Last week, I attended another heart wrenching school board meeting (in Amery this time) where, yet again, people mustered their courage and voices to publically support those that nurture, teach, feed and care for our kids during the day. I don’t teach in Amery, but I felt compelled to support those who do.
Held in an auditorium for the hundreds of people attending, the speeches to the Amery school board were honest impassioned and . . . becoming way too common. Three years later, more fallout from Walker’s failed Act 10, another painful meeting, and another community torn apart.
The messages to the board that night all had a common theme: If there is indeed no money and you must continue to cut educator’s wages and benefits, please at least do so in a way that is respectful and empathic. Please at least protect for these people their dignity. Please talk with them. Listen to them.
We know. New laws no longer require our public education officials to do this–to talk to their employees. But these are real people, living real lives, with real families to support and plan for. Many are actually quite brilliant, creative and flexible—but the deep cuts combined with the punishing way they are being delivered are really hurtful and unnecessary—both financially and emotionally. Public teachers and support staff are not monsters. Really they are not.
As educators on the front lines, we know, as does everyone, that Wisconsin no longer values its schools. We see it every day in the increased class sizes and workload carried by an ever-shrinking number of staff. We know that billions have been cut from the education budget. We know, even with a state surplus, that those dollars will never be restored. We know school boards must continue to cut wages and benefits. We know teaching and learning is only going to get harder in Wisconsin. We know these things.
And we know also that it isn’t only our educators that are hurting in Wisconsin either. As the most recent federal jobs report illustrates again, WI leads the nation in new jobless claims.
Our governor and local representatives are great at breaking unions and tearing communities apart. Terrible at creating jobs though. This from the most recently released federal jobs report:
“The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending February 1 were in Wisconsin (+5,041), New York (+4,830), Pennsylvania (+2,448), New Jersey (+1,853), and Ohio (+1,780), while the largest decreases were in California (-9,631), Georgia (-2,558), Indiana (-2,444), Michigan (-2,411), and Florida (-1,387).”
I know . . .it was the weather. It’s always the weather. Or something. It’s always something.
If we had destroyed our schools in order to create jobs, maybe that would be one thing. I know that was the argument at the time: “Teachers and other public employees, and their unions, are the enemy–the greedy few. Punish them.” But it didn’t work.
All that said, I also know none of it matters. I realize finally, especially at the local level, that we will continue to support our current representatives and their apathetic destruction of our schools and rural communities. I know that nobody around here understands the link between strong schools and strong economies. Strong words, maybe. Still, I had to get them off my chest. Because all I see in Wisconsin these days is weakness.
“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” –Alfred North Whitehead
The following story about turkeys has been brought to you by the science of ethology—the study of animals in their natural habitat.
Here goes: Mother turkeys are loving and nurturing and protective. They warm and clean and feed and do all the things that good mothers do. But there is one very odd thing about turkey mothers. All of this mothering behavior is dependent upon a very specific trigger—the “cheep-cheep” sound of the chick. If a baby turkey makes this sound, all is well. If not, the mother turkey will ignore the chick. Sometimes she will even kill it.
Of course animal behaviorists found this fascinating, so they took a replica of a polecat, the natural enemy of the turkey, and had a little fun. First, they presented the stuffed polecat to mother turkey and, as expected, the turkey attacked it. Next, they put a little recorder inside the fake polecat. This recorder played, you guessed it, the same “cheep-cheep” sound that the chicks made. With the recorder on, the turkey accepted the polecat into her flock, treating it as one of her own. The scientists then turned off the recording and the turkey again attacked it. Scientists are great practical jokers.
So what have we learned? Mother turkeys are very silly. They will kill one of their own just because it doesn’t go “cheep-cheep,” and will nurture a natural enemy just because it does. The mother turkey’s maternal instincts are on autopilot, and the button or trigger for that autopilot is the “cheep-cheep” sound of her chicks.
These autopilot scenarios, called “fixed-action patterns,” are actually quite common in the animal world. All that’s needed to engage them is a trigger. Mating rituals, maternal instincts, migration, hibernation, and nesting are all fixed action patterns dependent on a trigger. Presenting a trigger is like pushing a button to start a computer a program.
Silly animals. We humans never do anything so ridiculous, right? Actually, we do it all the time. In fact, many people seek special training and build careers in order to trigger these automatic behaviors in us. These careers are in sales, or marketing, or politics. Others just have a talent for it. They know how to push our buttons, load up the programs, and suddenly we’re standing at the checkout counter with a fistful of flowers and a guilty feeling in our gut. He who knows the most buttons wins.
Consider the following story, brought to you by social psychologist Ellen Langer of Harvard. Langer and her team have become quite famous for what has come to be known as “The Copy Machine” study—an ingenious experiment created to measured students’ willingness to allow someone to cut in front of them in a line at a library copy machine.
“Excuse me,” she’d say. “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Put this way, the students allowed her to skip ahead 60 percent of the time. Not bad, but Langer found she could do better stating it this way: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” Put this way, the students allowed the intrusion 94 percent of the time.
At first, Langer and her team thought the key persuasive trigger was the reason, “because I’m in a rush.” Just to be sure, they tried one more phrase–one without any real reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”
“Because I need to make some copies”? What the heck! That’s just restating the obvious. Still, 93 percent complied with her request. The persuasive trigger was not the reason at all. The trigger was the word “because.” That’s it. Science of influence technique #1: Push button labeled “because” to run compliance program.
This experiment has been repeated and the results verified hundreds of times, proving that people can be triggered to run on autopilot almost as easily as mother turkeys. Which begs the question: Who’s pushing your buttons? And is that button driving you into the big box stores to comply mindlessly yet again this holiday season?
Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.
A quick fill-in-the-blank exercise if you will:
Vikings/Packers fans are __________.
Republicans/Democrats are _________.
Public/private sector employees are ______.
Union members are _____.
Rich/poor people are ______.
Liberals/conservatives are _______.
Homosexuals are _______.
Your dander up at all? If not, try a different combination, and consider the following excerpt from a very real sports blog I changed just slightly in order to make my point:
“. . .we Packers/liberals/republicans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings/conservatives/democrats loss. That makes it twice as sweet!
Their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Vikings/unions/conservatives and their fans/supporters are our enemies. They and so many of their fans/supporters epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.
Given the good nature of most Packers/liberals/private sector employees, the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers/republicans/union members, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Vikings/liberals/public employees and those who support them.”
Now, relax. This propagandizing is just all in good fun right? To be fair, surely Vikings/democrats/conservatives use this sort of language too. And so do Bears fans and Pistons fans, and Minnesota drivers, and deer hunters, and loggers, and DNR officials, and business owners, and city council members, and terrorists, and hate groups.
The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “Other”: an entity that different from you. Once that distinction has been made, this “Other,” just naturally becomes less human, more monstrous and much easier to hate or fear. This “Other” then easily becomes the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune he or she suffers, the better.
In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle. The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:
“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that YOU are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents YOU; and when he (or she) wins, YOU win.”
The ego-self is clearly at stake. Our prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses. We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes. Just listen to the language fans use after a victory. We say, “WE won!” and “WE’RE number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!” Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance and protect our fragile ego-self by saying, “They lost. . . the bums.” The devil is in the pronoun.
Looked at objectively, this is insane. Seen through the lens of a sports fan or political junky or religious fanatic however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait! The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan or voter or follower he or she is. The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win. We call these people true and diehard fans/constituents/believers.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan/public employee myself. Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game, political contest, and professional career—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony—lately, mostly agony.
Love me or hate me, it is clear that somewhere deep within in our warped and fragile psyches, we believe that the Vikings and public servants everywhere really are me. For many, this makes me less human, more monstrous, easier to kick when I’m down. The enemy.
Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different? Do our associations really make us winners and losers? And, what is it, exactly, that you win, when I lose?
Waiting for clarity, John glanced down from the steam softened image in the mirror to a sink full of whiskers and the letter outlining the exhilarating debauchery of this night. He closed his eyes. It was the letter that did it. Decision made, John touched his reflection and turned. His dignity, he believed, he took with him. His ideals however, he left dripping in the symbols traced in the glass behind him.
Meanwhile on a Horror Writing Discussion Forum
Date/Time: 3/12/2001 8:23 pm
Subject: RE: The Course
Give Up Your Day Job and Stick To Writing. It’s not often I tell someone this; after all, most non-published writers (and especially those who’ve invested with PODs for the privilege of belching out “my novel” to anyone who will listen) suck at story-telling.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: When you find something at which you are talented, you do it until your fingers bleed or your eyes pop out of your head. I suggest starting out by submitting to small town magazines. Get a few under your belt, then find yourself a reputable agent. You have talent. Enough said.
Date/Time: 3/13/2001 1:40 pm
Subject: Do it ’till your fingers bleed . . . eyes . . . pop out . . .
. . . Hmmm . . .
I’ve heard that before . . . somewhere . . . or read it . . . just recently . . .
. . .Hmmm . . .
Could be just my imagination.
Anyway, gosh and golly. Thanks for the encouragement! I printed that one out and will tape it up when those doubts start start to crawl back in from their dusty corners, like they so often do. You speak with so much authority. So much confidence. . .
. . . Hmmm . . . Could it really be?
Would someone go to such lengths to imitate? Guess it wouldn’t be that difficult to use the lame language–give the same advise . . . in the same way.
But . . . what if.
Date/Time: 3/13/2001 5:48 pm
Subject: RE Men do what men do . . . and usually it’s for a woman
Life is full of many questions. They’ll edge at your mind until it explodes. If you read it in some book, then good for you. Sales are up. Good for me. I suggest you browse through it once and then throw it away, burn it in the fireplace, give it to your neighbor, or use it to wipe your whatever clean. It’s not a bible; it was never intended for that purpose. You either have what it takes or you don’t have it at all. No book will ever change this fact.