivy League and other elite applicants.” It does not say which percentage of TFA applicants came from Ivy League schools. It says that only 12% of 46,000 were accepted, which implies that a large number these 12% were largely Ivy League applicants. Again, though, it doesn’t state the percentages.

This is lying by implication.

The hidden truth is that 5520 applicants were accepted. This means that TFA expects that 5520 positions will be opening up around the nation. The Seattle Foundation is seeking grants for 150 TFA teachers in the Puget Sound area. How is this possible, given that state law doesn’t allow for this type of teacher? One possibility is that education reformers will be pushing for changes to state law.

Buried in the article is the reason why TFA will harm our classrooms. It gives an example of a first-year TFA teacher who couldn’t handle the discipline problems in the classroom and says, “This is a big problem with program like TNTP and TFA: they require a commitment of just one and two years” and “participants often spend the entire first year learning their jobs. A vocal minority of TFA veterans have complained that the program does little good for the students who must endure their inexperience” (p. 50).

This is lying by burying information.

How does Time propose to solve this problem? It goes on to describe a program called the Boston Teacher Residency, which requires a four-year commitment and a master’s degree in education. “Boston teacher residents spend that first awful year working with an experienced teacher, one who helps them learn the craft. The residents are in classrooms from Day One but never alone as most participants in the alterna-programs are.”

This is an argument against TFA programs that, however, lends credence to the idea that some alternative teacher certification programs are of high quality.

This is lying by association.

Having made the argument against TFA programs, it then presents a distracting argument about retiring baby boomers. “But half the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are baby boomers. They are retiring in droves.” Is this really why we need TFA teachers, or is it something else? The article goes on to say, “So until teaching becomes a more attractive long-term option, we’ll need both paid volunteers and professionals.” By using the word “so,” the article ties the need for TFA teachers to the retirement of baby boomers, but hides the fact that teaching is not an attractive long-term option.

This is hiding a lie in plain sight.

The final sentence returns to the implication that TFA teachers are from the Ivy Leagues and makes an emotional appeal to the readers. “How bad can it be that thousands if Ivy Leaguers, though inexperienced, want to help fill the void?”

This is lying by appealing to emotions.

Teacher Layoffs and Firings

The Time Magazine article has lied by implying we need TFA teachers because of retiring baby boomers is a lie. Why, then, do we anticipate a sudden need to staff 5520 classrooms with TFA teachers?

The answer is that other education reforms are making it easier to fire and lay off teachers. In July the superintendent of Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee, dismissed 127 teachers threatened to fire 737 more (p. 42). She used an evaluation that included “data about how much their students’ scores have improved compared with those of other kids performing at similar levels” (p. 42). That is, she used the results of standardized tests given to students as the basis of her layoffs.

The Seattle superintendent Goodloe-Johnson was planning to do the same thing – the proposal she introduced into the teacher’s contract gave her broad powers to lay off teachers based partly on the results of standardized tests given to students. Fortunately, concerted effort on the part of teachers and parents weakened her proposal considerably.

But if it’s happening in Seattle, where else is it happening?

Reform is Happening Quickly – But We Can Have an Impact

There is a concerted effort to make these “reforms” happen quickly. As Ripley writes, “The pace of change is, relatively speaking, breathtaking” (34).The movie Waiting for Superman, this article, and other PR efforts are meant to build popular support for “reforms” that have not been approved by teachers, parents, or students.

Some amount of education reform is unavoidable.

But, as teachers and parents have proven in Seattle and elsewhere, some of it can be stopped by concerted local efforts. We need to be closely monitoring our school districts and state legislators, educating one another, giving teachers our support, and making our voices heard.