kitchen table math, the sequel: Rules for Radicals

## Monday, September 21, 2009

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals has been in the news quite a bit of late. Here is a pop quiz. Do you know the rules? Even though schools, their districts, their ed schools and the rest of the ed establishment is in power, the tactics are still being used. Substitute the word "enemy" below with the word "parent". How many of these use have been used against you?

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." Power is derived from 2 main sources - money and people. "Have-Nots" must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don't address the "real" issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity's very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)

RULE 6: "A good tactic is one your people enjoy." They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid "un-fun" activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Don't become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists' minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management's wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)

RULE 12: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)

SteveH said...

I've see these from radicals on both sides. What I think is more interesting are the less extreme versions of these used by the non-radicals.

I've had Rule 3 applied to me many times by my son's school. There is also their favorite about how parents only care about their own child, while they have to worry about all kids. It doesn't matter if you point out that they are supposed to be interested in differentiated instruction.

The are lots of other rules. A couple of them come to mind.

Rule X: Define the problem and the arguing points. We parents only want what we had when we were growing up. We want rote learning and they want understanding. Amazingly, some who push this position actually believe it.

Rule X+1: Argue with generalities, but control the details. Balance. I remember a parent-teacher meeting at my son's old private school that was about Everyday Math. The teachers led everyone to a general discussion of balance between skills and understanding. Who could disagree?

Rule X+2: Control the process. Our school had an open meeting on setting a 5-year stategic plan for our school. I asked and was told that many questions were off-the-table. "We aren't going to discuss that." They even hired a facilitator to guide the process. That was my first experience with the Delphi Technique.

If you are in control of a process, you can do lots of things to pretend that it is open and others have a voice.

There is also the opposite of Rule 12, where people use niceness and jokes to neutralize an argument. This works best when the other side gets a little too intense.

Doug, our resident debate-meister, probably has a better list.

RMD said...

here's the real problem . . .

we could use the same tactics against the school . . . but by doing so, we put our kids at risk since we depend upon the schools for recommendations and other such things that promote our kids outside the system

Doug Sundseth said...

It's all about controlling the terms of the debate. If I can ensure that the decision is between whether EM is GRRREATT or just really good, I never have to worry about actually defending EM. If I can get people discussing just how much smaller classes should be, then the idea of larger classes with better teachers being paid more each is off the table.

What Alinsky does to control the debate is to leave out the possibility that civility is worthwhile or that sometimes your opponents might actually be right. Since those costs are largely deferred to the time your opponent is willing to follow you down the same trail, while the benefits from incivility are immediate, there is a tactical advantage to be gained.

The answer is to understand that unreciprocated civility has little value and to regretfully abandon it until your opponents are willing to return to the status quo ante.

BTW, this is closely related to the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma problem, which has been fairly thoroughly studied. See, for instance, the section on the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma in the Wikipedia Prisoner's Dilemma article.

So, cooperate at first (with a new teacher or school) and then reply in kind to their actions with the occasional random act of kindness if you want to get the best results.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the comments, Doug. With my son's school, I did the cooperate and the acts of kindness (volunteering), but I haven't figured out the "reply in kind" part. I'm afraid I can't be part of their solution.

Doug Sundseth said...

Replying in kind would involve very public attempts to reset the agenda to your liking:

"Why are you opposed to hiring the best teachers for our children? Is it only because you wish to inflate the number of members in your union or is there, perhaps nepotism involved as well?" (False dichotomies are a fine activist's tool.)

"Nearly every study shows that Everyday Math is an ineffective curriculum. Have you not been reading the literature?" (Assuming the conclusion and ad hominem attacks work well, too.)

As somebody said, "This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works."

Anonymous said...

Alinsky's methods have been used by communities of parents to improve schools. Usually not so much on the curriculum side as on such issues as overcrowding, school safety, getting rid of abusive teachers, equal resources, and segregation. They work any time parents are aware that they don't have much to lose, and their children can't be picked on because so many parents are involved. Of course, modern day descendants/users of the Alinsky type of activism don't use ridicule; they simply organize so many people that they gain a seat or seats at the table.

I haven't heard of Saul Alinsky or his Rules for Radicals. I thought this was going to be an interesting mathy post about square and cube roots. :(

SteveH said...

"...mathy post about square and cube roots."

I had an interesting discussion with my son about how radicals are used for constants but not for variables. We talked about converting them back and forth and how the radical operations in his textbook agree with the exponent operations. That was an interesting exercise for him.

We also talked about how everybody puts constants first and how some constants are not combined, like 2*pi*r, or 1/2 * rho * V^2. It helps me think about all of the things I take for granted.

In fact, I have to make sure that my son knows the difference between what is mathemtically required versus what is a generally accepted practice. He will look at something like the square root of 8 and think that he can't mathematically leave it that way. I remember thinking that "simplify" was almost a mandatory operation. I also remember being annoyed about how simplfy could mean expand or factor.

LynnG said...

I think the sq root of 8 is simplified because it has the fewest "things." See, pulling out the 4 and writing 2 * the square root of 2 is twice as big.

That confused me for awhile with my daughter's text book. It became clearer when I realized "simplify" meant "factor completely."

I don't know why I go so fuzzy on the whole notion of simplify v. factor. But the sq root of 8 looks better to me than 2 * sq root of 2.

That's my mathy confession.

PhysicistDave said...

LynneG wrote:
>But the sq root of 8 looks better to me than 2 * sq root of 2.
> That's my mathy confession.

Lynne, there are two reasons 2* root 2 is simpler than root 8.

First, almost everyone who does much math knows that root 2 is about 1.41; most of us do not remember what root 8 is (until we remember it is 2* root 2). So, the factored expression gives a clearer sense of the approximate numerical value.

Second, it is quite common in long calculations to end up adding say root 18 to root 8.

If one expresses these as 3 * root 2 and 2 * root 2, it becomes obvious that the sum is 5 * root 2.

In the unfactored form, it is hard to see that.

For people who do a lot of math, this sort of thing just hits you in the face again and again. I see, though, why people who are not math-heads need to have it pointed out explicitly.

Dave