In my previous post I tried to take a distanced and reflective perspective on a recent online furore which started on a blog, escalated in a very messy way on Twitter, and has now found a home back on the blogosphere (partly here, but mainly on Scenes From The Battleground).
Though I purposefully didn’t mention any names or link to SFTB in the first post, as I’m really wanting to look at the general dynamics which seem to be in play, rather than make it personal, I will name a couple of reference points here for orientation’s sake – though I’m still going to look at a wider perspective.
Essentially, one reasonable point which Old Andrew made to me on SFTB yesterday, was that my rarefied – ‘external snapshot’ – picture of the incident didn’t take into account the historical actions of some of the participants. Consequently, what might appear to an outsider to be an uncharitable way of interpreting the intentions and motivations behind some ambiguous actions, is missing the bigger context which makes the intentions and motivations much easier to read. Consequently, I myself can’t fully appreciate the justification for publically ‘calling out’ such suspects, and identifying the trend in the broader swathe of Progressives.
There is a lot of truth to this. I don’t know for sure that someone who protests that they are being unfairly portrayed as ‘threatening’ someone, when they say they were merely ‘warning’ them for their own good, is really stating the absolute truth. The words can be painted-onto either intention.
It is also true that I don’t know for sure whether someone who expresses indignation about what they are being accused of, actually has decent intentions for doing so, or whether they are cynically using this to avoid a debate which they don’t want, and maybe weakening the opposition.
Andrew is confident that he knows for sure because he says he has seen a similar track record for those people. I do not intend to take an ultimate position, as frankly I don’t have sufficient information, and it only seems to lead to a witch-hunt in one direction or another – which I’ve never found to be helpful.
However… this situation still actually leads to several interesting ponderings. How about this:
On the one hand, if you get enough seemingly ambiguous data points building up, the likelihood of them – together – painting a broad picture of a certain kind could well increase. In that sense I can respect the pattern-detecting senses of OA which is based on pretty-much unparalleled immersion in the sphere of educational social media and wider reading and debating over the past 10 years. He has seen and participated in, and achieved, a huge amount. I genuinely think we should ‘doff our caps’ to Andrew for what he has battled-through, committed-to, and presumably sacrificed in order to get us to the parity of discussion positions which we now enjoy. He surely must have a perspective born of detail which not many of us could perceive…?
On the other hand, if you get someone with a strong enough belief system, who’s head gets buried enough in the data, then a string of random, ambiguous coincidences can certainly start to look very much like a particular thing. I mentioned confirmation bias in the previous post. In support of this, OA will himself admit to how much he has had to fight over the past decade to gain both the right to teach the way he believes is the best way to teach, and the respect for a long out-of-fashion educational philosophy. He knows the blood, sweat and tears which he has had to sacrifice for this cause. He may well naturally see conspirators in every shadow, and there certainly seems to have been an increase in the number of combative self-proclaimed Progressives to prove right his long-made conjecture that there is a real battle between Progressivism and Traditionalism. So is he not ripe for a paranoid over-reading of events…?
I really can’t say which of these two preceding dynamics are at play here, and I don’t wish to damn either side of the particular debate by giving a hunch one way or another. Quite possibly, both things are actually in motion at the same time – “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that the world’s not out to get you”.
Despite my reluctance to get my hands dirty, and to add to the broil, there is a third line of reflection which I do wish to pursue instead – which critiques us all – and it is closest to the ideas I was ruminating about in the previous blog, when I was musing on the purposes for which reason seems to have initially developed over hundreds of millenia.
In this sense, I’m interested in the overall dynamics at play in a war such as the one between the increasingly declared Progs and Trads. For – despite my desire to see it as otherwise, it IS a war – it is a desire to convince, to convert and… it would seem… to conquer.
Naked Aggression vs Civil Aggression
First of all, in this war of educational ideologies, there are skirmishes, such as the regular spats on Twitter – none of which are ever going to change the mind of anyone who’s involved through reasoning (though according to the comments section of this blog some casual observers do get converted); they are normally the cover-fire for the proper battle, or the occasional firing of random shots over the trenches.
It would seem that there has been an escalation in the attempts to draw real blood in these exchanges in recent months, with an increase in the amount of openly abusive (not even simply barbed) tweets. To his credit, OA has blogged head-on about this problem recently – he is after all on the receiving end of a significant amount of it – and I do agree that it is the lowest form of activity on Twitter, and it is particularly disappointing to realise that it is coming from educators and educationalists.
Now, adapting and subverting some ideas from Habermas, these openly aggressive tweets could be described as Instrumental Action – or what I will term ‘naked aggression’. Rather like someone coming up and punching you, it doesn’t seek to convert you or to compromise and join with you, just to hurt you directly. Perhaps this is for revenge, or to chase you off the block, or in order to fulfil a personal twisted craving, but it is just intended to hurt. You become an object to act directly upon.
Fortunately, most Edu-Twitter interactions aren’t like this – and certainly not most of the blog exchanges (which is the arena in which I most often tend to get involved). This doesn’t mean that everything is benign and collaborative however…
Things could be fertile: My own preferred is for what Habermas calls Communicative Action. I can’t personally help being a bit of a seeker with a relatively open mind (it’s not humanly possible to have a truly open mind – to paraphrase Dawkins: “to have a fully open mind is to have a fully empty mind”). I personally try initially to never see either side of a broad debate as either being fully right or fully wrong, and I’m always pondering if there isn’t a bigger, or better way of seeing things, which manages to incorporate the nuggets of truth – or at least ‘reasonableness’ – in both sides of any honest discussions. In this respect I’m influenced by Integral Theory. With communicative action, people seek to find a joint understanding – through debate and discussion – not simply through everybody simply agreeing with everyone else in a nice and agreeable puppy-dog manner.
I think that there is of course some of this happening on Social Media (even Twitter!), but I don’t see that much of it. I very rarely see proper debates on Twitter which include comments such as “I do actually agree with that point,” or “You know, I actually think you’re right”.
Rather, between the extremes of Instrumental Action and Communicative Action, there is what could be called (again, subverting Habermas) Strategic Action, and I think this is the biggest form of Twitter debates. This is civil, rational discussion/debate, where everyone sounds like they’re listening to each other, but only in order to ensure that they can get their point over, and – ultimately – to convince others that they personally are RIGHT. This may be in a genuine attempt to get the other participant to join a side which they believe to be entirely correct, but it can also just be a ‘civilised’ attempt – but pretty much akin to the instrumental action of hurling abuse – to get one over on them and prove that you’re stronger, they’re weaker, and they need to scurry-on back to where they come from.
Discourse Analysts will tell you that there are plenty of ways of doing this. I’m certainly trying to convert you over to my opinion now by using the rhetorical device of ‘balanced reasonableness’, others may use an air of ‘thorough conviction’ (many preachers succeed with this), ‘disarming niceness’, or – of course – pure, detached, ‘mechanical rationality’ [these are not necessarily official DA categories – I’ve just made some up – Discourse Analysis is itself an arbitrary social construction used as a rhetorical device to serve someone’s ends… if it is to be believed – so we can all make up our rhetorical categories 😉 ]
Consequently, in the messy situation which developed last week, and which I ruminated about in part one of this post, any one of the participants could be portrayed as using a particular form of rhetoric in order to defend or advance their position on their preferred side of the battle-lines. The truth-value of each of their positions is a matter of perspective and interpretation – we’re not talking hard science or matters of pure logic here.
In that respect, I’m deliberately refusing to quite be drawn fully onto either side of who was right or who was wrong in it. Sorry! Rather I’m wanting to encourage all participants in Edu-Social-Media debates to become more aware of what they are really wanting to achieve through their posts, and being more reflective of what impression they are really giving to the people reading them (irrespective of the exact semantics of the words being used).
Furthermore, on the Christian Theology site Ship of Fools, they have a multi-layered discussion forum, whereby people can either post light-weight fluff in ‘Heaven’, embark on serious – but civilised – theoretical discussion in ‘Purgatory‘, or roll-up their sleaves for a more emotive fight in ‘Hell‘. Does our experience of Edu-Twitter suffer because of the lack of such distinctions…?
In the third ‘coda’ to this I will ponder another (quite grim – but universally prevalent) kind of dynamics which we could find ourselves inhabiting in an ideological ‘war’ such as that between Progressives and Traditionalists, but also a positive direction for how we could better move forward…