See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Monthly Archives: May 2014

Don’t Undercut Yourself with Extraneous Big Ideas (CiS III)

I spend a lot of time watching amateurs argue with each other, and I’m always amazed by the eagerness with which people will undercut themselves but throwing in huge, controversial claims. Here’s a small example:

Shinseki resigned, Obama lacked the testes to fire him. Then, Obama praised him — for failing!

Note to Obama: You regale someone who’s done a good job, not someone who has tried and failed miserably.

In Obama’s world, everyone gets an “A” — that’s what affirmative action does to you…

Let’s break this down, but construct the argument charitably. Charitable construction will be discussed in more detail later, but for now it will suffice to say that when someone says something, take the best version of it head on before arguing against it. So what this commentator is really trying to say is something like the following:

  1. Shinseki was a failure at his job/
  2. Shinseki resigned.
  3. Obama praised Shinseki and should not have/
  4. Obama should have fired him instead of waiting for Shinseki to resign/
  5. This is all the fault of Obama’s world vision of “everyone gets an A”.
  6. Which is all the fault of affirmative action.

Now, even with a charitable construction, this is a fairly loony argument, but it doesn’t have to be. Point 5 is unnecessary, but arguably adds context. Point 6 is completely tangential and upon reading it, I’ve reflexively written off the commentator as a racist. But if you lopped off points 5 and 6, you have a point of view that can be well defended. If on the other hand, you really want to talk about 5 and 6, points 1-4 aren’t really going to help you. Yet, people do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, while usually not this crudely, you actually get this problem at the highest levels of intellectual debate. If anything, it seems to be one of the bad side effects of high intelligence. There is a strong temptation among the intelligent and articulate to weld defensible small points, well grounded in observation and reasonable opinion, with wild larger ranging points, which are, well… less well grounded. I call these large points Theoretical Superstructures, ideas that purport to bind observations together into a sensible pattern. People, being fairly smart once they put their mind to it, are really good at observations and pretty terrible at theoretical superstructures. I count the work of Sigmund Freud as archetypal of this phenomena.

As a reader, I often find myself mentally lopping off the superstructures that writers tack onto their work, whether it’s a tweet from the recent #YesAllWomen trend, or the an extraneous ‘graf from a New York Times columnist. As a communicator, you should be spending your time lopping off those superstructures in your editing process. Don’t distract your audience, but serve them by staying focused. Restrain your urge to tell them How the World Makes Sense, and focus on describe what the world looks like. If you do want to communicate a theoretical superstructure, then make that your focus from top to bottom, and do it with purpose. At which point your restraint is well applied in making sure your examples fit.

Now, just because I’m advocating restraint doesn’t mean I want you to be cowards. Any sort of communication is an act of courage, and the more public and permanent the more courage it takes. That’s a good thing. Rather, I’m advocating you apply discipline, focusing your message on what will help the most: first facts, then context, and then and only when you know you have it nailed, the theory. If nothing else, you’ll sound smarter than most of the people arguing on the internet.


Loyalty is a Flaw

Life lessons come from strange places. I played a lot of a role playing games when I could as a kid, (and in Lewisian fashion, I no longer do childish things in secret as an adult) and one of them was 7th Sea. 7th sea was a lot of things to me, but most important is that it was a game about being a hero.

Heroes have been my moral lodestar since I was a child. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis in elementary school and it awoke a deep hunger. So I read. I read the Iron Man and Spider Man comic books, I read Star Wars novels, I read shōnen manga and I read Ender’s Game. I sensed, even then, that I was mostly reading the same thing over and over again, playing with the same themes, dressed up. It taught me a lot and made me a better person. I saw myself in nerdy Peter Parker, feared fear, anger and hate, and saw the monster every morning that Ender Wiggin saw in his mirror. A hero is defined by virtues and flaws, by character – allowing character to overcome the self in order to serve others.

A lot of reading led to a lot of role-playing games, and of those 7th Sea was the best. 7th Sea, now long out of print and development, is set in a fantastical version of 18th century Europe. It is a game of swashbuckling and sorcery, the kind that captured everything great about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies before the movies ever came to a theater near you. A cinematic game about heroes and villains. Mechanically, the game was inspired (though, I’ve come to realize, flawed) discarding realism in flavor of drama. Dice weren’t simulating reality – they were Drama Dice themselves, and they exploded on the table.

7th Sea allowed you to create a character that had an “arcana” – an especially powerful heroic virtue or heroic flaw. And in the middle of the flaw list, was loyalty. Mechanically, loyalty was obviously a disadvantage, a way for the game master to push players into dangerous situations by forcing a loyal character to refuse retreat from a wounded friend, even when the need was great. It still struck false in a game that otherwise captured heroes so well. After all, most of my favorite heroes were loyal, a virtue that all involved be they character, author, or reader, admired.

It took some life to really grasp why loyalty is a flaw. Some of it was realizing how much I forget about the people I thought I cared (positively, a little, negatively, a lot) about. The rest of it came from a few incidents where I did my best to publicly humiliate someone who had wronged people I cared about – more than I thought I had cared about them. I have come to see that in my worst moments I am the most damaged sort of pack animal – alone, but not a loner. I protect those I see as part of my pack, and it is an impulse spills out from a deep, deep well. I am loyal, and from time to time even heroically so. It is not such a good thing. There is a certain kind of desperation in the dark shadows of my soul, one that peaks erratically. The desperation corrupts the protective impulse like a cancer. The impulse to shield becomes the impulse to strike. A willingness to risk harm because a ruthless alacrity to risk doing harm. I become willing to hurt in order to prevent harm, to override what is willed in favor of what is best. Evil is fond of wearing the resolute mask of good.

There are a lot of excuses, but none of them carry. It is no help to say that violence is not my way, so little permanent hurt happens. It is of no help to say that they deserved it. It is of no help to say that the loyalty is appreciated by friends and that sometimes you really do need to transgress for the betterment of all. That good can come from evil impulse is a happy accident – or perhaps an intercession of Divine Grace – but it does not make that evil impulse good. Heroic loyalty is a form of selfishness. It is a an embrace of self-regard, a generosity delimited by the beholder’s preferences and wants. It is not about them in those moments of ruthless intercession, it is about me and what I will not allow to happen. Heroic loyalty puts the self in self-righteousness. To be heroically loyal is to reject obedience. Obedience to the rule of the community, obedience to a code of decency, obedience to the basic mutual respect of friends. The heroically loyal refuses to serve the greater good at the price of a friend, not because of the friend, but because of the fear of loss.

Heroic loyalty is a flaw because it comes from a fear of being alone with no pack to protect, and no reason to live on. A life lesson found in a child’s amusement.

Ta-Neisi Coates and the Wages of Supremacy

Ta-Neisi Coates has written a long and provocative deep-think piece entitled “The Case for Reparations”, his “take on the Atlantic as a Journal of ‘Big Ideas'” and it is a tour-de-force. Please, read the whole thing, summaries can’t do it justice. That goes double for those of you who are not interested in the underlying case, Coates tells a lot of important stories along the way, and his writing is an artistic treasure. Don’t miss it.

I was deeply moved upon reading The Case for Reparations. The article follows multiple threads, historical events as told by both experts and by those who survived them. I now have a deeper appreciation for the damage done to black America by America, in all the meaningful senses of the term, and I can begin to sense the hazy boundaries of how ignorant of it I really am. Much as I was informed, I was challenged; as I was challenged, I was compelled; but despite being compelled, I remain unconvinced. This is because that Coates’ argument is not valid, (in the formal logic sense, not the internet shouting match sense) but his assertions are true.1 He has proven a great deal, just not out what he set out to do. I worried that I was nitpicking – letting a mind shaped by years of formal argumentation training miss out on the substance of the article. The article reads like a documentary more than a brief after all. Coates is not just telling stories, he described his article as “an argument in support of reparations” in a blog posting, describing the evolution of his thinking.
Read more of this post

What is Owed (CiS Part II)

I want to start by apologizing to everyone who checked in last week looking for new posts and was disappointed. I’m still recovering from my somewhat sudden vacation to Orlando, Florida and the attendant 36 hours of driving back and forth, but that isn’t much of an excuse. This doubly true since this, the next part of Communication is Service, focuses on the primary duties of a service oriented communicator: that of not wasting the audience’s time. So once again, I am sorry, specifically for wasting your time.

Let’s get back to basics for a moment, because there is a lot of room for confusion here. Communication is service, and the best way to measure whether or not words coming out of someone’s mouth is a service is to see if it is wasting the audience’s time.1 Take for example a teacher giving a lecture in English, but the entire class speaks only Spanish (further assume that this is not some sort of ESL immersion technique). However justified the teacher feels in yammering on, if the student’s can’t understand, they might as well be playing kickball. Their time is being wasted, the teacher is not serving the students, so the teacher is failing as a communicator. Saying that the communicator has an obligation not to waste the audience’s time is not the same thing as giving the audience what they want – the teacher doesn’t serve the audience by giving the student’s infinite recess and easy As – but its pretty close.

I begin with this obligation as a preliminary expectoration2 as you’ve already heard a lot of nonsense about what the primary obligations of various communicators are. It’s usually a variation on “our job is to speak the truth” (the capital T is occasionally implied as well) with some nuances, like “to lead” or “to educate” or “to call it like I see it” or some other seemingly noble calling. Well, that’s dead wrong. In the third season of the West Wing, Aaron Sorkin spoke through a fictional poet, saying

You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.3

To put it another way Sorkin has no right to capture his audience and force them to serve as Sorkin’s dummies as he blathers on about truth. If he manages it great, but that’s just this side of a happy accident. This isn’t to say that truth-telling can’t be a valuable service – it is to say that the communicator must captivate first. In practical terms, I tell forensics students and competitors they have to first answer two questions for the audience, every time. “What are you talking about, and why should I care?” It is the obligation of the communicator to convince the audience care – not the other way around. And what does the communicator get in exchange for humbling themselves into servitude?

Nothing. The audience owes you nothing above and beyond what they owe any other person for your attempt – and I stress, attempt – at communication. You’re here to help the audience, not for them to help you. That means no whining about your audience looking at their phones,4 not being well-educated enough to understand you, or too selfish to care. Be captivating enough that they will pay attention, be clear enough that they don’t have to hack through a thicket of SAT prep books to understand you, do what it takes to make them care.

So, to review: Communication is a form of service. The first duty when serving your audience is not to waste their time. In exchange for you not wasting their time, they owe you nothing. Once you’ve got that mindset, we can start to talk about the mechanics of effective communication.


Unapologetic and the Mythteller’s Truth

I’m in the midst of slogging through Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why , Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense while the wife and in-law’s cavort at the Magic Kingdom, spared from my heat-aggravated boredom-induced grouch. “To slog” is a verb I usually reserve for pieces of writing I dislike but find important or necessary to consume – sort of the media consumption equivalent of shlep. For Unapologetic, it is a verb I use to indicate both profound suffering before difficulty and profound gratitude before salvation (as the text has been reminding me, these emotions come together for the Christian). My pace through the book has been incredibly slow because it is overwhelmingly good. Not a chapter has gone past without me needing to put the book down to let myself pause and digest.

Easily my favorite thing about Unapologetic is also my favorite thing about Christianity, because Spufford isn’t writing about Christianity, not really. Christianity, world religion has not yet made a significant appearance thus far in my read, and I do not expect it to. Neither has Christianity, Christmas-to-Easter-to-Pentecost narrative, although I’m sure that will come up. No, Spufford has been telling me the better Christian story, the age-old one about people, you, me, the not-quite-best of us  and the not-quite-worst of us. This, really, is the truth (both capitalized ‘T’ and uncapitalized ‘t’ versions of the word) that moves me as a Christian, the exact same sort of truth that the great myths tell.

Christianity is by the most useful definitions of the words (both subject and object of this sentence) a myth, but it is one I believe to be true, just as I believe that the truest expression of human nature is heroic, as the Ancient Greek poets, saturday morning cartoons and George Lucas all described in the only way they could, in story. Empirical data, never mind the empirical sciences that have sprung up as our tools for discovering and understanding that data, belies my belief in love and heroism and I know it as well as you do. Humans in the world. This is why the sciences, why “realism” is an essentially flawed tool for describing reality – because though we are ape-cousins-in-the-world we are also more than that. What is real about life is more than just the world, it is, at the very least, our aspirations and our awe. I want to talk about the whole of humanity, a real vital thing, more than random preferences stacked on top of biology and biography. For that, we need art to tell us the stories, tainted mirrors that can show us our true reflections.

I’ve had more than a few rationalists in my life look at me with irritation when I talk about myth and truth like that. As if I’ve gone daft, dumb or have just pulled some sort of dastardly deception – a bait-and-switch, complete with nefarious cackling and Fu Manchu mustache. I’ve never really known how to properly explain it, any more than even the most literate of deep water fish could explain the sensation of the ocean. My religiosity is not half my age, but my embrace of stories is older than my memory. (Really, it is atheists that seem to manage capturing the sensation best – Aaron Sorkin and J. Michael Straczynski are two of the best writers I’ve ever read when it comes to religious themes and characters.) All I can do is hope that the incredulity and incuriosity do not escape the silo labeled “religion” in their mind. Stories will take them like a thief in the night, burglarizing the non-place of their heart-of-hearts whatever they say and do in the world. Or so I pray.

Of course, stories have villains too – and worse they have tragedies. (As the Ancient Greeks and Lucas know well). I’m not sure joy could mean anything without despair in theory, but I’m sure it doesn’t in the world. It is imperfections, trade-offs and absurdities that stories transfigure into archetypes so that we may understand them. I dislike quoting from Unapologetic because Spufford has written something that can nearly only be read in full, against even the most ruthless of minimalist editors digressions survive. I think I must however, leave you with this:

If you tell somebody that, as a decent person, they cannot have done anything questionable, you may mean to be nice, but you are in reality denying them sympathy. You are refusing to go to them where they are, you are declining to join them in the emotion they are finding painful. Somebody who is accusing herself or himself of something may well be mistaken, factually or morally, in that particular instance; but not because they are incapable of wrongdoing. No one is incapable of wrongdoing, and we have to be allowed our capacity for HPtFtU if we are to have our full stature. Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than just be a flurry of events. It’s part of letting them be real enough to be worth loving, rather than just attractive or glamorous or pretty or charismatic or cool.

As with any man, it goes with Men.

Smartphones and Strangers

Just a short post to make up for missing yesterday’s: I’m on the road to Florida, driving by car from Michigan. This comes out to around an 18 hour road trip broken over two days. I’ve taken a few trips like this over the years and there is always a part of the night where the rest of the car has fallen silent. The audiobook has run, my companions have lapsed into sleep or road hypnosis, it’s a good time to think.

I’ve had less of that silence ever since I bought a smartphone. I’m a late entrant into the smartphone generation, concerned as I was with the financial cost and the dangers of having 24-hour anywhere access to the internet. It’s kind of like why I don’t try out the latest concoction from Taco Bell: the worst thing that could happen is I discover it is delicious.

The difference in having constant internet access is pronounced on the road. On the upside, road travel is much less risky. I spend less time worrying about planning routes, preparing supplies, and arranging for places to stay. “Find a hotel when I get tired” is an efficient strategy when finding a hotel is as effortless and fast as asking my wife to do a google search. Getting lost isn’t much of an issue. No doubt about it, having a smartphone makes my life better in many small and tangible ways, especially while traveling.

At the same time that the smartphone makes road travel safer, easier, more comfortable, it also impovrishes it a bit. Getting diverted, if not out right lost, was a common result of traveling by car, and if I wasn’t lost, I was usually worried about getting lost. So, at rest stops and gas stations, I would hop out of the car and ask for help. And in the proccess, I’d meet a stranger, maybe even make a friendly connection, however brief, with a fellow traveler. I don’t have to do that now, so I don’t – and while traversing the experience that is the American roads, I experience a lot less of the people.

I think it is worth it, in the end. Serendipity from need is nice, but security actually makes people more open to elective serendipity. I still sometimes miss the quiet, and the oh so brief emergent communities of strangers, lost and disconnected together.

Communication is Service (part I of an ongoing series)

Last weekend I had the privilege of judging at the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Individual Events State Finals in Kalamazoo. Judging forensics – the public speaking kind, not the dead bodies kind,1 is one of my very favorite things to do in the world, and its a great way to spend a Saturday.

On one level, forensics matters the same way that any extracurricular activity matters: it can build character, provide enrichment activities, and help kids get into college. More importantly, public speaking, whether formal persuasive address with your own words or artistic interpretation of someone else’s writing is a skill2. Public speaking also happens to be an important skill. I knew plenty of very bright people who have difficulty expressing opinion or thought because they’ve never had the training and confidence building from speech activities, debate, or something similar. So being part of that, even if involves getting up at the crack-o-dawn, writing critiques sheets until my hand hurts, and then agonizing over the fifth and sixth places in a six person round, its probably one of the most meaningful things I get to do in my life.

Forensics has also permanently damaged my standards. I came out of Forensics a half decent public speaker, but considerably below the curve of the top ranked kids, and I was not infrequently the strongest public speaker in any given room of college, sometimes professors and special speaking guests inclusive. I figured that’d settle by the time I reached law school, but again, the aggregate lawyer is a surprisingly mediocre public speaker (there are of course some talented litigators who can blow the doors off brick buildings) so with all sincerity, routinely seeing high school kids that are superior stronger public speakers than people who professionally speak in public is disorienting.

I’ve been wondering about why it is that these kids are so good, other than the absolute wringer of competition, coaching, adjudication and practice, practice, practice they’re sent through, and it was my weekly nag e-mail from WordPress that really clarified it for me. WordPress has a little feature where, upon request, a some e-mailing robot will remind you as frequently as every week to post something. The email goes something like this:

Express yourself. (And meet your goal!)

Great job meeting your posting goal last week. This is just a friendly reminder to write this week’s post. Keep up the great work!

Looking for inspiration? Here are some great posts by bloggers just like you:

This is an innocuous little e-mail that is totally wrong. I am not here to express myself, and no blog worth reading is about self-expression. If you want to express yourself, write in a diary or just wail into a pillow. No no, what we’re interested in doing here is communicating, and when you’re truly interested in communicating, the bottom line matters most. It isn’t about what you say, but about knowing what you want them to hear, and finding away to bridge the gap between your mouth and their comprehension. A friend in the Michigan forensics community is fond of saying that forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be heard” an expression I love, but if we’re being totally precise forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be listened to”.3 Good communication requires the communicator to have, however temporarily, a service orientation, because it isn’t about the speaker but about the audience. Everything we teach these kids is about helping them help the audience.

The high school kids may or may not understand the necessity of a service orientation on an abstract level,4 or be interested in the nuances of word definition, but they’ve had the lesson (proverbially!) beaten into them over and over again by coaches and judges that they have an ends-oriented task as represented by the laundry list of things to do better and score ranks on the little slips of paper they take home each Saturday. I don’t think most adults have access to that sort of thing, and when you’ve got enough talent, skill, and good luck… well, its pretty easy to have ego trample over any service orientation you can muster.

I’m going to be hitting on these theme quite a bit in the coming weeks and months in a series I’m entitling “Communication is Service.” We’ve long needed a(n inter)national conversation on discourse. I’m definitely not the most qualified person to lead it, but we all should be taking part in it, and this is how it has to happen, when each one of us understands that it is not only a right to stand up and be heard, but a service we have a duty to perform for others.


Paying for Time Stolen

Earlier this week, April 29, at 6:23 local time, a man most of us had never heard of was injected with a drug meant to put him into unconsciousness. Ten minutes later he was declared to be unconscious and injected with two drugs meant to kill him. Three minutes after that, he began to writhe and thrash. Three minutes after that, he was heard to speak. Within minutes, a stay of execution was issued. “Vein failure” was declared to be the problem. 7:06, forty-three minutes afterwards, the man was declared dead by heart attack. Over the next hours and days, pieces were published: was this torture; was this justice?

On June 3rd, 1999, a woman most of us had never heard of went to a home in Perry, Oklahoma and dropped her friend Summer Hair off at Summer’s friend Bobby Bornt’s house so they could convince him to come to a party. They found the man and his two accomplices there, robbing the house. Bobby had been beaten and gagged with duct tape. Summer entered the room, was beaten, and forced to call to the woman. The woman came in and was struck. She fought. She was beaten. The men placed the woman, Summer, and Bobby in the the room where Bobby’s son, Sam was sleeping. Sam had been born just nine months before. Summer was taken away. Summer was raped. She was forced to undress and raped again. She was left momentarily alone in the room and then raped again. Summer was taken back to Sam’s room and the woman, Summer, Bobby and Sam were all bound and gagged. The man and his accomplices found a shovel, and then drove the woman, Summer, Bobby and Sam into a rural area outside of town.

The woman watched as the man and his accomplices raped Summer in a shallow ditch. The men demanded the woman stay quiet about everything that happened. She refused. She was forced into the ditch. She watched as they dug deeper into the ditch. Twenty minutes passed. They shot her. The gun jammed. The man walked to the truck. She screamed and sobbed as the men joked about how tough she was. The man returned and shot her again. She was buried. Later, she finally died. Two weeks before that, the woman had graduated high school. Before that, she had taught at Vacation Bible School. Nineteen years before she was murdered, she had been born and named Stephanie Neiman.

Thirty-eight years, five months and seven days before his death and before the world cared about how he died, the man was born Clayton Lockett. In the months before his birth his mother did drugs. Three years later, his mother abandoned him. His father used drugs and blew the smoke up Clayton’s nose. He was beaten and abused. He was taught how to commit crimes. He was punished for being caught. He joined a gang. Or maybe, instead, fourteen years ago, Clayton Lockett led a conspiracy to lie about what happened thirty-five years ago. Maybe some mix of both.

Two days ago, for the crime of murdering Stephanie Neiman, the the state attempted to execute Clayton Lockett painlessly and humanly. The state failed. Was it justice? Was it torture?

I don’t know if the state owed Lockett a painless death, but the state owed it to us. I know Clayton Lockett owed Stephanie Neiman, Summer Hair, Bobby Bornt, and Sam Bornt more than in life or death he could repay. Before I told you, did you even know their names? Two stories you didn’t know and didn’t care about the day before Tuesday ended fifteen years apart but forever linked. Stolen time for stolen time.

* * *

A tort is a wrong done against a person wherein compensation is forcibly extracted. A crime is a wrong done against society for which punishment is exacted. Between the two there is plenty of muddy ground where compensation and punishment irreversibly mix. The state has few tools, fewer still that it is willing to use. The state can take away your money, the state can take away your freedom, and sometimes, the state will even take away your life. Only with the money can the state give it to someone else. So when money is lost by one wronged, money is given. When pleasure is lost, money is given. When mobility is lost, money is given. When life is lost, money is given. Lawyers do not pretend that money can truly compensate for all losses, but we sometimes agree to pretend to pretend that time really is money.

When crime is punished, then too money will be taken. But money is nothing compared to freedom. The state takes away computers, associates, and solitude first. If the wound is great enough, the state takes away more. The state takes away mobility. The state takes away hope. The state enforces solitude. Lawyers do not pretend that taking away someone’s freedom can heal the wound, but sometimes we agree to pretend to pretend.

We know that killing, whether painfully or painlessly, cannot compensate for a life lost, cannot stitch the wound closed. We know that we cannot fix anything when we take away life. We know that we cannot create time. But sometimes we pretend to pretend.