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« Coaching yourself on communication strategies. Are you in? | Main | How can we be in two places at once? »

Is Obama a socialist? Is Palin a fascist?

Yesterday I got an email which criticized our president for being a "socialist."  I've also seen writing that describes political celebrity Sarah Palin as a "fascist."  This kind of talk just boils my blood.

When people write this kind of stuff they do it to attach a whole lot of negative associations to their criticism. Thus, calling President Obama a socialist is also suggesting he's a communist, he's anti-democratic, he's anti-freedom, he's opposed to all that is good in the USA.

Calling Palin a fascist suggests that she believes in the superiority of one group or class of people over another, that she wants to win more than do right, that she will unite her people by leading them to hate others, that she's a racist, callous and cruel and that she's opposed to all that is good in the USA.

Now I don't care which side you're on or where you are in the middle, but this name-calling that is so prevalent in our discourse these days is very dangerous.  When you partake in this kind of hyperbolic slur, what you do is you close off dialogue at a time when we need more dialogue.  If you call Obama a a socialist, I'm pretty sure you're not going to want to hear my thoughts about my positive experiences with healthcare growing up in Canada. If you call Palin a fascist, you're probably not going to want to hear that I like that she is sensitive to needs of children with disabilities.

In his new book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins suggests that one of the signs of an organization in decline is that there is "a marked decline in the quality of debate and dialogue."  Name calling of this sort, automatically ends dialogue, and we need to avoid it in our lives as much as our political discourse.  We don't need to fabricate reasons to hate more people; what we need is more listening. And this applies to our lives in schools as much as it applies to our lives in society.

We no longer live in a black and white world.  Our lives are complex, filled with adaptive challenges, and while it feels good to reduce life down to simple explanations, what will move us forward in schools, for example, is not labeling parents, or teachers, or children, or unions, or principals, or superintendents, or politicians as the problem. What will move us forward is suspending our assumptions and listening.  And we can't wait for others to listen. We need to start with ourselves, as best we can.  I really think our children's future depends on it.

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Reader Comments (15)

Name calling makes my blood boil, too. I think you draw attention to an important issue. There's lots of name calling in all aspects of life that is unloving and unconscious communication. We should set better examples for our children and make "I" statements relating to how we feel about issues. Television and movies certainly don't make this easy. Thanks for sharing about this interesting topic.
January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Gordon Ekster
This is perfect. I am going to share and start with my brothers and sister. Bonnie
January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie Gelke
When we use such extreme rhetoric as part of daily communication as if it were accurate and correct, our students may believe that it's okay. Do we think it's okay for children to become automatic duplicates of uninformed thinking (of their parents or even their peers)? If that's okay, then the language we use in classrooms can be as inappropriate as we like it to be because we can expect and enjoy students trying to mimic ignorance. Not what I feel education is about or what instruction should model.
January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim Watchorn
Dr. Knight
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog topic. I laugh to myself as I remember the primaries and the bickering that occurred during my high school English classes. I have always been troubled by class and school elections that determine which candidate would win if based upon class or school votes.
I decided to experiment a bit. At the time, a website emerged on-line asking your opinion on various topics. Scores were calculated and your candidate was chosen based on your answers. We took the test as a class. The results were quite unexpected. Students could not believe the results. I wonder … if high school students don’t fully understand what each candidate stands for, does my kindergartener.
January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Martin
In my experience, this is also seen when people are scared, uncertain, and want to hang on to what they perceive to be comfortable. What a time of adaptive challenge! (Wonderful use of UDL, as well!) Change and challenge are so difficult when we are on the precipice looking over the edge and do not know if we will fly.
January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary Stowe
Carol, Bonnie, Kim, Jamie, and Mary, I'm really impressed by your thoughtful comments here. Respectful discourse is something we all recognize as important, but ... I know I could do a lot better. Jamie, you've got me thinking maybe we should look at developing activities like yours (I'm sure many already exist) that really get at respectful communication. Maybe listening, rephrasing, dialogue, silence, and empathy should be taught as skills the way we teach how to find a main idea or a theme. You've all got me thinking we may need communication literacy as much as we need traditional forms of literacy. The Touchstones Discussion Project is one way of getting at that, I think. Does anyone know of any others?
January 10, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
What a great conversation! We tend to not allow our students to resort to name calling, so it only makes sense that we follow the same rules:-)
January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLea
I agree with you Jim.
I think the media has such a huge impact on the way a society thinks. Everyone needs to step back and take a hard look at what is being said and what lies behind the words.
January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDonna from Canada
I agree! I recently was made to feel uncomfortable by fellow attendees of an after-work gathering because a gentleman and I engaged in a political discussion, instead of jumping into the less stimulating conversations going on around us. We were both very polite, immensely enjoyed this discussion, and were respectful to those not wishing to join us. I told everyone, who awkwardly approached me on Monday about this debate, that this is why the youth of today have trouble having critical discussions, making and supporting arguments, and respectfully dissenting--we don't allow "arguing." In a country in which this used to be the form of entertainment, it has become taboo. Thank you for your post--arguing for respectful arguing. As a debater by nature, I can't explain how important it is to helping our students become thoughtful adults.
January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDorean Dow
It's a shame the general public isn't reading this in The New York Times and other print media and that you are not discussing it in an interview on CNN, Fox, late night television, etc. In other words, you are as smart as I thought you were and I thank you for you insight.
January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusanne Hebden
Dear Jim,

How providential that you are blogging about this topic!

Akin to the type of name-calling you and we decry, and following the same sort of wrong-thinkinkg is the notion that one group is innately superior over another.

As I tried to explain over the Christmas holidays during a family gathering, we are all more alike than different, we are simply people, humanity, none of us better than the other. We cannot judge others, but must only "judge" ourselves within the course of a healthy, spiritually reflective self-examination. Moreover, it is dangerous to take on an attitude of superiority over others, regardless of the characteristic on which that alleged "superiority" is based, for that becomes the basis for such things as war, abuse, and all sorts of horrible events. WWII is a case in point.

Which brings me back to another reason the timing of your blog is so important: White Ribbons is a new movie that is due to be released soon, in which young children were taught that they were superior simply by virtue of their "race". I am encouraging friends and family to see it...

When I hear the sorts of scandalous name-calling that you described, I, too, shutter, for that sort of name-calling leads to or is symptomatic of or can devolve into exactly the sort of thinking that has led to so many dark moments in human history. As teachers, we are committed to helping our students learn how to contribute to the world in a positive way, hence our common goal to show our students a more excellent way to engage in discourse and dialogue.

You are right to speak up! Thank You!

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMandy Horton Walker
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March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNewtonYvette20
I agree. The polarization that is occuring in our political system creates more apathy among those that have no hopes of it changing. I think teaching communication skills is important but I'm also curious how many politicians participated in debate in high school or college. I don't think that it's a lack of communication skills that necessarily contributes to the name calling. Rather I think it's that they are choosing to use fear of the other person rather than reasons why they should be chosen. And they choose it because as a society, we let it work.
March 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean Ryan
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