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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reframe, tell a new story, build something

The weekend arrives at last. And the Denver Posts' evil sudoku has been once more wrestled to the ground.

Over the past couple of weeks I gave a talk about our BHAG: Colorado Public Library Advocacy Initiative to the Colorado Association of Libraries Paralibrarian conference, the Colleague Connection event at DU, and participated in a similar presentation for the Colorado Library Consortium. When I returned, it was to find a couple of highly critical, and one rather nasty, letter to the editor about a column I'd written about Ben Bernanke's role in averting a second depression.

I was touched by the concern of some of my staff members, a few of whom wanted to fire back in kind. But I reminded them of several things:

1. I write a column every week. I get the last word.

2. The topics I write about are things that interest me. I don't expect that people will agree with me. I change my own mind often enough as I learn more about things. Although I write my columns on my own time, and they are clearly labeled "LaRue's Views," with the disclaimer "LaRue's Views are his own," stimulating discussion seems perfectly in keeping with the role of the public library. One hopes that people will dig up some new information that takes the conversation or debate to a higher level. Surely, promoting discourse in print is advocacy for literacy and lifelong learning.

3. When people get sputtering mad, resorting to ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and distortions it really doesn't make ME look bad.

4. Such responses have to be studied. People who disagree with me aren't evil, and they may not even be wrong. But I do think there is a dangerous undercurrent, a philosophy of growing violence and destructiveness, with recurrent anti-government themes. Those of us who labor in the public sector, and indeed those of us who merely want thriving communities, need a consistent response, a strategy of behavior that doesn't just get drawn into conflict, but actively influences our intellectual environment for the better.

I've been thinking about this for years, now. My thinking is very much influenced by George Lakoff (Don't Think of an Elephant), by Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), and OCLC's From Awareness to Funding.

In brief, our response to what I see as increasingly shrill attempts to destroy the public sector should do three things:

1. Reframe. Don't argue within a frame. Replace it. Our BHAG talk begins with a series of questions. What do you spend per month on Internet access, TV, cell phones, videos? All of those expenses are about education, entertainment, social connection -- precisely what libraries are all about. But libraries actually contribute something to the community, at a cost that is a fraction of those private expenditures.

2. Tell a new story. We would like to believe that sheer accretion of data eventually wins the day. For a rare few, on occasion, it actually does change someone's mind. But what people remember are stories. At the Colleague Connection, a very articulate spokesperson from the Bell Policy Center talked about the financial implications of Amendments 60, 61, and Proposition 101. I told a story about a stuttering child who read to a service greyhound. By the end, I wondered aloud who would remember our precise ranking among the states in spending for public education, versus who would remember the name of the dog. I'd bet on the dog. We're wired to remember stories, relationships, narratives. The primary story of the Tea Party folks, or the extreme libertarian wing of today's Republican Party is the classic story of the victim: "Big Government is taking your money and squandering it. You should be angry!"

It's a story that appeals to the worst in us, our paranoia, our ignorance, our helplessness, our propensity to aimless violence. Yet because it is repeated so often, some believe it to be true.

3. Build a future you actually want to live in. Today's rhetoric is about limiting and destroying, about "taking back." It is easier to kick over somebody's else's sand castle than to build one yourself. I believe the mature human being, the good businessman, the good citizen focuses more on creation than destruction.

So rather than succumb to the portrayal of ourselves as angry victims, I believe it is time to advocate for a longer term view: a frame that recognizes the interdependence of the private and the public sectors, that tells stories -- real stories, stories we have in abundance -- about the value of the sector now under the most attack (that would be the public), and finally, that promotes the sort of civility, graciousness, achievement, that creates communities that are good to live in.


I have to say that I got a kick out of the fact that on the day all the letters appeared, my new column was about the meaning of our culture's current fascination with zombies. As I pointed out to my library board, I doubt I'll get many complaints about that one. And yet, I wrote, "I want to reassure you that I know quite as much about economics as I do about zombies, and who knows which of these will prove to be of greater importance to the nation."

2 comments:

Judy Van Acker said...

Great post, Jamie. Really made me ponder about how we respond to the shrill voice of unreason. So, when you write your response to this person, will you use steps 1, 2, & 3 outlined in your post? Is this the formula we use when responding to the anti-tax folks?

Jamie said...

This approach isn't really THAT different from what I've always recommended doing for challenges to library materials. First, I listen and think about the comments. Then I respond to the real issue, which for anti-tax activists, is typically an accusation of ill-intent and incompetence. But rather than repeat those claims here (as I would in a response to a challenge), I'll say something like "the mission of the Douglas County Libraries is to advocate for literacy and lifelong learning, to build community. Then talk about how we do that. So yeah, that's the formula. It's direct, honest, and it doesn't make the fundamental mistake of allowing your purpose in life to be defined by intellectual bullies.