Monday, August 31, 2020

Change or Be Changed

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms
photo credit: Artist-Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807), Yale Center for British ArtWikimedia Public Domain

Gulliver's visit to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, at one level is an engaging exploration of values, scrutinizing the good and bad sides of reason versus emotions. Perhaps horse-lovers feel comforted focusing on the nobility of the calm and rational Houyhnhnms versus the wild Yahoos.

Without delving here into the layers of Jonathan Swift's satire, this episode of fiction certainly raises concerns that matter right now. For sure, re-reading Swift is recommended.

As we chart the future, we probably need little reminding that today's juggernaut of the inappropriate framing of much public communication does not serve us well. With the endless news cycle, added to social media and other community gossip, the communication landscape continues to grow more challenging - especially with the continuous fog of the not-really latest "breaking news."

Yet, with the ever-widening gap between the theory and reality of any Hatch Act enforcement to keep public officials accountable, this is no time to be faint-hearted, inattentive or distracted.

It's truly unfortunate to recall that in my first blog, little more than three months ago, I suggested that "after some trial fits and starts... much education at all levels might be mainly online - for a long time." With children and teens in many places returning to school over recent weeks, we now start to learn that new COVID-19 infections are greatest in children and teens in some areas.

Although much is being done by many in efforts to protect and treat people, much more change and inventiveness will be needed going forward. It looks like everyone who cares will have to keep alert to how to remedy the effects of Yahoo behaviors.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Silly Season

Charlie Chaplin (with "double cross" emblem)
photo credit: film trailer screenshot, The Great Dictator, Wikimedia Public Domain

Thanks to George Orwell's short essay published in 1946, "Politics and the English Language," we can be more alert to public figures using words to obscure or deliberately hide realities.

The eminent British linguist David Crystal, in his 2016 Orwell Lecture to the Emirates Festival of Literature, named Orwell's essay as "one of the most important articles on the language to come out of the 20th century." Yet, together with the many further warnings of the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul and others delineating propaganda processes for us, these combined efforts are clearly not enough to counteract the emergence of added generations of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl.

Some robust educational preparations for life are sustained in the United States and other countries. Evidence of this is the remarkably sustained public communication efforts of students from Florida's Parkland High School, following the shootings there in February 2018. Unfortunately, there is also ample indication that too few people are prepared for the silly season now upon the United States.

An indication of this is a not-so-recent video that's resurfaced, showing the ABC network conducting street-interviews of youths, who are asked to name countries on a map of the world, with no success. What hope then to navigate obscure or deceptive election rhetoric?

Anything can happen as a nation enters the final months of an election.

What's predictable is that "talking points" that direct how to send "messages" to us will increase. With each passing day these will sound more alike. For sure, there will be some public figures and pundits still frozen in talking about the "right message" and message sending. They should find a time-machine and take themselves back to the meetings of telephone engineers in the 1940s, when this concept of communication was popularized (and later challenged). C'mon, that was almost 80 years ago, folks.

In our personal lives, we accept that the ingredients that make life worthwhile are trust, common understanding, and commitment to do what truly benefits people, so why should politicians' public talk be judged at any lesser standard?

Do we really have to go back 2,400 years or more to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu to find the wisdom that "a leader is best when people barely know [s/]he exists"? Wouldn't that be refreshing? More recently, other thoughtful folks like Warren Bennis and Lee Thayer have added that a true leader:

* helps focus a desired state of affairs;
* asks the right questions that help people come to grip with problems; and
* helps translate solutions into practice.

It is significant that the leader's duty to help is in every line. It's time to expect leaders to take only actions that help people. This is the test of authenticity that's needed now.

Meantime, in preparation for the drivel about to be spewed forth, I'd urge you to get a copy of the second edition of Randal Marlin's Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2013. If you'd like a detailed review, before parting with about $33 on Amazon or elsewhere, google the excellent review by Gary James Jason at California State University.

Despite Jason's final recommendation that the book should be accessible to any serious scholar of propaganda and persuasion, it's actually a straightforward preparation for any of us.

Randal Marlin puts succinctly that:

"PROPAGANDA = The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual's adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment."

Not hard to understand. With this very useful definition, quibbles about whether or not all propaganda is harmful get swept away. All propaganda is bad. This is not just my view, but was earlier implied by Jacques Ellul, who pointed out that "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision." The light at the end of the tunnel we're in is that Ellul also noted that propaganda ceased where simple dialogue begins.

The current public "exchanges" about the US Postal Service have special value in the United States. Curtailing this beloved US institution is a loser for such advocates. The limitations on propaganda that Ellul outlined are a warning to propagandists and a clue for ways to counter propagandists.

1. Don't mess with people's pre-existing attitudes - propaganda cannot move except within the framework of these attitudes, which it can modify only very slowly (certainly not in the time frame of the final stages of an election).

2. Although propaganda might sometimes overcome general trends of society, the sociological/cultural factors in which people act have an absolute limit. So, in a nation committed to democracy, proselytizing for a monarchy is a loser - instead, tyrants try to claim they are democratic, which counter-attacks need to focus vigorously on unmasking.

3. The propagandist is limited by people's need for consonance with facts; so, the counter-attack is to reassert and convince people of the solidity of a fact that is right! Propaganda of ideas does not exist. Even "Goebbels changed his propaganda after Stalingrad, because it was impossible to transform that debacle into victory," said Ellul.

Among many other good qualities of Marlin's book are his explanatory list of the common fallacies of reason, in one of the best summaries I've seen, AND similar provided by Eleanor MacLean of the known and less well known examples of how language can be used to manipulate an audience.

It's time to get ready, get personal with email and mutually supportive action, and be prepared to listen up. Slogans matter less in elections than we might think, but this might be time to remember that the 1957 election slogan in Britain "Never had it so good" was turned back, by the opponents' response "Never been had so good."

That's the spirit needed now. Going forward, especially in coming weeks, we'll see whether candor of actions matches public talk.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

What's So Funny?

photo credit: Charles Edward on Wikimedia CCA-SA3.0 Unported

A delightful book on The Language of Humour by Walter Nash just arrived in the mail. Worth every penny on the second-hand market, if you're prepared to risk never smiling again, after reading Nash's analyses of the joke, anecdote, pun, parody, humorous rhythms, overstatement / understatement / counterstatement, and all manner of funny-bone ticklers in-between.

My reward for buying second-hand, however, was apparently at the cost of some next generations of students at Villanova University in Philadelphia no longer having access to the humor and its principles in this slim book on their library shelf - as the stamp "NO LONGER PROPERTY OF..." that a librarian there in search of more shelf-space was obliged to announce inside the front cover.

Why this book is interesting is that for all the wonderful humor that keeps the world healthy and for all the descriptions of the effects of humor, we are less well served with explanation of the causes of humor.

For some of the more intelligent speculations about why we laugh, we have to reach back to the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, writing in 1900. He described his purpose in exploring humor as better understanding what it is to be human. He talked about many aspects, including the social role of laughter, the part played by exaggeration of human features, gesture and movements, and the relationship of the comic to human imagination.

Walter Nash's book is packed with a mix of examples of humor of course. One of the more famous being the restaurant diner asking, "Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?" for the Waiter's reply, "Looks like the breast-stroke, sir." - as an example of the pragmatic factor. Or an example of the bizarre pun, "What do you do with a wombat? -- Play wom." In the interests of space, these are among the shorter samples.

The value of the book is not so much the examples, as much as the attempt at outlining some principles. Although published in 1985, for today's readers there might be too many historical (and not even hysterical) examples that relied on sexism or other appeals now considered inappropriate. Maybe this was the reason for my copy's removal from the university library's shelf?

Another limitation of the book is that it could do with more examples not so literary or Anglo-centric. Still, with so little of worth looking at humor, which is an elixir for so many of us sharing emailed jollies at this bizarre time, Nash's book is worth a look - if, like Bergson, you're interested in an important aspect of what makes us human.

One commentator on political humor, whom I read recently, suggested that a universal theory of humor is yet to be developed that takes into consideration three major theories, namely superiority, relief, and incongruity.

What's clear is that the human emotions behind humor remain a mystery and complex. Perhaps that's why at this time that the talk of public figures is so rife with blatant banality, as well as insult and injury of we the people; with some so lacking in empathy or other emotions we value, that we hear little or no humor from them.

Among politicians, who do you remember last able to make us laugh at all, much less for the right reasons?