Town hall protesters communicate effectively, not?

It is time to examine – in a dispassionate and calm manner – the effectiveness of the communications strategy enlisted by those protesting at  town hall meetings being held around the country, in particular those protesters  raising their voices – quite literally – when the ideas being proposed by the Obama administration and in Congress related to the issue of health care reform are the focus of attention.

With the Congress summer recess,  legislators are heading back to home territory and to their constituents, employing the opportunity to try to connect with those who put them in office through, among other means, a communications vehicle that has been used for some time albeit with much sparser audiences than during this “summer of discontent”, the so-called “town hall” format; a forum in which, ideally, the elected official speaks to the issues and garners feedback in the form of questions and comments from those “regular folks” who attend. The idea theoretically is to provide give and take between voters and the politicians who represent them; the town hall concept is intended to provide a sounding board to take the measure of those at the local level.

Well, this summer the “measure” seems like it should be taken with a decibel meter! Relatively large groups of people are fomenting considerable discord  seeming to treat these occasions much like a sporting event and as a stage upon which to showcase their approach to disagreement, and it is their modus operandi that is our interest here.

Dr. P.M. Forni is an award winning professor at John Hopkins University,  founder of the Civility Initiative, and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. His work has been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, and he has appeared on national media including National Public Radio (NPR) and The Oprah Show.  

What has been taking place is available to be seen on YouTube videos and cable and network TV. Suffice it to say that the protesters have just about smashed the tablets of Dr. Forni’s “Twenty Five Rules” including especially Rule 10 – Respect Others’ Opinions; Rule 13 – Keep It Down (and Rediscover Silence); Rule 14 – Respect Other People’s Time; Rule 15 – Respect Other People’s Space; Rule 23 – Give Constructive Criticism. To find out more about “Choosing Civility” go to:
http://krieger.jhu.edu/civility/choosingcivility.html

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher and political theorist, author of On Liberty, and influential advocate of freedom of speech, is quoted in Forni’s Choosing Civility: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” But it seems apparent a main thrust of the protesters’ efforts is in fact to “silence” the speaker.

We will resist the temptation to address whether these protesters are coming together in an organized or spontaneous fashion, whether truly grassroots or “astoturf”, non-local “mercenaries”, sponsored by major interests – stakeholders in the outcome of the health care reform debate – or whether one believes the rabble have been roused by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et.al.  and on the “other side”  whether Dems. have brought in “union goons” to intimidate the protesters. You can see from the terminology alone, the temperature is definitely rising .

This blog is committed to discussion and analysis of what constitutes effective communication. I have in previous posts addressed a number of the principal considerations in this regard, and I particularly draw attention in this instance to the post “President Obama’s scorecard as communicator-in-chief”:

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/08/president-obamas-scorecard-as-communicator-in-chief/, not because it refers to President Obama at that early time in his administration when his communication team was attempting  to kick start renewed confidence by the general public in our faltering economy, but because the post gives some basis for assessing  the effectiveness of  communication efforts in general. I wrote: “How do you determine whether you’re communicating effectively? By evaluating results. You set objectives…for your effort…and then you use some appropriate means to measure effect.” Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Let’s see if we can apply this standard to the protesters at the  town hall meetings.

Of course all this has to remain speculative, but if you are trying to demonstrate anger for a proposition, it probably makes sense to find a video camera and a microphone and start shouting “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” (famous line delivered by Peter Finch as the ex-TV anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network” ).

So, while it may not be according to Hoyle, or in this case Forni, the point of all of this may just be making an impression, but with whom? John Q. Public?, the rank and file of the Republican Party?

This gets us to the matter, also previously broached on this blog, of “truthiness”; I referenced the book True Enough by Farhad Manjoo in a previous post https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/16/a-jurassic-park-kind-of-world/ ; there I quoted from the Publishers Weekly review of the book that Manjoo analyzes, “…the status of truth in the digital age, critiquing a Rashomon-like world in which competing versions of truth vie for our attention.”

So do the tactics employed by the town hall protesters have traction? It depends on who you ask and poll.  For now though, without any doubt,  they are generating less light than heat!

Addendum: In response to a particular comment received related to this post, I want to state that any appearance of prejudice – positive or negative – for any group in this present health care debate is unintended. The health care issue gravitates around larger issues – one in particular being the perspective  different people have of the very nature of our society. My only bias is in favor of effective communication.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/

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2 Responses

  1. Wow, now that’s the real world spin our country doesn’t need. I’ve attended two of these meetings and watched dozens on the internet, and the “quiet, civilized discussion” the democrats keep saying they want is in actuality them each reciting superficial statements about this bill, that in actuality say nothing about what it will do, and then having the audience nod. Unfortunately when you are arguing to pass legislation that will profoundly effect over 300 million people, you need to be able to speak in specifics, and actually tell people what it will do and answer their questions. And when you don’t, and have the audacity to expect their support, they get upset. And when you still refuse to answer their questions and instead call them un-american, or crazy, they get more upset. It’s not nearly as complicated or as simple as you and others are trying to portray it as. And since you are so high minded and interested in discussion, let’s see if you leave this reply up.
    read the C&C response to this comment below:

    • Dear Patrick,

      Thanks for your comment. I will be including it in the comments section of communicatorsandcommunications.com;

      In addition, I have issued an addendum to the original post which sparked your response to as clearly as possible make the point that the reason for the existence of the C&C blog is to grapple with issues related to communication, which of course of necessity entails considering current events, and this summer’s town hall meetings certainly provide an interesting and important case study in regard to communications theory and application.

      Just a few factual matters. The title of the post “Town hall protesters communicate effectively, not?” carries no derogatory implication as it is couched strictly as a question as made clear by the question mark – granting I am attempting to grab attention by using this phrasing, which is just good communication technique (blogs have only split seconds to draw the attention of readers, and bland “headlines” generally lead to unread posts) and the focus throughout the post itself is on whether what is happening at these town hall meetings constitutes effective communication on the part of the protagonists. My conclusion in the post is in fact, a qualified yes.

      Lastly, just for the record, there is no “bill” as yet per se as you suggest in your comment.

      Hope you will check in from time to time to see what other matters of national and global importance C&C may treat from a communications perspective.

      Thanks again for your interest in generating “conversation” on the important issue of effective communications . One of the goals of “Communicators and Communications” is to help the world understand why effective communications is significant and what can go wrong when it goes wrong? – Causing wars, not just of words, to name just one example!

      Howard R. Debs
      Communicators&Communications

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