I’m Right, You’re a #@!*

Angry argument

A few weeks ago I was watching a Youtube video by an American who purports to give financial and business advice. I was shocked when, at one point, he said something I considered to be blatantly racist towards the people of another country. I simply wrote in the comments section – “Wasn’t that a rather racist thing to say?”

I went to bed and thought no more about it.  In the morning I saw a notification that there was a comment in response to mine. When I opened it, I was informed – “This is the internet, get over it you @#!*.”

It can appear very easily today that, hastened by online ‘anything goes’ communication, we are losing our ability to hold conversations or discuss matters where we hold different points of view. We don’t know how to argue any more. It has become the habit all too often to take comments that are critical of a point of view or an action to be statements of direct attack on one’s person and therefore justification for insults and direct attacks on the person of the other, regardless of whether we even know anything about that person.

Particularly in my earlier years in leadership positions I well remember that I used to have a real issue at times. I would put in extensive hours of research on a topic, consult with experts and other leadership team members, apply long and deep thought and often write long and detailed plans of action and other documents. Then it would come time to present the materials as a plan for action in a particular new direction to staff, or school parents. I would also burn a lot of midnight oil turning those ideas and plans in to powerpoint presentations and speaking notes, planning how I could accurately convey all the facts and details to the target audience.

And then, I’d present! And then, I’d get a shock when the audience reaction and response wasn’t the one I’d wanted or convinced myself to expect. Having a lot personally invested in those thoughts and ideas I would sometimes feel angry, disappointed, let down, even betrayed. I would lament, sometimes to myself and sometimes to close others how these people, who hadn’t spent all the time and effort I had, who didn’t have all the facts marshalled the way I had, could be so foolish as to not be grateful and appreciative that I had put in all the hard work on their behalf. As far as I was concerned, my facts and evidence were irrefutable, well organised and well presented and so, if those people were rejecting there had to be something wrong with them deep down. I would be tempted to put it down to character flaws or ulterior motives. I questioned whether they were really sincere in their protestations of loyalty to the vision and mission of the organisation.

There was an inevitability that the end outcome of such an exchange was tense relations, loss of rapport and less trust in both directions. When relationships are damaged in this way, the next communication can only be harder still because it starts from a position of mistrust. The other thing that people come to realise about such exchanges is the enormous loss of energy, drive and enthusiasm, for which both are again inclined to blame the lack of reasonableness of the opponent. Hostility levels can continue to rise, or one or both parties withdraw whilst adamant they were always 100% in the right and that the other party is entirely to blame for any harm done to the relationships.

We can see parallels today in the arguments roiling around in India about recent law changes pushed through by a government emboldened by its majority after recent elections.  We also see similar with the arguments about Donald Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. In each of these disagreements both sides put enormous energy in to marshalling facts, data, ‘evidence’ to put the case that they are 100% right, their opponents 100% wrong.  But, in all these disputes people are going further, with two disturbing factors;

1. Both sides in these polarised arguments take their sides according to the party that they already support. In other words, if I align with a party on the right in my country’s politics, then I agree and push the agenda of every policy or argument from my peers on the right, without exception. it has become anathema almost to say that whilst I align with ‘this side’ I cannot agree with X, or am uncomfortable with Y without certain safeguards etc.
Instead it’s  – I’m on this side and therefore I think X, Y and Z and will argue for them until my last breath. Further I will belittle and condemn anyone foolish enough to align themselves with any other position or to listen to any ‘facts that might question my/ our perspective. People like us think things like this, support people like us and condemn people like them!
This is made worse by another factor online, namely that the algorithms being used by search companies etc mean that to keep me ‘hooked’ (to keep the promises to the advertisers) I will be fed a diet largely consisting of the viewpoints and perspectives that reinforce my belief in X, Y and Z. This convinces me that I am ‘one of the smart ones’ and further cements my view that all those who disagree are either willfully obstructing the truth or ignorant in the extreme.

2. Having presented their ‘facts’ in great and careful detail, when their opponents offer any alternative facts there’s a lack of listening, an unwillingness to contemplate that the ‘other side’ could have anything worth saying. Further, when they don’t accept ‘our facts’, not only do we alienate ourselves from them, but resort to name calling, personal level insults and assumptions that they are unreasonable, blinkered and

Such complexities and subtleties of human relations are never perfected in an entire lifetime. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that people are committed to learn and to put in the effort to strive to be better, in order to further better human relations at both the personal and the larger scale. I fear that we are at risk of argument fatigue and the changes brought by the relative anonymity and safety of distance and ease provided by the internet may see humanity go backwards in its development of these skills.

For children growing up today there are massive risks. When we were young we spent far more of our time playing, often in  fairly large groups, with a lot of independence. Disagreements were an inevitable part of that play, but we independently learned how to work through issues, negotiate over differences of opinion and to separate feelings and emotions at times so as to understand circumstances.

Today’s children live far more isolated lives. When they do interact it’s within the environments of computer games and social networking – and as I’ve already said these domains tend not to observe the same standards or expectations. In the real world, when you’ve insulted someone, called them vulgar names or inflicted pain and hurt by needling them at points of sensitivity, you still have to look them in the eye and also look other peers in the eye who will have seen and heard your actions (and will share judgements about you). Online, a level of callousness and ‘out of the world’ sense can mean that bad behaviour, being unfair or nasty carries little by way of real world consequences.

In such circumstances, we have to fear further deterioration in people’s abilities to disagree, let alone considering the ability to handle cognitive dissonance. This is the discomfort that may be experienced by a person who holds two opposing views in mind at the same time. On this, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is famously quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this definition, there are evidently few first rate intelligences around today, and there will be even less in the future.

In these circumstances there is a genuine need to ensure that thinking and communication skills form a significant part of the learning process in schools. ‘Facts’ are readily and easily available. The ability to marshal an argument that makes sense, to argue it effectively with others and to engage with their responses involve a set of skills that are well worth developing.

Further, even as adults, we have to acknowledge that these are areas in which we can never get too good. There is always scope for improvement. I outlined earlier the issues and challenges I had as an, at times, obsessive leader. I recognise now that it made me less of a leader than i could have been. I know I will still have times when my vision for something, backed by my own passion for it and the fact that I’ve invested the time and effort to become passionate is not uniformally welcomed by others, needs to be sold and cannot simply be bulldozered. and that even despite the fact that, today, there are signs that people living in an unsettled and uncertain world may welcome having leaders who bully them down a particular course of action. Leaders with the ‘courage (thick-skinned-ness) to be unpopular, to bully and pressurise seem to be in vogue. I want to believe that this is just a phase the world is going through and that ultimately it will still always value, respect and want more to be lead by those who seek to carry others with them rather than exert bullying force and power.

If you believe that man-made impact on global warming is a bogus sham created by interested parties, or that the earth is actually flat nothing is achieved if I simply come to you and tell you that you’re wrong. Even if I follow up with a vast array of scientific evidence (facts) to put my argument and refute yours, there will still be nothing achieved. In fact, worse, we’ve seen lots of evidence that this will simply cause your belief to become even more entrenched and you are very likely to double down on your beliefs and the perception that those who seek to persuade you otherwise are bad in some way.

So, we come to the question – how can we argue, disagree and communicate more effectively, so that we arrive at ways forward that are more humane, sensitive and actually effective? So that we don’t sacrifice long term relationships in order to achieve short term wins. What are the elements of effective discourse to be built in to the education process and school learning so that young people can master these skills and make them a natural part of their character?

Here are a couple of useful starting points I would like to share – ones that struck me as particularly useful and appropriate.

The first is a link from Psychology Today that looks at why we shouldn’t try to shut down argument, that it serves a valuable purpose if we will just keep it in perspective, avoid getting emotionally overloaded by it and approach it as a vital part of the long term process of making our personal relationships stronger and more effective:

Psychology Today – The proper way to Argue

The second is a longer read, but well worthwhile. It comes from Eric Barker, the writer of the ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’ blog and the book of the same name that came out last year. The book is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it – one of my best reads of 2019. Eric’s method is to draw significant amounts of research together from credible sources to address a challenge at which, if we can get better, we can have more success in life.

In this particular article he addresses the question of how one might persuade another to change their viewpoint or opinion on something. He starts with the most fundamental point – you’re going to have little or no scope to change a person’s mind by restraining, forcing, bullying, hectoring or belittling the other person. You cannot begin to have any chance of convincing anyone of anything until there is rapport and a feeling on the part of the other that you do not wish them ill or intend harm to them. He advocates kindness.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, all too often, these days when people engage in aggressive arguments, especially online, they know right from the start that they will not change the point of view of the other. Rather, they actually intend that by sanctimoniously professing their viewpoint and belittling those of the other, they will feel better about themselves. This is a small victory of little consequence and comes with a heavy price in terms of the loss of civility, decency and effective human engagement. When lawyers in court refer to the opposing lawyer as “my learned friend,” it highlights that they are setting out to journey together towards a shared, common, understood truth (win-win) rather than in an adversarial, gladiatorial battle to the death (win-lose) .

Barker’s article goes on with some level of detail, to outline a number of the key ways that rapport can be established and that one can attempt to persuade another to change a viewpoint (in fact, to create an environment where they persuade themselves that there is some reason to doubt their earlier beliefs).

Barking Up The Wrong Tree Blog – Eric Barker – This Is How to Change Someone’s Mind
(Click on the link above to open the blog post in a separate window or tab. While you’re there I would thoroughly recommend you sign up for Eric’s regular email notification of new blog posts (about once a week) to read more)

For a final thought, I turn to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey didn’t invent these 7 habits, rather he distilled them from long term wisdom about what works – what is effective. Firstly, we can take habit 2 – begin with the end in mind. Unless your intention is really to alienate others and cause them to hold beliefs with which you can’t agree more firmly than before, you need a change of strategy. if you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got. Just winding people up for the sake of it online really does make you nothing more than a keyboard warrior and you shouldn’t be surprised when people ignore you. If you have other objectives, you need to get clear about what they are.

Then, we can turn to habit 5 – seek first to understand, and then to be understood. You’re not the only perfectly reasonable, sane, intelligent person on earth. Just because it may not be obvious to you, there is a reason why the other person thinks or believes what they do. And, as Barker highlights, those beliefs are frequently wrapped up with self image, identity and values. If and when you have an understanding of why they hold the beliefs they do, then you might be able to begin to introduce alternative viewpoints to them.

As I said earlier, I’m still working on these things and know I’ll never be perfect. You cannot be too good. However, as a person who wants to make a positive contribution in the world I know I must continue to refine and develop my skills. The effort is worthwhile, however long the journey. There will be better and worse days, but that’s all part of the road towards mastery.

 

Cheats Pay a Heavy Price in the Long Term

cheating boxes

Many of us will have seen these recent images from a college exam room, as students were made to wear cardboard boxes on their heads to prevent cheating and copying (did anyone consider the scope for writing notes on the inside of one’s box?)

Whilst many were shocked at such inhumane and demeaning treatment of students, there were also no shortage of weary shrugs as people reflected that it’s really little surprise if this is what the system has been reduced to.

For my fourth article written for Gulf News 6 years ago, I turned to the issue of cheating and an aspect that doesn’t get enough attention – the long term effect and impact on the cheat themselves. In the article i highlighted three examples that had happened in some of the finest seats of learning in the world. Six years later we have new examples, including the collusion between well-heeled parents and agents to secure seats in top Ivy League universities in the US which have already seen one TV actress sent to prison with more to follow.

gulf-news-article 4-15092013

However, I’m still an optimist on the nature of humans. I do believe that as educators we need to be prepared to have the hard conversations with young people – to help them understand that it’s not consistent to believe in a right to high and lofty goals to be achieved by short cuts and acts of low integrity. High goals are great, if we’re prepared to put in the hard work, accept the tough journey for its own intrinsic value as well as the outcome. Young people need to be reminded that the people they put on pedestals have often been hurt, even scarred in the processes that took them to the top.

For proof that the journey is as important as the destination we need only look at all the lottery winners who declare bankruptcy later, failing to make the critical life changes of their new gains because they didn’t travel the road to their wealth. Their acts weren’t dishonest, but they lacked the learning of the journey that would enable them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Do NOT Let Your Child Play Rugby

I love this piece, so subtle in its use of irony (or is it sarcasm?).

We need to guide the young very wisely!

In the Loose – Article
(Click on link to find out why you should keep your child away from this nasty nasty sport!)

We Need to Care …. Wow, Who’d Have Thought It?

Here’s an interesting article from Mindshift that makes a brief visit to some of the latest research findings about the power and influence of belief, expectations and attitude in learning outcomes.

Mindshift Article – Believing in Possibilities

There are a couple of aspects of the piece that left me saddened. Firstly, that some of these things really need to be said. Over 10 years ago i coined a phrase that has been part of the bedrock of all my approaches in education; “We’re not here to teach stuff, we’re here to teach children.” What I sought to convey was that the child and not the silly old nonsense in the textbook (or our administrative convenience) had to drive decision making processes of every teacher and administrator in schools. The second concern was the fact that the author of the article felt the need to acknowledge that despite the growing mountain of evidence, mainstream education is so woefully, painfully slow to change.

Somewhere, do we have to face an unpalatable truth that dare not be spoken – are there vast numbers of people in education who actually, really don’t care very much about children? People for whom it’s a job to be done to pull in a salary, for whom the idiosyncrasies of individual children are a pain in the neck?

I believe the writer is spot on when he talks about the crucial impact of care and acceptance for a learner to truly flourish and fulfil their potential. let’s face it – vast numbers of children today can’t even find much of these in their own homes, let alone in their school.

The final paragraph that talked about the critical fifth ‘C’ really struck a chord with me. That fifth C is Character – something I made a very particular point of including in the four core values of our current school. We’re in the early stages of the school’s development, but it’s heartening that Character already figures on the agenda in discussions amongst teachers, teachers and students and in the leadership team. In time, I believe the importance of Character and effective development will see subtle changes that will further enhance the ways that we build character development in to the school experience of every child.

Don’t ‘Teach’ Ethics and Values

Here’s a great TED talk that’s very thought-provoking from an educator’s perspective. How do we nurture moral skill and moral will? Barry Schwartz was very clear in this TED talk – we don’t do it by teaching morals and ethics in ‘capsules’ – in fact that ensures that children know we’re not serious!

Instead, what he advocates is we need to be ‘every day heroes’ and moral exemplars to children (and for those of is in leadership roles we owe this duty to every person in our organisations).

I particularly liked the way he talked about the work at KIPP schools in the USA emphasizing the vital importance of the development of character. It’s not for nothing that in our own school, one of the four core stated values reads as follows:

“Character Forms the Basis of a Fulfilled Life:
In an age when the media would have us all believe that ‘the cult of the personality’ is everything, we believe that individuality and personality should always be secondary to character traits that manifest in effective habits. These are habits of both self-management and those practiced in one’s relationship with others. In GDGPS, we believe that those who develop positive habits of character live the most fulfilling lives.”

Quote on Character

Sound character provides the power with which a person may ride the emergencies of life instead of being overwhelmed by them. Failure is ..the highway to success.”
–Og Mandino

Personality – Nature or Nurture

Here’s an article about a piece of research that is likely to attract many objectors. It suggests that personality is largely fixed at or close to birth and remains little changed throughout the remainder of a person’s life.

MSNBC Article

In order to make these claims, the research looks at 4 personality features and suggest that in the sample of people they analysed, these features identified in infancy were still apparent in adulthood. My feeling is that this doesn’t automatically mean that personality can’t change, or that there are not other personality traits that can be ‘acquired’ or strengthened in such a way as to provide a compensating balance for these that might be fixed.

If it does prove to be true that personality traits are largely fixed I believe this could be potentially good news in two respects;

a) It would bring an end to the whole ‘personality development’ industry which seeks to convince all that there is a given personality stereotype that is an ideal, that all should aspire to and work to be like. Instead, there would be re-evaluation that would seek to recognise the strengths for different situations in different personalities. For example, it has been fashionable to suggest that extroversion is preferable to introversion (this article even shows some bias this way). However, even as a relatively extrovert person myself, i can see merits in introversion that fail to get enough recognition.
b) If personality is seen as being more ‘fixed’ and pre-determined, this would bring greater focus on to character – something people can put effort in to in a worthwhile way, to aspire to be a more successful person and make a bigger contribution in the world. Character is predominantly determined by one’s habits. The ‘best’ habits to have can be identified in those who exhibit them, recognised and practiced until they become sufficiently internalised to become a habit.

So, whilst this might not be the final word on personality, by a long way, there is reason to hope that even the debate itself can offer positive outcomes.

The Merits of Tough Love

An interesting article from the BBC about a new piece of research coming from the think tank ‘Demos’ that clearly shows the merits of hands on parenting and ‘tough love’ approaches.

This should be read as a massive wake up call by the parents who have convinced themselves that laissez-faire parenting is somehow ‘modern’, emphasising the merits of not stifling the child. We know who they are – the parents whose children run amok in restaurants turning a potentially enjoyable trip out in to a nightmare for every other diner. They are the parents who figure that any compromises inherent in having your child brought up by a maid are all justifiable.

Tragically, too many parents don’t always want to hear what educators have to say on such subjects because what we say is uncomfortable, inconvenient and faces them with a stark reality that their self-centredness is leading them to make too many compromises, too many excuses in the pursuit of their own upward mobility or other personal goals.

Recently, we had an Open Day in the school. In an elementary classroom children had made a tree on which they had attached little paper messages of things they woulfd like their parents to know. As I read them my heart went out to these young children. Such a large proportion of the messages related to how much they want parents’ time – not for elaborate purposes, but just to BE together. They told of how hurt they feel when mummy and daddy go out a lot, go out without them, leave them with others etc.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched parents approach the tree. They would read a couple of the notes, mutter to each other and then walk away shaking their heads. Inconvenient truths?

The reality is that we can’t ‘do’ tough love if we barely spend time with our children. We can’t ‘do’ tough love if we are inconsistent, contrary, operating from a guilt mindset which means we give in to every childish whim and demand. I firmly believe, most of the time when children make ‘unreasonable demands’ on parents they actually WANT you to say ‘No’ deep down – to prove that you’re there, being a consistent, guiding force in the shaping of their young lives. They want us to show that we stand for something, that there are some fundamentals in life which should be non-negotiable.

The other great value to come out of this research, in my opinion, is a continuation of a growing recent trend which acknowledges that the development of ‘Character’ actually matters in a person’s scope for long term success. Somehow, character lost out for a time in favour of ‘personality’.

BBC Article