The Silent Majority and Vocal Minority Defense Technique
May 6, 2011
While speaking with Sabrina recently, we both recognized a common rhetorical technique increasingly employed by corporate education reform leaders and their political defenders. As increased pressure and critical examination is delivered to said leaders, they have used the “silent majority vs. vocal minority” technique. This approach attempts to pit an abstract “silent majority” of supportive parents, teachers, students, and community members against a “vocal minority” of antagonistic critics who corporate reform leaders castigate as zealous, extremists filled with dogmatic negativity.
Meanwhile, the hypothetical “silent majority” never gets produced in mass so this body of largely fictional supporters and ardent allies remains conveniently undefined. It’s true that occasionally a lone rank-and-file teacher or parent comes forward and encourages the corporate reform package as a whole. Once, grassroots citizens in a school district have observed and directly experienced the consequences of the corporate reform agenda it typically becomes difficult to find unequivocal groups of supporters outside of neoliberal, pro-business, unfettered free-market ideologues. Mostly though, this massive group of ardent allies who are poised and ready to champion the corporate reform agenda remain imaginative and fabricated.
This technique is not normally used immediately when stakeholders such as teachers, parents, students, and community members first identify, question, and criticize corporate-driven school reforms. It usually gets dragged out of the rhetorical closet later in a more vulnerable, even desperate stage in the process. There comes a point when enough people are publicly questioning and taking meaningful actions against corporate education policies, programs and often the overall agenda. This tipping point creates a crisis for said corporate reform education leader(s), who can no longer outright ignore teacher, parent, student and community concerns. However, rather than risk affirming the legitimacy of those troublesome critics and their arguments by engaging directly on the issues in any substantive, in-depth manner, the corporate reform education leader(s) will instead dismiss and deny meaningful points that get raised using quick personal retorts and distortion.
For an example of this technique, I point to (I know…again!) soon-to-be former RCSD Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. As he exits Rochester for Chicago, he has attempted to set the stage and choreographed (with help from pro-mayoral control former mayors) the narrative in several interviews and press releases
He has described how a “A few people have gone out of their way to paint me as the Anti-Christ“. Public criticism exponentially increased in response to what many felt was fraudulent policies and poor leadership. Brizard responded in a few different instances stating
We have this thing we call CAVE – Citizens Against Virtually Everything – a small group of very vocal people who are very critical. But the vast majority of our community support the work that we are doing. They’re not the ones out screaming in the media, or at the school board meetings, but the vast majority of teachers, of principals, of community members, support me
By then in the process, desperation had set in and Brizard was reacting defensively. In our situation in Rochester, it certainly seemed that the vocal minority became a vocal majority as time and effective organizing went on.
Early on I knew I recognized this defensive technique historically speaking. Being a social studies teacher and avid reader of critical history, I scanned my memory and quickly came to Richard Nixon’s “The Great Silent Majority” speech. The speech, delivered on November 3, 1969, was Nixon’s reaction to criticism and protest of the Vietnam War and has been misappropriated many times since then to marginalize dissent.
Another recent adaptation of this technique occurred in Chicago as Michelle Rhee swooped in to endorse Jean-Claude Brizard as the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools. In her spin of Brizard’s tumultuous record in Rochester, she stated,
I would be very concerned if the mayor had chosen a superintendent who didn’t have any controversy, because when you’re doing the tough things, making the hard decisions, there’s gonna be some controversy. If you have everybody loving you that means you’re probably not making the tough decisions.
While speaking with Sabrina, I related this technique to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Open Letter to America’s Teachers and Sabrina’s analysis and response to Duncan’s insincere deception. I stand in solidarity with Sabrina and all the other teachers and organizers, as we blasted the hypocrisy of Duncan’s letter as well as their resulting refusal to come to terms with reality. When USDOE Press Secretary Justin Hamilton stated “We don’t think that’s how the broader teaching community feels about it” in response to the strong levels of criticism, this made me turn back to the “silent majority and vocal minority” technique.
Whether it’s Rhee, Duncan, Brizard, Hamilton or anyone else on the corporate deform gravy train, we have got to continue to increase the pressure as we struggle and organize for meaningful reform and positive changes in our schools.