Yelling in America – John Adams had his loud days, too

The most important things are best shared without shouting:

I love you;
We’re giving you the job;
I’m going to have to let you go;
You have cancer

This isn’t an original idea, but it’s one that has been on my mind of late, especially with the tone of political discourse this month.

You can’t think well while you’re yelling. You can’t think well when you’re sobbing. And the folks on the the “receive” side aren’t doing so well, either.

That’s not to say yelling or tears aren’t important. Extreme emotions have their place. But at some point, the adrenaline eases, a calm presents itself and you need to face your conflicts, your fears, your hopes, your choices. You think. You decide.

When plotting a future, phrases that fit on a bumper sticker cannot explain the details, the nuance, the plan.

Loud Advocacy is Not New

Protest is a long tradition in the United States. Sometimes, protesters gain influence and power, sometimes they don’t.

A recent couple of segments from the NPR program (produced by WNYC, New York) On the Media looked into some of the current spate of emotional activism from a broader timeline.

The strategies being used by some conservative activists today have been gleaned from the playbook of liberal activist Saul Alinsky. In an interview with Bob Garfield, a discussion of the importance of passion came up with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

Ryan Lizza “There’s a famous story. Whenever Alinsky would have a new student coming to organize, he would ask them, why do you want to be an organizer, and they would always say, well, I want to help others, you know, I want to devote my life to doing good. And he would scream back at them, no, you want to organize for power.”

If you have or get power, you should try to do something with it. Even if you are striving to be heard to at least have some power, you need more than a slogan on a bumper sticker.

Power in the American model of representational democracy is supposed to protect the minority as well promote the will of the majority. That requires discussion. But discussion only starts once the yelling stops. Yet, when some are ready to listen and interact, others may still passionately clamor only to be heard. After a while, the “calm” ones may get frustrated and start yelling again.

Fortunately, the cycle can wind down as the passions echo. As long as nothing else comes up to wind the passions up again.

American discourse is often loud, sometimes even irrational and violent. In 1856, the Caning of Senator Charles Sumner was a prime example, as the “debate” in congress became violent on the floor of “the world’s most deliberative body.” The passions were high on both sides, the language harsh and cruel. After an escalation of verbal jabs, U.S. House member Preston Brooks of South Carolina came into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner senseless with a cane. Sumner took three years to recover.

The anger and passion on both sides of the slavery issue was superheated. Just a few years later, the country was embroiled in a brutal civil war.

The current health care debate has not devolved to 1856 levels. But the passions do seem pretty high. I wonder if it has something to do with our current wave of cathartic overload.

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, the opening of raw nerves of pain and anger was huge and nearly universal. The sensory overload has continued as we’ve added in the din of computer gaming, web sites, talk radio, 24/7 cable news, blogs, myspace, facebook and twitter. It’s possible to be in constant stimulus mode, much of it interactive, and rapidly reflecting and inflating personal viewpoints to an astounding degree.

We have many deep feelings, emotions and data points constantly bombarding us. It is easy to get addicted to the drama and energy. Reinforcing that has been the ease of connection with like-feeling and like-minded people in a crowd, online or in mass media. It is more possible than ever to not be exposed to a viewpoint different from your own in a reasoned way.

With a world of choice in front of us, it easier than ever to hear only what we want to hear.

Other things worthy of passion

John Adams was not a necessarily easygoing politician. His administration passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Those acts were largely about censoring and punishing dissent when it was perceived that the “other side” had gotten out of hand. Later, the rejection of the Alien and Sedition Acts helped set the stage for the relative independence of American journalism, today.

Even with his missteps, Adams’ passion had a purpose, a vision, a yearning.

John Adams painting by John Trumbell

In 1780 John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams about the priorities of the new society he was dreaming of:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

I hope we can find a way to get back on that sort of continuum. It is important to have passion, but there’s more to passion than anger and frustration. Art, music, painting and architecture don’t have to be partisan to be meaningful.

The arts are full of stimulation and passion. But they also require solitude, discipline, training and practice. Who has time for that?

Combined with the emotional upheaval of the past eight years, we’ve been cutting the arts in our schools and communities. In our rush to equip our youth and workforce with skills, we’ve risked the ability to help our citizens find meaning.

Media and New Media

Power has value. But if you get power, there is the responsibility of wielding it. Which reminds me of this quote:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

With our convergence of technology and communication, we all have power.

The wild card in the latest round of our democratic protest process is the swirling confluence of Old and New Media together. The power and influence of web sites, twitter, facebook, newspapers, radio, TV and cable feed back on each other, fueled by planned and unplanned events. Professionals and amateurs are a part of a cacophonous din like we’ve never heard before.

There is a “power” in the combination of all of this media, from twitter to radio to cable news and more that has not yet taken responsibility for the influence it wields. With social media, even the smallest among us has the ability to make a lot of noise.

No one is in charge and everyone is in charge. Everyone has the potential for fomenting protest and spreading it across the globe.

This, too, will change. Social media has given more people more tools than ever, but the novelty is already wearing off a bit. Irresponsible use of the power of social media may, over time, fade into the background as more noise.

Everyone has the potential to discover, discuss and exchange, too. When we start to have a conversation, we can talk about what we are for, and maybe discuss where we are going. I just hope that current conduits of communication (and the people who run, feed and use them) don’t drive a wedge between citizens when there is so much else in our society we can get together on.

The dream becomes that we all have power and we all take responsibility. And, maybe we can plan to sing, dance and paint a bit more, too.


About sehanley

Musician, journalist, teacher, technologist, consultant & former NPR station manager. A media and entertainment professional, journalist, entrepreneur, technology advocate, educator, student, mentor, manager, and media, musical and theatrical performer. Voice talent and coach for music and spoken word. I also act and sing (mostly jazz, but a lot of experience with choral, classical and musical theater, too). Brass instruments, too, but my AF ofM card lapsed years ago. Heard on the national jazz service, PubJazz, and in the Pittsburgh market on WZUM/Pittsburgh Jazz Channel. I also teach college level courses in media and journalism. I managed the leading NPR/public radio station in Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years, a few years later was GM of the NPR station WBHM in Birmingham, AL. I served for six very busy years on the NPR Board of Directors and have done much volunteer service for national and local organizations in the communities I have been privileged to live and work in. Former NPR Board Member, former President of the Pittsburgh Radio Organization, sometime musician, relentless technology advocate. Opinions expressed are not the viewpoints of any employer or affiliation past or present.
This entry was posted in 9/11, Alinsky, Ann Arbor, civil war, computer, facebook, gaming, JFK, John Adams, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, NPR, On the Media, Ryan Lizza, Scott Hanley, slavery, Sumner, twitter, WNYC. Bookmark the permalink.

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