See Infra

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Category Archives: Communication is Service

How radical are we actually getting?

I have of late found myself in the uncomfortable position of being really upset with writers I otherwise admire and respect. In part this is because the writers I go out of my way to read are smart people who think differently than I do. And I, like all people who put pen to paper, am a relentless egotist who finds disagreement to be a personal insult.[1] Pascal Emmanuel Gobry is one such writer and he recently went off on a tirade about the left’s position on racism. A tirade I found insulting and completely off base. But Gobry also had this had this observation:

 

The more I think on it, the more he is talking about something very real and very dangerous. It does certainly feel like everything has gotten worse, tenser, and more extreme. But something doesn’t quite sit right about his model of what’s happening. For Gobry to be correct, political partisans would have to believe in more and more extreme positions that are even more diametrically opposed to each other. But I don’t think that’s what is happening at all. Rather, it is our image of each other is becoming more radicalized. Let me demonstrate with the incident on hand.

Gobry was ranting in response to this exchange:

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Gobry, it seems, saw this exchange and interpreted as if Beauchamp had thrown the entire idea of nationhood, inheritance, borders and anything short of a single global borderless state as inherently racist. I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable and/or historically obvious case that US immigration restriction has historically been racist and the claim of any non-Native American American to have claim to the soil by blood to be laughable.[2]

How did we see the same thing so differently, assuming for the moment we are both reasonable men? Well sticking just to the US context, Gobry and I are members of different tribes, meaning different friends and affiliations. So I am naturally inclined to interpret, edit really, the exchange to be more reasonable and he more inclined to see the worst. In fact, our interpretations are also likely to feed off of each other, since nothing causes an idea to take hold and spread quite as fast as anger. This process is well explained by CGP Grey in this wonderful video which you should watch right now if you hadn’t already.

The relevant gist is that ideas about the opposing tribe that make you angry are the most likely to take hold and spread among people you respect and like, and they can trigger mirroring rage inducing idea about your tribe in the opposing tribe. Everyone got that? Good. This is what Gobry said that I found offensive enough to go on a long rant about the historical racism of US immigration policy:

What’s funny about this tweet enraging me so is that I don’t self-identify as a progressive. And yet I was enraged and stopped giving Gobry the benefit of the doubt, despite our multi-year history of fruitful dialogue over Twitter. I use this experience as an example, not a proof. But I think all of us can sense a building tension between tribes.

Let me propose that what is going on is not that we are radicalizing each other, but we are radicalizing our images of each other. This does not cause more radical policy on our end, but it does cause more radical behavior in the form of less benefit of the doubt and more insults to the opposing faction.[3] Because why would you bother being reasonable with a radical? Then again, straw-men and stereotypes about opposing factions[4] has always been with us.

One factor is that social media has not only made it easier to connect with your tribe, but made it way more likely to actually encounter the ridiculous straw-men you paint the other faction to be. Or at least people who are so caught up ressentiment they act like it. The other obvious factor is the election and Presidency of Donald Trump. I mean, the man is nothing if not a walking conflictionator. He constantly produces a miasma of stress, rendering social trust by his actions. And, there is the crushing onslaught of news as Trump flails about and journalists dig in. We’re all on edge, scrambling to and fro for the security of priors and fellow tribes(wo)men.

So now what?

First off, don’t hate read.[5] Second, recognize the problem is you, not social media or your smart phone. This is a very human thing we are doing, an old human thing in new mediums. And finally, embrace charitable construction and questions. Don’t argue with the dumb version of what someone said, but the smart, reasonable version of what someone said. Cut away the snark, find out what it is someone really meant and act reasonably, and more often than not, you’ll find something worth engaging with. And if you don’t, fall back on not hate reading in the future.

Footnotes

[1] I am mostly joking. Mostly.

[2] In the history of US immigration policy we have excluded races by name in legislation as well as have had the category, taken from the legislative text, of free whites of good character. The case that the history of US immigration policy is steeped in racism is a slam dunk.

[3] Tribe! I meant tribe. Or did I?

[4] Whoops. Did it again. Funny that.

[5] Except you should hate read me. I am sustained by your hatred. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred.

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Don’t Answer Pain With Doctrine

Something finally clicked for me just now about why the typical small-c conservative Christian responses to  gay, lesbian and transgender people and issues has bothered me more and more over the years. It’s this awful tendency Christians have had to answer pain with doctrine.

Let me be specific.  Jana Riess is a progressively inclined Mormon convert with a great heart for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered. She also loves her church. So the recent business about how the children of those who are same-sex married was obviously painful, especially when a high ranking member seemed to suggest it was a revelation from God, no dissent proper.

I sit here heartbroken that the Church is not only standing by this regrettable policy but enshrining homophobia as God’s will.

It seems that now, by holding these views I am not just objecting to a here-today-gone-tomorrow policy in the handbook. I’m actively resisting the will of the Lord as revealed through his holy prophets.

Elder Nelson closed with dire warnings about people like me. “The somber reality is that there are ‘servants of Satan’ embedded throughout society,” the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him as saying. “So be very careful about whose counsel you follow.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this is heartbreaking to see. Loyal dissent is doubly painful because not only do you strain relationships with those who you agree, you don’t get any new friends, as they look down on you for maintaining your ties to disreputable people. Keep that in mind when reading one of the first comments:

Yes. In fact, some of us have viewed your writings that way for some time now. But please, continue to kick against the pricks and advocate that this policy is not inspired and that the 15 apostles who prayed about it must have been wrong and you are right. I see no problem there. 😉

It’s the emoji that really seals the deal. I don’t care how right you think you are and how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand against the leaders of your church, this is an inhuman way of responding to someone in pain. So is this:

Jana wrote: “I don’t believe God is behind this policy.”

Then are you not ethically bound to refrain from sustaining the church leaders?

Jana wrote: “By rejecting this policy, are active LDS church members like me, people who hold a calling and a temple recommend …..”

To be “worthy” of a temple recommend one must sustain the LDS Church leaders. And to “sustain” them one must uphold their “revelations.”

Since the Church is adamant that their anti-Gay policies are revelation, isn’t it an obvious conclusion that any temple recommend-holding member (who honestly answers the recommend questions) agrees with the Church’s policies regarding Gays?

At what point do you say, “Enough,” Jana, and separate yourself from this organization?

I don’t care how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand by her church, this is an inhuman way to respond to someone in pain.

Yes, yes. Blog comments are the worst. I can attest to that being a frequent maker and reader of blog comments. But it also happens in other ways. Like a two thirds majority of Anglican churches  rebuking the Episcopal church [see update below] over their acceptance of non celibate gays and same sex marriages. Like those same two thirds taking the time to reiterate what we all know to be their position:

 “The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the statement also notes. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”

Like those same two thirds rebuking the Episcopal Church and making sure to point out how hurt they were that the Episcopal church went and did nice things for gays when we don’t wanna. Wasn’t that mean of them?

I suppose I should add that I’m actually sympathetic to the conservatives and their position on marriage. I burn a lot of time, credibility and friendships defending both the people I know and love who are conservative on marriage doctrine and total strangers who hold the same. I concede they have an excellent case, and I think they might be right as a doctrinal matter. But, but, but, everything seems wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Witnessing a frustrated parent scream at their child in public wrong.

Witnessing has a special place in Christianity. It’s used as a synonym for proselytize, but it really means so much more. Christians believe they are witness to the gospel – the good news about sin and salvation, carrying on the message from Jesus’s apostles all the way to the present. Christian witness is the obligation to speak the truth of such weight matters, as if in court under subpoena. Now that we know, we must speak. And since communication is service, we should speak well. As you well know reader, we don’t.

Witnessing is more than just spitting out your beliefs and calling it testimony. It’s answering the question you’re asked when you’re asked. Witnessing is still communication, and that means witnessing is about listening.

So when gays and lesbians and the transgendered or anyone else comes and says that they are in pain, that is not the time to spit doctrine at them. When gays and lesbians and the transgendered have suffered at the hands of Christian authorities and mobs, specifically because the mob wanted to pick on a sexual minority, that is not the time to point out that Christ said “go and sin no more”. It’s inhuman. Especially since we’re the ones who are causing the pain! If Christians had treated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people decently, even within the confines of doctrine, since day one, we wouldn’t be having this fight! You think the urge to be marriage is new? Or do you think it has to do with people who have just had it with being abused and suffering and now need governmental protection?

There’s no justification answer pain with doctrine, because the proper answer to pain is about the person in pain, and your answering with doctrine is about you. It’s making sure that everyone knows about your righteousness, your fidelity, your insistence and purity, and your affirmation of doctrine. No one cares about your need to say you disagree. Witnessing is not about you! It’s the good news about Christ, who so loved this world he died. It’s about serving Christ in the poor, the naked, the suffering. It’s about serving people, not changing them.

So don’t answer pain with doctrine. Just don’t. You can be right on your own time. Or when they ask. But not before. That’s real witness.

Update: The body at issue does not have the authority to suspend but can still cause trouble. I relied on news sources that did not have a good understanding of the intricities and I should have known better. I regret the error.

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.

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.

Footnotes

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!)
Howdy!

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.

Footnotes