Nipping Dissent: The Hollow Centrality of Neoliberal Democracy and Multiculturalism

By Edwin Mayorga and Julie Gorlewski (with support from reclaimAERA)

“I am weary of the abuse of social media by writers hurling anonymous, venomous insults—a practice that encourages the general retreat to intellectual neighborhoods. Our work and our interactions with one another should model productive conversation about the nature of education, schooling, and reform. The conference gives us an opportunity to demonstrate very publicly how thoughtful disagreements can take place. I hope that in the invited addresses, the presidential sessions, the myriad papers, roundtables, and posters, and in my own presidential address, we will challenge our own assumptions rather than simply reconfirm what we think we know.” – Bill Tierney, President of AERA

Recently, AERA President Bill Tierney sent a mass email to us, the members of AERA, calling on us to engage and thoughtfully disagree. To readers working with reclaimAERA, an emerging group of AERA members and non-members (by choice) working to transform AERA and interrupt the privatization of this body, the call to “challenge our own assumptions” rings hollow, since the text, itself, makes no indication of a willingness to model this approach. His piece links disciplinary expertise with non-productive conflict, implying a false dichotomy between full engagement and abuse.  Furthermore, and perhaps most disturbingly, Tierney asserts a neat, clean, bleached image of “productive discussion,” an image that does consider critical questions: Who decides what kinds of discussion are productive? Productive for whom?  In a “productive” discussion, who speaks and who is silent? Whose languages are privileged and whose are ignored?

The whole notion that meaningful dialogue is “civil” reflects a troubling perspective. Jones (2007) states that discussions around education are too often oriented in a “problem-solution” frame, one that fails to appreciate the value of struggle, of relationships forged in and sustained through struggle.

It is in the irresolvable tension between such contradictory positions and arguments about our relationship where thought and practice get interesting, as well as difficult, and where new thinking and practice arise in education. (emphases in original, p. 14)

While a call for dialogue is commendable, this most recent message seeks to shape and control the nature of that dialogue. By describing unnamed participants in the dialogue as “writers hurling insults anonymously,” Tierney insults and dismisses their words and experiences. Furthermore, the vagueness of his message has left many colleagues wondering who, exactly, Tierney’s words targeted. The question raised by his statement echoes in our corridors and on social media sites: “Is he talking about us?”

Sadly, we fear that the attempt to frame dialogue and dissent as uncivil or misguided is emblematic of “control and divide” practices where communities, unions, and professional relationships are being dismantled and destroyed under the guise of civility, superficial democracy and controlled inclusivity. It is only on the terms of those in power and those that fund power that the structures of communication, research, teaching, and relationship building are being defined, and this is unacceptable!

In what is meant to be an authored, specific response, we challenge the AERA president’s claim to define what counts as “productive discussion” and what “thoughtful disagreements” might look like. We deny definitions of meaningful discussion that ignore existing power relations and act as if we all speak at the same volume, with respect to status. Without mockery, we share what we are “weary” of:

  • being bullied and silenced by corporatizers and privatizers who have a full-time staff doing what we are doing before and after work
  • caving the increasingly standardized demands of accreditors and professional organizations owned and run by the corporatizers and privatizers
  • having assessment, an essential aspect of teaching and learning, be wrenched from our expert, loving hands
  • accepting, as unquestioned, the reality that children of the wealthy deserve a vastly different education from children of the less wealthy, and that the corporatizers and privatizers can coerce public educators into providing poor education
  • accepting that unions are evil and public education is broken
  • having definitions of what counts as research and data be narrowed into numbers
  • being coerced and bribed into implementing policies that are never voted on or discussed in public (or professional) spaces.

We believe in the power and promise of engaging in ongoing struggles over issues that define human relationships. If we eliminate tension, we eliminate potential for real dialogue – not dialogue aimed at a tidy solution, but dialogue intended to deepen understandings, reveal assumptions, and name experiences. Jones (2007) explains

In ka whawhai tonu mātou [1] we are engaged in a relationship. This has to be seen positively, given it is engagement; it is not dis-engagement. To struggle with another is to give active and proper attention to the other, to relate to the other. Even as an enemy you are hoariri or hoa whawhai – an angry ‘friend’: one with whom it is worth engaging, someone with whom you have a relationship of struggle. Ake ake ake makes the engagement or relationship permanent; this must be like a marriage of some sort! (and not a divorce). (p. 12)

To attempt to corral a plurality of views and articulations of dissent is a form of affective and distributive injustice where democratic communication is squelched, power remains centralized, and accountability to the constituency is negated.

If AERA is committed to justice, it is committed to love[2]. Love in public is a process of democratization and as Baker et al (2006) remind us:

democratisation involves substituting dialogue for dominance, cooperation and collegiality for hierarchy, and active learning and problem solving for passivity” (p. 16)

Love is messy, loud, and difficult – but our approach to love defines us. We must engage, or risk divorce.

reclaimAERA invites all of you who read this to write, respond, and act through all venues in social media (email, facebook, blogs, etc) and, most importantly, in our personal and professional relationships.

Works Cited
Jones, A.  Ka whawhai tonu mātou: The interminable problem of knowing others Inaugural Professorial Lecture, University of Auckland, 24 October, 2007.

Baker, J., Lynch, K., Cantillon, S. and Walsh, J.  (2006) “Equality: Putting the Theory into Action.” Res Publica, 12: 411-433.


[1] The interminable problem of knowing others

[2] “Justice is what love looks like in public.”- Cornel West

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2 thoughts on “Nipping Dissent: The Hollow Centrality of Neoliberal Democracy and Multiculturalism

  1. Pingback: GUEST POST: Nipping Dissent, By Edwin Mayorga and Julie Gorlewski – @ the chalk face

  2. Pingback: Nipping Dissent ← NPE News Briefs

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