Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mr. and Mrs. Rodham didn't raise no quitters.

Gee, I didn't wake up last week and decide I wanted ATK to morph into the Clinton-Watch blog or anything. As a professional language teacher, though, I am interested in rhetoric, and the campaign season is one in which the use (and abuse) or words often comes to the forefront.

Senator Hillary Clinton gave an interview yesterday in which she got off her train of though about how anything, including assassination, could happen well into June and reiterated that the reason she is still in the race is because she thinks she is the best candidate. So far, so good. I disagree, but I can accept that reason as legitimate.

Unfortunately, as with so many other speeches in the political realm, the Senator's remarks continued and pretty much undercut what went before. This time by invoking the "Q" word:

Clinton wrote that she can still win on the merits, and because ``my parents did not raise me to be a quitter.''


In February of last year I wrote a piece at a faculty blog for my university called "In Defense of Quitting":

I was watching “The Apprentice” the other day (I know, I know, I’m such a philistine), and one of the contestants really, really, irritated Donald Trump by quitting before he could bring her back into the “boardroom” and give her his signature, “you’re fired!”

After noting the irony of hearing the twice-divorced real-estate magnate declare that the refusal to quit is the hallmark of most successful people (flocked on either side by his children Donald, Jr. and Ivanka who lectured the contestant that one must work to get what one wants and not expect getting it to be easy), I found myself wondering why the participant’s resignation seemed to irritate Trump so much. He even considered firing an additional member of the resigning member’s team as some sort of punitive lesson about how quitting always leads to worse consequences than going down fighting.

Why do we hate quitters, anyway? Isn’t quitting sometimes a sensible thing to do? The contestant protested that the rules of “The Apprentice” had been changed from previous seasons—members of the losing team were forced to camp in tents, presumably to make them more “hungry” to perform and enjoy the benefits of big business success (in this case, electricity and running water). She might also have pointed out that succeeding at the “game” required losing team members to turn on each other in the boardroom, to pass blame, to sling mud, and generally to do whatever one had to do to lay the fault for failure at someone else’s feet. If, in the middle of such a demeaning process, one began to have second thoughts about whether one even really wanted the reward being offered (in this case the opportunity to be bullied by Trump for a year as a paid employee instead of as a television contestant), wouldn’t it make sense to stop pursuing it? Sure it would, if we put it that way—but the minute we call it “quitting” there seems to be some moral (or at least character) flaw attached to the person following such logic.

When I was in middle school and junior high school, I was interested in drama. I was a decent actor (got a few good parts in school and community plays), but I couldn’t sing a lick—still can’t. My parents offered to sign me up for dance lessons, which seemed like a good idea. After several weeks, though, I found myself disenchanted. The emphasis was on tap dancing, which I didn’t like. Over half of my time at the lessons was spent doing gymnastics and tumbling instead of actually working on new routines. Tentatively, fearing a scolding, I told my parents I wanted to quit. They said, “okay.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I did not grow up into a perpetual quitter who was unable to commit to relationships or follow through on any difficult job. In fact, as I grew into my high school and college years, I noted that I was often more willing to try new things, whereas some of my friends would rarely take on challenges or jobs outside their comfort zone. This attitude allowed me to pursue a range of different interests before committing the bulk of my effort (much less all of it) to any one pursuit. Those who feared being labeled a “quitter” would often fear getting stuck in a new job, relationship, or hobby, and thus assiduously avoid ever trying something new.

Any good poker player will occasionally fold a hand (i.e. quit) if he knows he is beaten. By doing so, he conserves resources and increases his chance of eventual success. A coach may give up trying to win a particular game in order to give bench players experience. Patches are made to help people quit smoking, and Christians often rely on community help to quit (or try to quit) bad habits.

One of the most puzzling examples of how cultural attitudes towards quitting have affected education is how many students will apologize to me when they drop my class. Even if there is a waiting list of students wanting to get into a class, even if a student was registered for the class as a mistake because the computer read ENGL instead of ECON, even if a student is dropping out of school because a doctor has told him he has twenty-four hours to live… the student will still avert his eyes in shame when handing me the “drop/add” form.

Because, you know…nobody respects a quitter.

Just ask Donald Trump.

12 February 2007

So, needless to say, I view remarks such as Senator Clinton's to be non-answers to the question of why she is or is not continuing to stay in the race. Simply saying one is not (or doesn't want to be) "a quitter" is exploiting the emotional connotations of the word by smuggling in the assumptions (unchallenged) that quitting is always wrong or that any form of change (whether it be in resources or focus) is "quitting." Were that the case, everyone should be married to their first boyfriend or girlfriend, should never change majors or jobs or homes, should never take up a new hobby instead of keeping up with an old one. By that logic, I should be ashamed that I no longer watch American Idol. Sure, I tend to think that after growing bored with the show after having watched it for the first three seasons or so, there is nothing wrong with turning my time and attention to other things. But by Senator Clinton's logic, I have become a quitter, not following through on something I started. My parents must be so ashamed.

Politicians exploit rhetoric all the time. If I find this instance particularly irksome, perhaps it is because I find it to be another example of Senator Clinton borrowing a page from the Republican play book and by doing so seeming to strengthen or tacitly endorse a method of faulty logic when it is applied to other, even more important decisions. (You know, like, whether or not deciding to not perpetuate a war that was a bad idea in the first place and was sold to the American public with a series of half-truths and misinformation is "quitting.")

What would Senator Clinton say if, in response to a democratic party platform that called for an end to the Iraq War (yeah, I know, we could only wish that ANY candidate had the guts to be so direct as to make that a part of the platform so directly) President Bush or Senator McCain were to derisively respond, "You know my parents didn't raise me to be a quitter."

I would assume she would take umbrage at the suggestion that any attempt to do the right thing, to change one's mind, to graciously or professionally concede defeat or error, or to try to correct past mistakes--any attempt, in other words to change--involves "quitting" and is therefore the sign of a character flaw.

I know I would.

No comments: