How Accusations of “Negativity” and “Divisiveness” Stifle Debate

by Yvonne Slosarski and Nathan Luecking

To all the leftist organizers out there: How many times have you been called “negative”? How often have those in power accused you of being “divisive”?

If your organizing experience is anything like ours, you may be nodding your head in agreement. It’s mid-October of an election year, which means that left-leaning candidates all over the country are facing accusations of “negativity.” In DC, our city, Elissa Silverman – one of the most left-leaning representatives in DC government – was called “the most divisive politician in the city” by her developer-backed opponents.

As volunteers for Emily Gasoi’s campaign for DC State Board of Education in Ward 1, we are often accused of “going negative” by Gasoi’s opponents. Given our research, professional, and organizing experiences, we recognize this tactic for what it is – an attempt to squash legitimate disagreement.

The accusation of “negativity” or “divisiveness” tends to function in three main ways.

1) It minimizes legitimate dissent to the status quo.

The call for “civility” has historically tended to silence people who dissent from the status quo. What counts as “civil” tends to support the existing power structure and celebrate what our political morality demands that we condemn.

In DC’s Ward 1, the call for “positivity” is similarly being used to shut down challengers to corporate education reform.

Gasoi’s opponent, Jason Andrean, is a Capital One Executive for Government Contracting. He also was a board member of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a market-based education reform organization started by hedge-fund managers. DFER advocates against teachers’ unions and for high-stakes testing and charter schools as the primary ways forward in education. Gasoi’s opponent also chairs the board of Achievement Prep, a high-stakes-testing charter school in DC that has been cited for excessive punitive measures, poor educational outcomes, and high teacher turnover.

Gasoi is running for the Ward 1 seat, in part, to challenge the corporate education reform model of DFER. She knows that the finance industry has too much power in education policy and that market approaches have re-segregated schools, lessened “deep learning” for minoritized students, and denied power to the people closest to classrooms – teachers, families, and students.

But corporate education reform is the status quo in DC, so pointing out Andrean’s connections to DFER and the banking industry – and his lack of education experience – is considered an “attack” by his campaign, which wrote the following in a recent email:

Throughout this race, one of my opponents has attacked my motives and has suggested that only someone with a doctorate deserves to represent the families of Ward One. She’s even gone so far as to attack my supporters and those who believe that ALL voices have value as we work to fix what’s broken in our public education system.

Aside from inaccurately portraying Gasoi’s claims, this email suggests that there is no room for criticizing corporate education reform. But how can we be “positive” about it when the stakes are so high for our students?

2) It obscures meaningful differences.

Organizations and candidates have meaningful differences in priorities and experiences. In a neoliberal environment, “positivity” rhetoric draws on an empty notion of individual equality to suggest that all experiences are somehow the same.

Returning to Ward 1, Andrean wrote the following in a Medium piece about his candidacy:

Since embarking on this journey my opponent, Ms. Gasoi, has made it her mission to lambast my character and discredit my education experience — which she deems inferior to her own. I don’t come to this race with an Ed.D. in education policy or having spent time as a classroom teacher, but like the majority of families that look like mine, I want my lived experience to be valued and represented on the State Board of Education. My opponent often tells others that I’m a ‘banker with no education experience’ when out on the campaign trail. The reality is that we all have an ‘education experience’ and that’s why I’m running for the SBOE… [O]ur leaders should reject the notion that there’s only one type of representative we should be electing to serve our kids and families.

When Andrean writes, “we all have an ‘education experience,’” he minimizes a very important difference between him and Gasoi. Unlike him, Gasoi has devoted her entire professional life to public education. That’s part of why her priorities, unlike his, are aligned with what’s best for students in DC.

3) It takes the conflict out of politics, to ensure that the powerful win.

Civility rhetoric presumes a shared interest between groups that—structurally—are in conflict. Where one group is up because another is down, we must bring conflict into the forefront, and those in power may label such disruption “negative.”

In the Ward 1 School Board race, Andrean and his supporters have consistently shied away from his policy priorities, instead uplifting their “positivity.” For example, his campaign tweeted:

Instead of debating policy priorities, he hails himself as the “positive” candidate, thus shutting down debate over consequential policies. As Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau argued, the status quo is always just one version of the world and conflict is an inherent part of “the political.” Forced positivity cuts off debate over decisions that matter. And with no real conflict, the powerful—who often benefit from inertia—win.

Of course, quashing legitimate and consequential debate is a serious problem for people trying to choose a candidate between options. Are you supposed to choose a representative based on how abstractly positive they are? What if they gut public services with a smile on their face?

This rhetoric of “positivity” seriously obscures the real-life consequences of policies that should legitimately be challenged.

Andrean, who has been the Chairman of the Board at Achievement Prep Public Charter School in Ward 8 of Washington, DC since 2016, has a troubling track record.  Under his leadership, Achievement Prep has fostered a culture of punitive discipline, favored behavior management over classroom instruction, and responded inadequately to teacher concerns. DC voters who care about student outcomes and emotional well-being need to know this history.

In a 2018 Qualitative Site Review of Achievement Prep’s Elementary Campus, the DC Public Charter School Board observers noted that “Academic expectations and rigor were low across the campus. Class time was mostly devoted to managing behavior to keep students safe and compliant.” As the rest of DC moves towards a trauma-informed approach to discipline focused on restorative practices, Achievement Prep continues to embrace an archaic, punitive, zero-tolerance approach to behavior management. This is evidenced by Achievement Prep’s suspension rate, which is twice that of the city average. In addition, student consequences are imposed with little consistency and vary between students. The site survey reported:

Students screamed and called one another hurtful names and hit each other without consequence, while other students engaged in the same behavior received consequences inconsistently…In one observation an adult dragged a student by the hand out of the classroom when he went into crisis.

There was also a highly publicized incident in which a six-year-old girl suffered a concussion after a substitute from a privately contracted company dragged her across the floor.

In another incident in the spring of 2018, an Achievement Prep teacher was sexually assaulted by a visitor on school property. In response, school leadership put the teacher on involuntary unpaid leave for the remainder of the year. The teacher effectively lost nearly $3,000 in wages. While Achievement Prep staff organized, demanding safer working conditions, Achievement Prep leadership has not responded to this call for increased safety requirements. The lack of concern Achievement Prep leadership has shown may reflect why, of the 51 reviews posted by former employees on glassdoor.com, only 6% recommend working at the school. (Note that teacher working conditions and student success are linked, as evidenced by this study in the American Journal of Education.)

Achievement Prep

glassdoor.com reviews of Achievement Prep

Given these issues at Achievement Prep, it’s not surprising that concerns about student discipline, teacher recruitment, and management led to the rejection of Andrean’s 2015 application for a different charter school. Similar concerns drive our opposition to his candidacy and to corporate education reform more generally, and it would be irresponsible not to the tell the truth about his record. When we know the potential consequences of his winning the election, “keeping it positive” would be the lowest of lows.

Yvonne Slosarski has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Political Culture. She is an organizer and researcher on movements for economic justice, a Humanities professor, and the associate director of an honors program at the University of Maryland.  

Nathan Luecking is a School Social Worker in the District of Columbia. He is a school mental health advocate and sits on a city-wide Coordinating Council for school mental health.

 

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Philosophy, US Political System

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