During my time campaigning for an adjunct union at my university, I have found that you just can’t please all the people all of the time. Some people are truly angry, even enraged, at the treatment that they have received at the hands of administration, and they are ready to hear the kind of rhetoric from organizers that gives voice to their extreme anger and rage at their treatment. Others, perhaps more on the fence about having a union, or even about which union would be best for their school, don’t want to hear angry rhetoric; they only want to hear peaceful and conciliatory tones, talk of peacemaking and reconciliation between equally aggrieved parties. The second party bristles at hearing the angry, retributive rhetoric of the first. On the other hand, the first party is annoyed at not hearing enough fire and passion, and they balk and bristle at hearing what they feel is collaborative, collusive, apologetic rhetoric from the second party.
It is a touchy game. Often people say, believing that they are in the right (whichever camp one is in), that the other can just take a hike and that “we don’t need them.” Well, in actuality, we do need them. Elections aren’t won by the party who can yell louder or who has more torches and pitchforks (well, not so much, nowadays). Simply put, union elections are won by how many people you can convince to vote for a union. And if you have to speak their language – even for a moment – then that’s what you have to do. And I’m not talking about being insincere, I’m talking about what the Apostle Paul spoke of when he said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (1 Cor 9:20), indicating that his methods of persuasion were versatile, dynamic and situational. In Buddhism, they often refer to this methodology as upaya, or skillful means. Sometimes, one must adapt one’s rhetoric – without dishonesty or insincerity, of course – to gain people’s attention and trust. And if it will win a union election, I’ll temper my deep and abiding anger at my treatment, and that of my compatriots, for just a little bit. I’ll tone down my indignation at the fact that my elderly parents died in tremendous debt because I wasn’t able to provide for them from my own meager and unsustainable salary; I’ll tone down my rage that several of my colleagues have had to work through life-threatening family illnesses; or that one of my colleagues, a young divorced mother, has to sell her blood plasma eight times a month to supplement her meager teaching salary and feed her three children. Yes, I’ll tone it down, if that’s what it takes to involve the many different personalities here. Some people are timid and are just afraid to sound too aggressive, or even to speak with anyone who is that aggressive. I’ll be diplomatic and conciliatory, remembering that administrators are not the enemy; they just need a little reminder of the importance and applicability of the school’s mission. And I do believe that. If my interfaith work has taught me anything, it is that we too quickly tend to vilify those we do not understand. But with that said, if some folk need to hear a bit of fire and brimstone to get them started, then by God’s grace, I’ll give it. The bottom line is that we must know our audiences, or we won’t win anything.
But on the other hand, when someone has been abused, beaten, disenfranchised; when someone is in utter pain from their predicament, when someone has been tortured and nearly murdered, it is inconceivable to tell them to keep their voices down, for fear that they’ll disturb the neighbors, or that they are contributing to an adversarial dynamic. Tell that to the ones who placed the knife between the person’s ribs in the first place. And those who are afraid of hearing angry and aggressive rhetoric need to understand this about their colleagues. They are hurt and angry and there is a movement afoot. And if you want to be part of making things better, you might just have to put up with a few words of angry rhetoric.