Thursday, March 13, 2008

Observing and Acting

I was more than a little surprised to discover that I had apparently touched one of Linda Milazzo's sore nerves with what I had thought was a positive contribution to addressing a truly disturbing situation, particularly since I would not have known about that situation had it not been for her original blog post. The stridency of her reply (which appeared in both the Comments on her Huffington Post site and as a comment here on The Rehearsal Studio) was such that I figured that I (if no one else) would benefit from a 24-hour "cooling off" period; and, now that this time has elapsed, I find myself glad to have taken my own advice! Having done so, I feel I can take a more detached view of the rhetorical and logical flaws in her attack and try to deal with them both properly and calmly.

The rhetorical problem is less serious. It involves little more than the repetitive structure of a rondo furioso lacking much elaboration with each repetition. The language is also more than a little hyperbolic, but that was also true of the original post. In that post the hyperbole served to get my attention, so it may be that Milazzo wanted to make sure that her comment would get equal attention.

More problematic is the logic of the text, which seems to indicate that, at the very least, we hold different worldviews. Here is the "theme" of her "rondo" structure:

You've suggested a marketplace methodology to boycott Larry King Live. Are you taking it upon yourself to lead the way -- or are you merely using your comments to ask others to do the work?

If you believe you can energize the activist community to boycott Larry King Live, then lead the way. Otherwise you're merely using your comment to dampen the simpler and more possible exercise of contacting the show and voicing opinion. Whether or not you choose to believe it, media does listen to criticism when they hear enough of it.

While there have been boycotts that emerged from an activist community being energized, such an approach is neither necessary nor sufficient for a boycott to take place. Most of the participants in the Montgomery bus boycott were not members of an "activist community," nor were the South African blacks who decided to stop giving their business to white-owned shops. They were "just plain folks" who, when presented with an action to take, decided to take it because they found it to be a good idea. The declaration of "I am going to do this" (whatever "this" may be), preferably with an explanation for the action, in a public place may be all that it necessary to get the ball rolling. If you declare it and do it, then others are justified in saying "If (s)he can do it, so can I;" and a personal commitment then grows into a boycott. Since I am realistic enough to assume that The Rehearsal Studio is not much of a public place, I felt it was more important to make that declaration on a Web page of The Huffington Post. I may never know if my declaration will make any difference, but I felt it was an action that was consistent with my own logic as informed by past experiences.

(Ironically, the only other comment I got on The Rehearsal Studio came from outside the United States and expressed surprise at the racist connotation of the "back of the bus" phrase!)

The other logical flaw had to do with why I was not applying my logic "toward more egregious culprits." This one can be chalked up to Milazzo having been so angry with my text that she missed the final sentence (which happened to be cloaked in parentheses):

Needless to say, if you can pull that off, think of what you could do for those other CNN broadcasters who claim to offer something more substantive than the sort of schmoozing that draws audiences to King!

In other words my position was, "If it works for schmooze, try it for news!" In that terminology Milazzo's counterargument would be, "Why waste your time on schmooze, when you should be going after news?" However, in light of my concluding sentence, the basis for argument is over nothing more than which is to be the first step in the "journey of a thousand miles." Actually, in my own journey I have almost entirely dispensed with CNN (not to mention Fox) as a source of news; but it is true that my own first step was taken with Larry King. This is because, at the time, I was living in Singapore and was heavily dependent on the CNN International service (which, in those days, was really quite good) for "hard news." It took only a few doses of Larry to realize that he had nothing to do with news and wasn't a particularly interesting schmoozer. The rest of my rejection of CNN evolved gradually, after I had returned to the United States, as it became more and more apparent that their commitment to hard news was "devolving," probably out of a perceived need to be more competitive with Fox.

This takes us to why I invoked Walt Kelly in rejecting the advice Milazzo was promoting that set up this whole opposition. There are now two sources of hard news out there that deliver pretty consistently in the first half hour slot of every hour. One is the BBC World Service for television; and the other is Al Jazeera English (which, incidentally, hired one of my favorite CNN International news readers). Shortly after the BBC announced that they would be providing a signal to North America, I sent electronic mail to Comcast suggesting that this was the perfect time to fill in the "news gap" in their channel lineup and pointing out the viable candidates. The response was probably written by a computer (or, more likely, pulled from a database). You could tell because nothing in that reply made reference to anything substantive in the letter I had sent. This is why I subscribe to the philosophy that writing a nasty letter (or even a polite and friendly one) to the mayor is unlikely to get you very far, if the mayor can't (or won't) read!

24 hours on it is hard to believe that any of this could have created such a fuss. We all make the final decisions on which actions we take and whether or not we choose to invoke anyone else as a model while making such decisions. All I can do (metaphorically at least) is chop my own wood and boil my own water. Whether or not this results in any large-scale change may involve whether anyone chooses to use me as a model. However, since I have little influence over how that choice will be made, I choose not to worry about it!

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