Friday, October 1, 2021

Whose Challenge?

Goldfish Bowl
photo credit: Ricardo Leon, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Often barely noticeable, like the passing of the date on the calendar for the change of seasons last week, are many adjustments to how we live. No such luck with the impact of COVID.

This was clear early. Unfortunately, the projections in my first blogpost in May last year about the likely changes in services for daily needs, education, and other areas of life were close enough to what happened. Apparently, crystal-ball gazing can get some things right. 

From the 1970s, Heidi and Alvin Toffler scrutinized data to make large-scale, largely accurate predictions about the world we now live in. They were also mostly right about many details. From the same time, I recall predictions that we'd pay about the same price for water in a bottle as for wine, and people would be talking on portable  communicators everywhere--suggestions that were considered unlikely.

Yet, despite my years of eye-opening experience of people in politics and the media, still unanticipated was the sheer craven behavior of some wannabe leaders, who were elected to be responsible firstly for the safety and health of all of us. Who, other than the craven or complete cynics, would predict the ramshackle response of these individuals to the pandemic in the United States? 

For all the ongoing efforts of countless healthcare workers and so many other service providers, whom we literally applauded in symbolic and substantive statements of support last year, here we are. With many regions in the nation well-vaccinated, and others not, and with continuing threats to the supply chain for household goods and other key imports--thanks to the back-log of ships awaiting entry to the wharves of major ports. 

Part of this challenge is the ongoing threat of the anti-vax, anti-mask self-proclaimed elite, determined to endanger themselves and everyone else. A larger challenge is leadership that's lackluster or worse in too many places, hampering recovery efforts. We all know that this affects everyone. Even a child who cares for goldfish soon learns that murky water in the fish-bowl is everyone's challenge. 

One lesson hopefully learned during the last five years in the United States is that the self-deluded, right along with the grifters and charlatans, will keep thriving on distortions, unless each of us makes the effort to dismantle their oppositions to reality. When will there ever be enough pressure on the social media companies, elected officials, charlatans, and some heads of foreign governments who dangerously white-ant our safety and health with well-publicized nonsense? What's very clear by now is what doesn't work: NEITHER the half-baked approach called "fact-checking," NOR repeating a propagandist's "messages" in the negative! 

Getting the attention of anyone to change behavior requires smart use of the motivation process. How to encourage change in someone who is opposed to a proposition has been known for a long time. Still useful are the steps John A. McGee shared for example, in 1929 in his book, Persuasive Speaking, now out of copyright and freely available on the Internet [here], with a helpful table in his book, in Appendix C at pages 268-9. McGee's basic principles remain a good guide for some purposes.

Briefly, when seeking to change the actions of people opposed to a proposition, McGee advocated that we: 

1. Secure common ground by first emphasizing any agreement in attitudes, beliefs, or experiences--he described how to seek agreement on general principles, to apply a principle to the specific problem; 

2. Anticipate and overpower objections with facts and testimony that demonstrate your approach is the best solution; explain it, and offer proof that it removes the cause of a shared problem, using testimony that's credible in the eyes of your audience, with examples of successes; 

3. Make the results of the solution vivid with imagery, impelling motives and projections for the audience into the future, while being beware of exaggeration;

4. Request definite action, with specific ways that individuals can help, appealing to habit.

If this all sounds too long and logical, take confidence that folks who get creative have found simple, visual, and emotive ways to put a strategy like this into practice for thousands of years. McGee was just one of the first in more recent times to outline the steps so clearly.

Perhaps it's worth trying an alternative to filling the media and the air with conversations that perpetuate the divisiveness of propagandists. Smallpox, tuberculosis, polio, and too many pandemics since were eradicated not only thanks to the brilliant development and delivery of life-saving vaccines. 

Equally important was finding ways to enable reality laggards to just get over it!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The -ism Family

9-11 Memorial, New York
photo credit: Bryan Ledgard, Flickr and Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0 Generic

Large, or even dangerously dominant, in people's minds and hearts is a family of words in English with the suffix -ism.

We can all too quickly think of some branch or other of the -ism family tree. The favorites of the 20th century were the feuding cousins "Fascism" and "Communism." Persistently adversarial also are "Conservatism" and "Liberalism" and "Radicalism" and "Anarchism," seeking the attention of potential devotees. And, on the left or the right, the often noisy claims of "Libertarianism" might pop up, sometimes with the implied question, "what about me?" Or, the calls of "Environmentalism" that ask the question, "what about all of us?"

Then there are the regrettably ever-enduring and insidious presumptions of "Racism" and "Sexism." They manage to keep finding followers among legislators, judges, employers, teachers, and parents, as well as some devotees of "Professionalism," or everyday individuals, all of whom keep blighting lives through the centuries. 

There's also "Cannibalism" or the arguably, analogically unrelated "Authoritarianism," or "Corporatism," or "Nationalism," or "Nazism," or "Tribalism," or "Populism" or "Cronyism" or "Denialism." Do we need to pay more attention to asking which of these branches in the -ism family are intertwined, or true, or phony? And, where are we with "Modernism," or "Postmodernism," or "Relativism"? To mix metaphors some, this is just the tip of the -ism iceberg. The complexity and scale of the -ism family appear substantial.

Of course, "Individualism" is a shining light surely, perhaps the 21st century's modern champion of -isms? It's easy to add to the catalog of the family members, and we need to exercise care about whether to include some in the family, such as "Opportunism," observed of course only in others. 

Then there are the frequent fellow travelers of "Cultism," "Fundamentalism," "Evangelism," and "Originalism." Which might additionally stimulate questions about what happened to "Realism?" So often not welcome in the -ism family.

Thanks to the creativity that language permits, we can be swamped with "Neologisms" seeking inclusion in the -ism family. This can be fine, even enjoyable, for anyone with interest in words.

Much trouble comes though when blind devotion to an -ism fuels the underpinning ideology that ignites emotions like greed and hate and fear. Deep-seated greed, hate, and fear drive nasty behavior. And, neither greed nor hate nor fear need look very far for family feuds to copy, like the generations of Hatfields and McCoys, or the Campbells and McDonalds, and who can forget the "joys" of the Montagues and Capulets? When blind devotion is a tinder box, "Extremism" makes common sense not so common.

With a history of misfortune and tragedy draped over so many -isms, it's reasonable to wonder what will ever slow the propagation and proliferated impact of the -ism family? Mostly, -isms don't comply with control, especially self-control. However much civil society attempts avoidance, containment, or elimination of -isms, these labels, libels, and lip-service to thinking will often just keep on keeping on. 

Look at the conveniently recurring use of "Socialism," blathered about in efforts to make outcasts of people from the left, the right, and the middle. Then there are "Nudism" and "Idealism," which sound suspiciously similar; best make outcasts of both, just in case. Of course, there's always difficult-to-deal-with "Hedonism," along with "Behaviorism," and digging deep into the barrel of despair there's the rag-bag with estranged relatives, "Sadism" and alter ego, "Masochism." 

And, no need to create "Joyism" or "Extaticism" just because a favorite word of humanity misses family membership by a letter. Yet anything like these could be welcome to crack the door on some real joy, or everyday peace, or safety at least, from those resurgent expressions of "Elitism," now in the form of the anti-vax, anti-mask devotees who dictate life in this COVID world, as threats to themselves and everyone else.

Fortunately, the great value of language and its relation to thinking is that the ability of each of us to create our own landscape for living is within each of us. Whether or not we'll ever have command of all the genealogical branches of the -ism family is unclear. Meantime, do you think it would help to think carefully before resorting to -ism talk?

Maybe too, we should listen to George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about such matters. It's more than time to heed his good advice to jeer loudly enough to send some of these lumps of verbal refuse into the dustbin where they belong.

9-11, Never Forget.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


1955 Austin A30
photo credit: Vauxford, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 4.0 International

Studying criminal law way back when, a required class assignment was to provide a full report on a court proceeding. Finding a case to audit was probably part of the test, since this required locating the right noticeboard in the old courthouse downtown, firstly to choose from the list of hearings for the day, then to navigate the musty corridors of the old courthouse building, to be in the right place at the right time. And, this also turned out to be an early and unexpected experience of humor-in-law, before television audiences enjoyed the now dated but legendary British comedy series, Rumpole of the Bailey

The case I happened to choose was the preliminary hearing of three accused men, caught after a bank robbery gone wrong. The getaway car was an Austin A30, well-known in British Commonwealth countries at the time as an old family sedan, commonly referred to as a "baby Austin," not noted for speed. 

The tip-off to the arresting police was the car's license plate on the rear of the car, observed to be dangling vertically, just held by one shoe-lace; with the second shoe-lace that had kept this license plate horizontal and in place no longer visible, having surrendered its duty somewhere in the hurly-burly of getting away from the bank.

Revealed to the police, firmly-affixed, horizontal, and easily read underneath was the original license plate of this stolen car. So, the police pulled the baby Austin to the side of the road on suspicion, and the jig was up when pistols and canvas bags of bank money were sighted. 

With these facts, like a scene from Gilbert and Sullivan or another farce, it only occasionally gets any better when studying law! Not sure how the presiding magistrate kept a straight face as the prosecutor outlined each piece of evidence.

Equally remarkable was the dialog that occurred during recesses in the morning's proceedings, when the magistrate was not present. The police prosecutor and the accused men evidenced almost back-slapping "friendliness," apparently well-known to each other, with other police in the courtroom smiling discretely, appreciating these exchanges. Unsurprisingly, the prosecutor was optimistic about bringing a case to finally secure the three accused for a time, at Her Majesty's pleasure. 

The defense lawyer was more braggadocious in retelling, to anyone who'd listen, tit-bits of conversations he'd had with his clients during their dinners at his home; he was a big talker, combining poor dress sense with a diamond ring on one hand, and with a slickness just a touch akin to the character of the lawyer, Vinny, in the movie My Cousin Vinny. Yet he lacked most of the smarts of the movie lawyer. 

After these proceedings, I didn't track the outcome of the trial or any appeals; time to follow that progress was required for other assignments and, in those days, would also have required continuous checking of the right noticeboard in the courthouse; but it didn't look too promising for the three accused men during this preliminary hearing, which resulted in a clear case to answer.

Updating to the present in the United States, some of the more than 500 cases in progress against the January 6 terrorists at the Capitol present facts strangely similar. The terrorists' plans were large, but disconnected, and flawed enough in execution to permit over 300 million Americans to dodge, for now, the intended result of some 9,000 terrorists, who injured about 140 police while attempting to violently overturn democratic government. Many behaviors of the terrorists were as bizarre and darkly comedic as those of the bank robbers.  

Of course, anyone facing armed attackers, whether bank robbers or terrorists, with life put at risk, sees no humor. Bizarre as these events look in the rear-view mirror, they're a stark reminder of the importance to anticipate, pursue, and prosecute criminals soonest and well. 

Dumb luck is a fickle ally.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Letters of Law

Humpty Dumpty
photo credit: Christopher Wood, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

A foundation for a fair application of the law requires the interpretation of law and facts. How judges and juries interpret words, in statutes, or case reports, or the description of facts, is central to the effective operation of the legal system.

Recent articles which I'm grateful a friend pointed out, in Science and in the Harvard and Yale law journals, look at the varying ways that judges, juries, the legal profession, and everyday people interpret the meaning of words. It's perhaps no surprise that unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, for whom a word meant whatever he chose for it, the law seeks more consistency.

What should rock the legal profession and concern everyone is how much juries apparently can differ from judges about the meaning of words. It might be no surprise that how judges and juries interpret words can differ greatly. In any particular case, much less between successive cases, the character of language permits varying interpretations of meaning.

This is so, even with the efforts to apply the law's special rules that seek clarity and consistency, including various uses of "canons of interpretation, relevant context, or the text's purpose." In one of the articles, Kevin Tobia from Georgetown Law noted that Justice Frankfurter had remarked: "Anything that is written may present a problem of meaning... The problem derives from the very nature of words." People in general, as well as students of language, intuitively understand this.

And, so do others in the legal profession, which doubtless helps to add fuel to ongoing debates about originalism or other legal niceties of interpretation. Just two of the more interesting implications stimulated beyond these articles include firstly, how juries interpret deceit and secondly, the challenge to prove intent.

On the first for example, as I understand it, when deceit to enable an agreement arguably does not go to the heart of the contract, as well as in some other circumstances, juries that apply "commonsense consent," rather than some legal norms, tend to side with the perpetrator rather than the victim. Roseanna Sommers, from University of Michigan Law, explains the concepts, some psychological experiments that seek to explain such interpretations, and what this means for the law itself. 

More broadly, the layperson's tolerance for deceit might also at least partly explain why voters will (re-)elect politicians charged with or convicted of criminal offenses; while such understanding is good to have, it's not any less disturbing, especially in the current context in the United States.

On the second challenge, as difficult as the tangled interpretations of consent continue to be, it could be helpful if the authors of these articles in the future paid more attention to intent; in particular, how the law's normative definitions for proof of intent cause trouble - especially in criminal law. 

It's possible that any "commonsense blindness" to deceit might also contribute to the difficulties of proving intent in court. And, likely such "commonsense" fuels the more general tolerance of the fraudulent behavior of some public figures, who are perpetually engaged in attempted corruption of the electoral system and justice through frivolous litigation. Likewise, the difficulty of proving intent probably contributes to the failure to prosecute the bad actions of public figures, which debilitates representative democracy.

Let's remember that juries supposedly consist of everyday persons drawn from the community, on the democratic principle that any person's case should be judged by one's peers - as a holdover and ongoing symbolic and substantive statement of true populism over the monarchy or other autocratic rule.

Valuable as these articles are to anyone with an inclination toward the brain-bending needed for legal semantics, their largest consequences will probably emerge through teasing out further commonsense meanings in the interconnection of legal interpretation with people's lives. 

The importance of the work of these scholars cannot be overstated. And, the concluding remarks of Sommers's longer 2020 article, at pp. 2306-7, are especially interesting perspective. Each author inherently puts in question some basic assumptions about the realities of how the law operates to benefit civil society.


Roseanna Sommers (2021), "Experimental Jurisprudence: Psychologists Probe Lay Understandings of Legal Constructs," Science, Vol 373:6553, 23 July, pp. 394-5

Roseanna Sommers (2020), "Commonsense Consent," Yale Law Journal, Vol 129:8, pp. 2232-2307

Kevin P. Tobia (2020), "Testing Ordinary Meaning," Harvard Law Review, Vol 134:726, pp. 727-806

Monday, August 9, 2021

Five Rings

Olympic Rings at the Top of Mount Takao
photo credit: Antonio Tajuelo, via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0 Generic

The Olympic torch is once more passed forward. 

Beyond conception as the world's must-see platform for competitive sports excellence, the Olympic Games reliably deliver much more. 

For the days of the competition and well beyond, the events put a spotlight on the best of human qualities, not only sports skill, strength, endurance, courage, and more, but popping up regularly too are occasions that showcase a human sense of fairness and grace, and care for strangers and friends drawn from so many parts of the world.

Little wonder then that we're ready to experience the modern Games, bringing together, as the rings symbolize, five of the world's inhabited continents, when considering North and South America as one - in a competitive spirit that actually expresses tremendous cooperation among peoples of these continents. 

Perhaps the enthusiasts who, regularly in southern-hemisphere summer, travel to the Antarctic to run a marathon will eventually find a way to help include this additional continent, with its too-little acknowledged 37 year-round scientific bases of non-permanent residents?

Against all impediments of difference, or dissent, or pandemic, a spirit of the ancient Olympics has passed forward for all of us, through generations of remarkable accomplishment by competitors, supporters, and organizers, well into our futures. 

With Paralympians and the winter Games still to come, we can look forward to further reminders of some of the very best in people.

Friday, July 30, 2021

To Strengthen Democracy

photo credit: artist, Caravaggio (1571-1610), Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, how hugely ironic it is that phony populists swim in a sea of self-adulation, obsessively interested only in themselves; narcissistic in their ignorance that George Orwell long ago illustrated how to tear down trash-talk to restore truth, and Jacques Ellul alerted us to both the dangers and limits of propaganda.

Like many of us today, Orwell and Ellul had their fill of wannabe leaders wanting to snatch up control of governments and freedoms. And, we hardly need reminding of the horrors that the phony leaders caused then.

During the upsurge in phony populism more recently, it's been healthy and useful to use the mute button on nonsense claims, or switch TV channels, or turn off the tech, or question presumptions in the too-often-repeated outrages.

It's understandable to wonder where is the mute button to counter propaganda more widely. We dampen nonsense on television this way, why not other trash-talk? And, why do mainstream and social media so like to magnify manufactured outrage?

When a fringe-mob violently tried to overthrow democratic government in the United States almost seven months ago, many of us were more than tired of the phony tirades and trash-talk. By then, manufactured outrages often dominated public communications.

Orwell and Ellul had warned about the use of media to engulf us in a swell of swill. Ellul noted that propagandists win by denying freedom of thought. And, with fashion, rumors, and propagators of weird social beliefs aided and abetted by some unprofessional news-folks and social media, of course we'll always be targets of propagandists.

To help swim the sea of propaganda, with its hidden currents and rips, and to encourage the critical thinking needed to do so, Ellul outlined what enables propaganda. He provided relatively few specifics on what we each might do to counter propaganda, as Randal Marlin pointed out in a recent blog-post here. Ellul sought to stimulate, not dictate our thinking. His thoroughly exploring principles and practices remains useful though, to help swim across the tidal rips of propaganda to reach a better destination.

One of Orwell's contributions was to help us scrutinize language, to look for the tells that identify the self-interested wannabe controllers of thinking. He also explained how to deal with their language, which was especially well-outlined in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" - first published in 1946, and still well worth the (re-)read. 

As daily life gets engulfed in a swell of swill on digital devices and other products of the technological age that we welcome into our lives, it becomes increasingly important to enlarge commitments to critical thinking. Educators have a role here, but the declines in teaching logic and the already crowded educational curricula mean that logic and other life skills like civility, or information literacy, or financial management, or the law will be formal educational experiences beyond the reach of many.

So it is up to each of us to build defenses and offensives to dismantle propaganda. Check out earlier postings on this blog for some "to do's" to counter propaganda, and/or look into Randal Marlin's excellent Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion [Here].

Plenty to be concerned about, with the continuously rising impact of technology on what we see, hear, and do, as well as the ongoing efforts of wannabe leaders pretending to be democratic, who aim to control people directly, or through legislative sleights of hand.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021


The Bookworm
photo credit: artist, Carl Spritzweg (1808-1885), Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Policy wonks long believed healthcare delivery to be governed by considerations of Access, Quality, and Cost - and, that it was possible to address any two, but not all three satisfactorily. Policy prophecy can be self-fulfilling, or worse, as we now know from endless hours dealing with health insurance companies, pharmacies, and the others fiddling in this space.

Hype among policy determiners often has self-fulfilling effects. The preoccupation of the news media with ratings and advertising sales has predetermined the constraints within which the most creative editors, journalists, and others are bound to work. Progressively, added to the mix are the effects of new tech. 

The editor-in-chief of the newspapers in my hometown, Harry Gordon, contrasted how print and broadcast news media might report on Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Gordon wrote the newspaper version of this story as "Moses came down from the mountain today with Ten Commandments. These are... [with the ten guides-to-life described]." He projected that the broadcast news would be "Moses has delivered Ten Commandments, two of which are..." 

How social media might relate this news is anyone's guess. But more interesting is the hype that tech fashion has self-perpetuated, as well as its long-term effects.

Over a decade ago, the CEO of an early online search firm shared his surprise with me that his teenage daughter showed no interest in participating in that rite-of-passage of earlier generations, of proving skills enough to obtain a driver's license. Her answer, living in a city, was to text a friend, if she wanted a ride to go somewhere; and soon afterwards, there was Uber!

Now, it's reported that, in a nation whose people seem otherwise sensible, the National Library of New Zealand is set to "de-accession" over 600,000 "Overseas" Books collections, including Shakespeare, Cervantes [that should stop future tilting at the windmills of wonks!], all the classics, and much more. Oh, and just about any other non-New Zealand literature you might (or might not) be encyclopedic enough to remember. Some policy wonking, eh?! Even the shortlist for the chop, identified in a World of the Written Word blogpost on July 9, is remarkable. [Here: two blogposts on this]

Interestingly, the Internet "Library" chosen as New Zealand's substitute knowledge repository, unlike a physical library, appears not to compensate authors still in copyright, or their publishers' production efforts - no mention of either buying or re-buying books, as other libraries do, much less per page lending and payment systems so common elsewhere. Naturally, an author association and publishers are mounting legal challenges to the presumptions underlying the approach, with proceedings still winding through the courts. 

Also not considered important apparently are the realities of digital storage decay, or who will really take care of the periodic re-"saving" that will be needed for such mountains of information in yet-to-be developed new digital formats. No indication that the so-called Internet pirates discussed in the more recent blogpost, who are to be the substitute caretakers of this knowledge resource of New Zealand, have any more concern about this or other consequent losses than the library policy wonks, who seem fine about glossing over the losses to the nation in deciding on their approach. 

Such wonks will likely remain enamored with the idyllic fantasy portrayed by sci-fi movie actors, who talk to computers to retrieve any information that the movie script, written by someone else, has told them how to request. 

At the risk of sounding even more like a dinosaur, the other, even-bigger effect that pops up regularly in the news is the ambiguous security of our infrastructure, national and personal, which we are all governed by. Amid these apparently uncontrolled forces, there are some things we can do. 

A key "to do" was crystallized in the years I worked alongside two very talented undergraduate computing students, to deliver computer-coding competitions, we called "hackathons." Within this tech-sect, social media was gospel for every purpose, except to get geeks to enroll in the (free) computer-coding competition. 

Which is where the title of today's blogpost comes from. ".0001%" was roughly the percentage return, calculated over the years, of the actual enrollment in our "hackathons" that resulted from social media, in a highly tech community--in other words, insignificant in this group. Of course, with different resources to drive the social media, including automated systems and expensive demographic data, and/or with very much larger population groups, and/or with physiological pre-testing of messages, and/or, etc., etc., others do better. 

Just have to look at the social media election exploitations in the United States and other countries, where the first or strongest in a territory/nation with relatively developed resources has done well, especially where the opponent gears up little or not at all with social media, in offense or defense. But the distance between results and hype in our modestly resourced "hackathon" marketing efforts always stunned us.

As you might have guessed, what worked to engage participants in our "hackathon" competition, and in all the other big computer-coding events we surveyed in Michigan, Boston, and elsewhere, was word-of-mouth/person-to-person. As my tech-student colleagues found, what worked was standing, day-after-day, in the university quad and food court, handing out flyers; inviting personally; and, yes, email still lives... with personalized email follow-up.

This also applies to dismantling propaganda, by restoring dialog. Or, nurturing critical thinking (socratic dialog doesn't seem to fly on social media). Or, inviting others to join a cause. Zoom calls in these times are helpful. 

It will be best for us all the soonest and more completely that the United States, or for that matter any nation or community, finds person-to-person ways to further enliven the community interactions that shape democratic strength.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Henry Ward Beecher cartoon as Gulliver, holding on his knee a small Plymouth Church and reaching out in friendly way to the "Lilliputian" crowd.
photo credit: Bernard Gillam (1856-1896), Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Engaging an audience takes talent. Whether comedian, TV anchor, journalist, or a speaker or writer for any purpose, how you start sets the stage for all that follows. Especially in the snappy world of social media, the choice of visuals as well as your first words matter. 

We know that with distractions just a click away, it's best to get attention to topic, theme, and you, quickly! From the earliest teachers of rhetoric onwards, we've known that audiences look for an introduction, a body, and a conclusion; and the best introduction attracts attention to both the topic and the speaker/writer, as well as directly developing the topic. We connect with anyone who does this well.

Clearly, what you choose to mention among facts, opinions, and ideas, along with the words you chose, how you shape sentences, and how you develop passages, all impact how an audience sees you, thinks of you, relates to you, and hears what you say. The talent of making these choices well grows from thinking to do, from thoughtful "listening," and from practice.

During the introduction, as in any first meeting, a listener or reader intuitively looks for common interests, along with signs of who you are in the words you choose; which signal your tone, role, stance, and personality. 

When teaching speech-writing, an exercise that I often used to help reveal how language choices project personal style and persona (adopted role) was to ask students to read brief speech excerpts, which didn't identify who the speakers were. The students then described what personality characteristics they detected from the language choices, wrapping up with the inevitable guesses about the identity of each speaker. 

In common with much teaching of rhetoric, we also listened to the recorded speeches of a wide variety of powerful speakers, to take note of specific language features that resonated. 

The speakers of course included Sir Winston Churchill, whose early experience in journalism showed through, with his initially setting a scene, then dramatically relating events to inspire commitment. Or, John F. Kennedy's memorable introduction in his inaugural address, urging observance of "not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom." And Martin Luther King Jr's deeply resonant voice, to commence his sharing of a dream, by marking the occasion of the day's march to Washington DC as "the greatest demonstration of freedom." Each alerted listeners to focus the moment.

Some speakers use questions to begin. Mahatma Gandhi asked what was non-cooperation and why was it important; and Jawaharlal Nehru asked what brought "friends and fellow Asians" together. Each, with straightforward engagement, developed tremendous following. Across a range of Australians, from Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, John Curtin, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Gough Whitlam, Germaine Greer, and a host of other community leaders and advocates of social change, a similar variety of approaches for introductory remarks is evident.

Even the less savory provided lessons. Such as the opening to Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address, where he acknowledged that "In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free;" indicating how far down the escalator it's all traveled since. Or, the rambling Adolf Hitler in 1938, complaining of "the foreign press [who] inundated the new Reich with a virtual flood of lies and calumnies," which hardly deserved repeating, yet some still like to hear their own echoes of that approach.   

On the flip-side, the nineteenth century's so-dubbed "most famous man in America," Henry Ward Beecher, so the story goes, one hot summer evening walked into his routinely over-crowded church, and the assembled congregation became aware of his uncharacteristically removing his coat and tie, and mopping his head with a large handkerchief. Once in the pulpit, with all eyes fixed in his direction, Beecher exclaimed "It's so goddamn hot in here tonight!" After a pause, he stated that this was what he'd heard someone say as he'd walked into the church; then he delivered a sermon on blasphemy. 

Today's audiences might not sit still for the length of sermons and other speeches so common in the nineteenth century. Yet Beecher's introduction stands the test of time, to illustrate how he made full use of the situation and his own movement, combined with careful timing and a very few words, to commence his remarks powerfully.

Choosing well the ideas, nonverbal opportunity, and words we use makes a real difference.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dynamic Tension for Pandemic Times*

Lieutenant (junior grade) Natasha McClinton, a surgical nurse prepares a patient in USNS Comfort's ICU, for healthcare support in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic
photo credit: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Written By Randal Marlin

One of the great features of Jacques Ellul's writings is his extraordinary ability to keep focused on what is important. It is important, for example, to take account of how readers are going to interpret your writings. It is important that they become engaged in an issue. Constant qualification can baffle the hearer.

Ellul's political and sociological writings tend to leave us with unsolved problems. In the case of propaganda, for example, he points to a need on the part of liberal government to engage in propaganda to offset seditious ideas from within the state or propaganda to offset other states seeking conquest over one's own state. But he recognizes that once a state begins to engage seriously in propaganda, it erodes its own claim to being liberal. In Propaganda, he leaves his readers with a stark understanding of the dilemma without resolving it.

I see a parallel with Albert Camus who dealt with the problem of free will and determinism by ranking different certainties. He was certain that he was free. And he was certain that the world of science presented us with a deterministic universe. What was important, then, was to be faithful to what reason presented him and not to deny one or other of these two certainties. He was not going to deny one of his certainties merely because there was an apparent contradiction.

As I understand Ellul, he preferred to hold fast to the clash of ideas, leaving the reader to solve a dilemma, rather than presenting a solution that would save the reader the trouble of thinking on her own. That did not mean he did not have a solution. For example, in conversation he approved of what might have been done (but wasn't done) to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s. Left wing publications folded after the victory of Franco in Spain, but keeping them alive through subsidies would likely have fostered more anti-Hitler sentiment.

In a bizarre way, I am brought back to advertisements of my childhood, where a bully insults and humiliates a "97-pound weakling" in the presence of his girl. The weakling puts on muscle through Charles Atlas's strength-building "dynamic tension" and later returns to deck the bully, winning his girl's admiration.

The phrase "dynamic tension," applied intellectually instead of physically, seems to fit both Camus and Ellul.

The growth of technology and the state is a threat to humanistic values. In defending the latter, Ellul may appear to be a technophobe, but that is because he saw the former as being held too much in awe and in need of more balance regarding the latter.

We see that tension very strongly with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The state has indeed a duty to reduce the spread of this deadly virus, but how far should this power extend? Should the state have the power to compel universal vaccination?

Ellul advises us to be aware of the costs involved with the unchecked growth of technique and state power. Have we reckoned adequately with those costs? One of the most heart-rending costs is that of restrictions preventing close relatives being with their mother, father, spouse, sibling, grandparent, child, long-time friend, etc. when the latter are on their deathbed.

There is also the general problem of lack of social contact. For many, this is not a problem, especially if we have spacious living conditions, contact with nature and someone we live with. But for others, regulations governing whom one may be in contact with can bring extreme hardship, and possibly suicide.

Church gatherings are forbidden where they threaten the spreading of the disease. But didn't Jesus say that he who saves his life will lose it? Yes, but he also commanded us to love one another and that means respecting the lives of others.

Just as with the propaganda dilemma described above, there are dangers with being too lax or too rigorous in countering the pandemic. What is wrong is supporting proposed measures without due consideration to fundamental rights and duties that are at stake. Some measures, in that light, may need mitigation while others need strengthening.

[*first published 10 May 2021 by the International Jacques Ellul Society; IJES Ellul Society grants permission to Word to the wise to reprint the blog posting "Dynamic Tension in Pandemic Times" by Randal Marlin: A.B. Princeton, M.A. McGill, Ph.D. Toronto, all in philosophy; philosophy professor, Carleton U. Ottawa, 1966-2001; sabbatical year in Bordeaux, 1979-80, with Jacques Ellul; and author, Propaganda and the Ethics of PersuasionBroadview Press, 2nd ed. 2014.]

Monday, May 31, 2021

Why read? Why Write?

Two boys in Laos laugh over the book "What Can You Do with an Extra Dinosaur?", which one of them received as his first book.
photo credit: Blue Plover/Big Brother Mouse, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Answers to "why write?" are probably as many as why we read. Whether from the spontaneous response "...because I have to" or answers more thoughtfully explored with authors, such as in the Paris Review Interviews, maybe not everyone will agree reading and writing are acts of thinking. 

For example as LitHub noted just yesterday, Ray Bradbury had a sign over his typewriter which read "Don't think!" on the principle, he said, that " must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway." Perhaps the sign helped Mr Bradbury follow his own imperative; yet he seemed to feel his writing did also involve thinking and he was just urging against doing this consciously, avoiding a writer's sin of over-thinking.

And, of course, writing from the heart to the heart, even to move the mind, most would acknowledge as good advice. Whether we believe language is driven by thought or thought is driven by language, and whatever the debunkers of "book-learning" might claim, it's a no-brainer that the love of words is clearly important.

Yet, whether as reader or writer, consciously and/or unconsciously, I believe that we think. Yes, even when we're lost in the escapist fun of worlds that words create. Had Darwin attended to readers and writers as groups to classify, maybe he'd have seen this as a common basis for bundling "readers-writers" together as one group, or at least close to each other. Certainly, any writer is also a reader. 

As children growing up, we might not get the significance of parents who encourage reading: the parent who reads a story or more every day or every night to a young child; the related behavior of giving books to one another in the family; and a parent's habit of just reading the news every morning, while not burning the breakfast toast. All are activities that influence how growing children come to think about a life that includes reading and writing. 

I've yet to hear any decent case to deny on the weekend a child's habit of weekday reading at home after school; even if it means in the late weekend-afternoon disappearing from playmates or a family gathering for a while. The worlds of words explored, for many children, we know will shape occupational success. Importantly too, we see this habit enjoyed and it can help kids in lots of ways, setting a foundation that's passed forward.

When teaching writing with my former colleague Roslyn Petelin years ago, we were always surprised and more than a little dismayed that so many of our very bright first-year university students were starting a communication degree program, but could not write very well. Soon enough we redesigned the first-week's writing class to provide just a few introductory remarks, followed by a grammar test that also specifically sought thoughts about writing.

Year after year, what the students' test responses told us, both by their poor knowledge of grammar and by their shared thoughts about writing, was that while most wanted to write well their school experience had not adequately prepared them. Students had serious gaps in basic knowledge of conventional language use. Even knowledge of spelling, punctuation, or grammar was lacking.

In their earlier schooling, high-flowered "creativity" or plagiarism seemed then to be most often rewarded. Of course, as Roslyn and I acknowledged when sharing these issues at a National Reading Association conference, some students forget or didn't pay attention when language lessons appeared in their schooling, but the scale of students' ignorance and antagonism about writing was massive. This was especially so from the 1960s through the 1990s, in many countries. Importantly, the responses to the diagnostic test we administered also detailed the individual needs to address.

Using principles for teaching reader-based prose, we set clear steps for students to be able to communicate genuinely with people, as steps to write interactively. We focused ways to identify the key issues that concerned readers and applied a problem-solving approach to teach writing, which Linda Flower and others had developed.

In that other time in another country, what was not so evident was one of the greatest values of reading and writing. Today, the free inquiry that fuels reading and writing becomes even more pertinent as a re-run of McCarthyist-like outrage seeks to dominate the media and our lives in the United States. And, in any other countries where look-alike populist propagandists also twist words and thinking, seeking to undermine democracy.

While acknowledging the critical need for civics education and action, at least equally important is the very developed ability to think clearly, which comes from reading and writing. As Isocrates noted, "We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind, which it requires; and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul."

Unless deeply into incantations or some propagandist's stimuli, we can feel secure that reading, writing, and simple dialogue will nurture free thought, which is how propaganda dies.

Sunday, May 2, 2021


Penguin in Antarctica jumping out of the water
photo credit: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0 Generic

The popular singer Sting has it. Along with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and so many more musical talents in the ten-year retrospective recently celebrating International Jazz Day - they all had it. Then, in very different ways in their glory days, so did Bob Dylan and Shirley Bassey and Mozart and Beethoven, and Jack Benny and David Letterman, oh, and what about Charlie Chaplin and so many more?

In the movie business, so concerned to promote style, even Charlton Heston and John Wayne had it, yet so did Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Charlie Brown. Of a completely different character, so did Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Long ago, in the full-blown age of Hollywood invention was the "It-girl," Clara Bow, who became a role model, says the Smithsonian, for women who were free of the domestic sphere.

Also for earlier generations, Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire had style, yet so did Groucho Marx, together with other famous and everyday folks. All with some distinction from each other, and sometimes with commonalities, to make the composite we call style.

Some people so want style, perhaps thinking their world will be so much better... that maybe fame or treasure will follow, if they attain IT. Yet Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman clearly have a different depth and purpose in their styles, as does Glenda Jackson. Then, there are various worlds of style in the arts, literature, and public life.

For many, style is bound within a job or role, like speechwriters who daily seek style in words, and even in her days of grief, Queen Elizabeth has it. Is style actually the person? 

Related hard-to-answer questions persist - Is style distinct from content? Or, are these convenient descriptors one? Are there good and bad styles? Does the tabloid press have style, or a style? Do the cringeworthy who creep into public life have style? Their followers think so.

What's clear is that style means many different things to different people.

One approach to looking at style says, whether in language or life, it's about choices. In this view, what we choose in facts, opinions, ideas, or actions, along with the words, sentence shape, and passage development we use is what delivers style. 

Fact is we do say a lot to others in the words we choose and what we do, beyond the "message" supposedly denoted in words or actions. Always best to remember that communication happens in the mind of the listener, reader, or observer when interpreting what we express.  

To look at how our language projects style, a whole area of study called "stylistics" has spawned over many decades an eclectic range of approaches to find or assess style, in literature, speeches, the media, professional interactions, daily conversation, comedy, and so on.

In some quite intriguing looks at language, these describers of language style tell much about what words do to suggest conversational or formal tone, personality, family origins, occupation or profession, disposition toward an audience, and a host of other "tells."

Some discourse analysts even say they can distill systems of belief, a.k.a. ideology, in language style. Can't help wondering how much their own ideological lens determines what they find?

Among the many explanations and explorations of this field of stylistics, one that nicely overviews approaches to literary style is on Aunty Muriel's blog, "What is stylistics?"[Here]. Another overview, pertinent to how we use language to persuade is the detailed text, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion by Jeanne Fahnestock; also, of course, always worth another look is to catch up on the latest from the eminent British linguist, David Crystal, via his ever-growing website.

Perhaps style is the person... certainly seems so for the many resilient explorers and explainers of language.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Who knew?!

Migrants disembarking from ship, ca. 1885 
photo credit: State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain 

If you're interested in how ancestors influence later generations, do take a Look Inside my new book Finding a Future [Here], now on Amazon. 

It's a personal story of family history and reminiscence, recording some first steps to see what I could discover about the ways nurture, nature, and necessity influence who we become and the life we lead, using genealogy and recall. As a glimpse of one family's history, by analogy the story might resonate with life experiences in any number of families.

From the trails of genealogy and memory for all branches of the family, I've sketched: details of ancestors in the 1800s and earlier in the poorest areas of northern Europe; journeys and new settlement of voyage takers in the family; as well as the efforts of grandparents, parents, and other family in new lands; and what it was like growing up in subtropical Australia in the 1950s through the early 1970s, to find a future.

More than a decade ago, in a phone call with my Dad who was across the Pacific in Australia then, out of the blue, he asked how much I knew about my grandfather's time in the United States. He shared detail of what were also some of his own early years - in school in California! 

The scribbled notes from what became quite a long phone call helped in understanding his father's critical decision to travel from New Zealand to Spokane, Washington in 1919, while the toll from the Spanish Flu was still being felt.

As noted in my first blog-post last May, it was almost a year after my grandfather's voyage that Nana and Dad (aged four years) joined him in North America; after "Pop," as Dad and the grandkids called him, had become the west coast manager for a major milking machinery company, based in San Francisco. And, after an initial too-rapid reopening of San Francisco in the later stages of the pandemic, which had led to the Flu's resurgence.

During the current pandemic, I used the notes from the phone call to start tracing many milestone details in ancestors' lives. 

Beyond curiosity about who they were and the everyday conditions for living in these earlier times, I wanted to see whether some hints of values, norms, and habits were evident across generations, amid the largely unspoken past of family history. 

The book was sure fun to write. Please let me know your thoughts.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

When Fools Rule

Make Way for Ducklings Prank, Boston Common
Sign warns: No photography, to avoid erosion of sculptures from the light emitted by cameraphones.
photo credit: Whoisjohngalt, English Wikipedia CCA-BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Once the glory day for pranksters, April Fool's Day seems to be less dutifully observed these days.

Sometimes the pranks are good-humored, harmless, and funny. Unfortunately, some cause an injury to feelings at least. Perhaps any decline in this second type might be welcomed as a change to human nature. Are we now any less inclined to find humor in the distress of others? Let's hope any injury is modest enough to easily forgive and soon forget.

Some April Fool's pranks live longer than others though. One radio broadcaster when I was growing up, appropriately and affectionately known to his listeners as "Bird Brain Bert Robertson," caught the wrath of city officials. One April 1st, he told his listeners that the City would soon turn off the water supply to all suburbs. 

He so convincingly urged his large group of loyal listeners to get prepared for their day's domestic water needs by filling buckets, pots, sinks, and bathtubs, that the City's Water Commissioner asked Bird Brain to stop at once; the level of water in the Dam supplying the City was dramatically falling.

When Bird Brain informed listeners of their April foolishness, they delighted in his offbeat success and quickly forgave him. Regardless of the wasted water, for which he'd not be so readily forgiven today, the effect then was that Bird Brain's popularity rose further.

These days, a NOT-forgivable prank too often played out any day of the year is by some "bird brain" politician who dreams up outrage to get a headline. 

As my grandmother would have said, tarred with the same brush, and even less forgivable is the media sub-editor who publishes the outrage [even if critical of it - please see earlier blog posts on the uselessness of "not" and so-called fact-checking]. And, LESS forgivable because the media sub-editor sets an expectation in journalists that "we the people" are willing to still be the victims of the sickness in those outrage pranks of a politician.

Little wonder that the residual effect of such foolishness in public communication is an appetite among some media gatekeepers for more foolish fiction. I guess this was what caused journalists to turn up recently to their first press conference with a new President to put questions with in-built potential to manufacture outrage.

These journalists' questions sounded eerily like they were distilled from partisan talking points; which themselves result from questions that media-manipulators put to members of focus groups to stimulate pre-determined foolishness. 

Anyone who doesn't see this as truly bizarre, even without the other bizarre truth that political parties, media, and other companies actually pay money to support this whole set-up, needs at least another cup of coffee.

Also, little wonder then, that this charade of ever-increasing competition for media listeners is causing so many of us to find and enjoy other pursuits. 

It's remarkable that such a tragi-comedy continues - a relic of a bye-gone era that was itself manufactured by media rating agencies. 

Someone should point out that the world has changed.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Civil Civics

Old Glory
photo credit: US Air Force, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Just when the need is great, this month more than 300 educators from across the United States delivered a report and roadmap targeted to enhance Educating for American Democracy, for K-12 education in history and civics. 

This remarkable effort, involving wide-ranging consultations for over a year, resulted from the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the US Department of Education to address the serious need in this country for better understandings of civics. This is an ambitious roadmap, providing national guidelines that invite responses for state, local, tribal, county, and district-level solutions to how the roadmap gets implemented.

A key educational goal is to enable future generations to be effective citizens and decision-makers, by seeing their part in shaping the future. 

During a national forum to launch the roadmap, Harvard Professor Jane Kamensky spoke to the purpose of equipping students "to ask hard questions, and learn to answer them effectively from evidence, and by deliberating about that evidence even with people who disagree with you, maybe especially with people who disagree with you." 

The roadmap outlines a carefully considered approach to improve understandings and involvement in civic decision-making. It incorporates historical content and the stories of the nation's institutions and democratic concepts, as well as considering "people with contemporary debates and possibilities."

This effort to strengthen the foundation in the United States for citizen participation in civic decision-making will be ongoing. It provides a welcome step to address the well-documented need to improve history and civics education, to help sustain democracy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Next Thing?

 "I wandered lonely as a cloud"
photo credit: texas_mustang, Wikimedia CCA-2.0 Generic

Who knows, with Spring trying to make it in the northern hemisphere, and, for many months, nations that had leaders and populations enough with common sense mostly COVID-clear, and opinion pollsters unable to excite us with poll results, and vaccinations seriously underway in many locations, perhaps we can feel okay reading Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark or whomever you prefer, unconcerned for now about any next black swan upsetting the millpond?

Maybe reflection, reminiscence, even nostalgia are permitted now? Just for a while, can we anticipate the tulips and daffodils, then savor the tastes and scents known only to the anxiety-free? Let the cat be the one leaping at shadows on the window. 

Be relaxed, that book from 2001, The New New Thing is no longer on the best-seller list. Rest-[what a great word]-assured, we will be able to get through moments of zen or other peace, and never miss that other dopamine, unexcited by the not-latest breaking news.

Weren't secret gardens dreamt up for this time? Why let politicians and other marketers of statistics make worry? Feel confident, someone will keep pots of potentiality stirred in your absence. 

Will you really lose your edge by taking a Spring or Summer break (dare we think?) away from the crowd? ... especially with skills gained from a year's lockdown! Why let claptrap now rule your life when some lonely beach or wilderness holds such promise, and might soon be enjoyed. 

Let's hear it for this kind of ennui!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

What to Do

Jacques Ellul 
photo credit: Jan van Boeckel, ReRun Productions, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-4.0 International

A Gary Larson cartoon that a friend recently shared illustrates, by analogy, some of the dilemma the United States faces tackling domestic terrorism.

In the cartoon, four pampered pooches are grouped together in a green field. They are looking toward the edge of trees or woods on the left, and behind them is a pull-cart, with one dog in harness to the cart. The cart is stacked with large books labeled Domestication. The pooches are well-groomed and relaxed, with the lead dog reading aloud from a large open book, also labeled Domestication. This optimistic pooch directs the reading from the book toward the woods, where a pack of wolves glare back at the dogs, fixed in their gaze, and poised for attack, clearly anticipating lunch.

Putting aside the visual exaggeration the cartoonist used to create the comic, the recognizable dilemma remains that "we the people" (also known as "lunch") don't seem to be equipped with even a basic playbook to handle the culture of domestic terrorism. 

And, wouldn't it be a good thought to have some ways to address this reality? Especially since, of the many human phenomena, culture is among the slowest to change - regardless of what the latest promises for culture change in organizations promise. 

Almost two decades ago, after 9/11, and following a dozen bomb alerts in just one day, I recall my wife's wisdom saying sadly that this would change the country forever. So, to handle foreign terrorism domestically, we have built practices to lessen risk. 

But, it was two years ago that a neighbor wanted to help fight the coup. This then-odd comment was stimulated by a domestic wannabe-leader's using such words repeatedly in mailings to the neighbor and so many others. I knew then we were at the beginning of a very different reality. 

Domestic terrorists have used age-old emotional appeals, such as fear of "others" or an array of desires... for recognition, for virility, for accomplishment or for belonging, to strengthen connection with adherents and to acquire new followers for the propagandist's worldview.

Unfortunately, as a society, we are well primed to tolerate and respond to propaganda processes, thanks to generations of political and commercial propagandists working us over. For example, perhaps we think of rumor and fashion as two very different realities that we live with. Yet they are very similar in how potently and quickly each spreads and stimulates automatic responses. As Jacques Ellul pointed out, rumor and fashion are forms of propaganda; it's just that in the interests of commerce, we've given fashion a more friendly name.

Fads of fashion are spread by ad populum appeals, advancing a herd-mentality, especially when supported by advertising campaigns. Just one odd example was the now, little-seen yo-yo. This toy, for anyone not familiar with it, consists of small discs joined by an axle spinning at the end of a piece of string, and was featured as far back as 440 BC on a Greek vase. The toy's popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries. From the 1960s, the yo-yo saw a comeback campaign, with a series of television advertisements. It was also used to help sell otherwise unrelated products, as yo-yo dexterous performers toured the world's schools and fairgrounds; and, by the way, promoted products. 

These folks displayed skill we wanted to emulate, by delivering amazing tricks with these spinning disks at the end of a piece of string, from the basic "walk-the-dog," which every self-respecting school-kid might master, to "around-the-world," "rock-the-cradle," and other more elaborate tricks that only the truly competent could tackle after much practice. 

All this seemed fairly harmless. It was certainly less immediately dangerous than the physical harm dealt out in some enduringly fashionable contact sports. Yes, fashion is quite the driver of a range of behaviors, including the banal, like hula-hoops, emoji, and the assigning of "likes."

The problem that occurs for "we the people" is when the propagandist, whether commercial or cult-promoting, can find, from among all the possible responses that we might make, a relational response that connects us to the propagandist's objective. In other words, we, the propagandized give ourselves over to automatic response to what's said by the propagandist about what's going on around us.

Or, putting this into pulp-talk, when anyone enters that zombie-zone, even someone silently scorning the propagandist or related conspiracy theorists or partisan politicians and pundits, that person becomes a participant in the propagandist's play. A more engaged level in the zombie-zone is when you spend energy on criticizing the propagandist. This usually requires repeating and therefore promoting the propagandist's name and some foolishness or dogma, while making the criticism. Maybe more importantly, it also means you're wasting your time in the propagandist's alternative reality, taking you away from real reality.

In his comprehensive and nuanced book Propaganda, Jacques Elull concluded by illustrating where propaganda could fail. He implied ways to mount counter-attacks, to diminish the impact of propaganda, as I've outlined in earlier blog posts. The strategies he described are potent, as are the recommendations more recently in the work of Randal Marlin, so well-grounded in the wisdom of both Ellul and George Orwell. All these writers have serious value in these times. Each helps to build further principles and techniques for the practical dismantling of propaganda.

It's good that many school curricula have increasingly included ways to identify and counter propaganda techniques. Many incorporate simple approaches for dismissing the inane emotional fallacies of much advertising; but more and broader efforts are needed. 

For example, further strengthening is needed more widely of efforts to teach writing through a problem-solving approach, to advance writing as thinking. For some insights on this, do take a look at former colleague, Roslyn Petelin's interview of Professor David Crystal in 2014 (on YouTube). Crystal raised concern about the absence of grammar from most writing classrooms from the 1960s up until the 1990s, which, as Petelin pointed out, Professor John Frow called "a calamity." Hard to figure how one's supposed to write thoughtfully without a workable knowledge of grammar. Whatever fashion drove this impulse might periodically still need dismantling.

In relation to the domestic terrorists in the United States, it's a reasonable start to keep calling terrorists what they are and to keep calling out lies or "the big lie," while prosecuting illegal behaviors. We do also need to get beyond these first stages and address the systemic challenges though.

What will we do to - 

* Enhance feelings of belonging in civil society among the propagandist's targets?

* Defuse the impact of rumor that occurs through social media and otherwise, which gains power, as Ellul noted, "the farther away the source and the greater the number of individuals who have passed it on, [so that]... the more the objective fact loses importance and the more the rumor is believed by the multitudes who adhere to it"?

* Nurture a variety of viewpoints through stepped-up "conversation and dialogue" as Ellul urged - to sharpen doubts about formulaic comments, and lessen the likelihood of responding to a propagandist?

* Intercept spontaneous responses to a propagandist, before these become learned responses connected to the propagandist's objective?

Brainwashing seeks to weaken independent thought and absorb the individual into the mass. Ellul pointed out that propaganda more broadly also aims to eliminate individualizing factors. He warned that: "At the moment when the attitudes learned by propaganda begin to prevail over... [what is] ... second nature, they become collective, and the propagandist who has taught them can then calculate more easily what a given stimulus will elicit from them."

Our better future will be found through the vigor of our strengthening individual thought.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What We Say

Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady
photo credit: movie studio publicity, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Way back when, Australian schoolchildren would challenge each other to spell what we understood was the scientific name for that unusual mammal, the Platypus. 

By school-age, Aussie kids had sidestepped hazards beyond the schoolyard, surviving some of the world's most deadly jellyfish, sharks, snakes, spiders, and more. So, the smart kids would reply to the daunting challenge of "Ornithorhynchus is a hard word, spell it," by simply answering "I...T," choosing to focus on the literal meaning of the sentence.

For anyone with an interest in words though, what words suggest, rather than what they denote, might hold special interest. 

Pioneering professors of phonetics showed how we say more than what we literally mean in our choice of words. It was the character, Professor Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion and Higgins' subsequent appearance in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version, My Fair Lady, that  popularized some wide awareness of how language choice and pronunciation marked class stratification. The character of Higgins was based in part on the pioneering, prolific but cantankerous British professor of phonetics, Henry Sweet. 

Beyond this, the words we choose tell much about us, as later linguists and psychologists have shown. They know more than we do ourselves about the meanings we share, through the words we choose and how we speak.

For example, in the early twentieth century, European researchers speculated that a high ratio of nouns (and their related adjectives, articles etc.) to verbs (and their related adverbs etc.) might be a flag for people having some psychological challenges. Linguistic researchers have long noted that someone using many verbs versus nouns projected a more in-touch, vigorous personality. 

Ongoing research has refined clues about noun/verb ratios and other language features, to help diagnose and treat some serious psychological conditions. In more recent decades, the computerized counting of word types, along with content analyses, have helped to extend the understanding of some effects from a variety of the accumulated language features.

We can all recognize the sleep-inducing effect of bureaucratic messages, with complex sentences and too much passive voice or past tense verbs. And, breaking an old grammatical "rule," what about the very great value of using the little word "and" to begin a sentence, or just more frequently - and connect thoughts, as we do in conversation. Jonathan Swift and some other powerful writers used "and" a lot, which helped to keep us interested in what they had to say, by making them seem more conversational. So, the revelations abound, when you realize what to look for. 

Even a small variation from an expected style might have big effects. It was the researcher Mr E.H. Flint, in the early 1970s, who pointed out to our class that sentence fragments (a.k.a. non-principal sentences, to the traditional grammarian) uniquely occurred in the spoken language and not the samples of written Australian English that he was reviewing at the time. 

The big deal he pointed out to us was how dramatically even a single sentence fragment in writing helped to create an informal, conversational effect. That President Biden used 38 sentence fragments in his Inaugural Address, as I noted in the previous blog post, had a really big effect.

I wonder what Mr Flint would have thought of the eminent British linguist, David Crystal's publishing a book with the title Txting: The gr8 db8, as long ago as 2008; much less the ongoing shifts in what we now consider formal or colloquial or intimate language.

Beyond the strengths found in how language choices influence what we think about the tone and style of a speaker or writer, there are even more enjoyments in these Elysian Fields - for example, looking at how word choice, sentence form, and passage construction "Xtra-verbally" influence the potency of emotional appeals, or the effectiveness of an argument, or other communication effects. 

A field far from the Elysian Fields also contains the bad folks who continuously deny, distract, or delay, by putting the small word "not" in front, to say they are not advocating something or other, when they really are. As I've noted before, in relation to so-called "fact-checking," like most car drivers who genuinely don't see cyclists, we don't see the NOT and focus again on the lie; and when we repeat a statement from these folks, with "not" upfront, we're really helping to state what they said/the lie, again and again and again.

Then, to come right up to date, there's a whole other field of positive-sounding words like "Remember this day forever;" which, given the context, is quite the hyperbolic signal to strengthen commitment to nasty actions that I believe even school-kids might know are NOT democratic.

Once we more consciously look at the meanings of words well beyond the "thing" or concept that a word represents, it's kind of like wearing X-ray glasses from science fiction - you might want to keep your vision adjusted and never want to take your new X-ray glasses off.

Friday, January 22, 2021

What the Inaugural Address Means

"We Hold These Truths" - Jefferson Memorial 
photo credit: Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia CCA-BY-3.o Unported

The recent inaugural address of the new president of the United States was distinct in both content and style.

Most important was the outline of policies to reassert truth, law, and justice as national values. Importantly too, the language of the inaugural address signaled a novel integration of analytical and intuitive styles.

I was interested to hear this different language mix from President Biden, having just compared the language of the previous president with ten notable speakers from the 1890s to 1980. Compared with these speakers, the outgoing president had the most intuitive communication style. 

In contrast, President Biden blended a mix of content and function words that reinstated an analytical communication style in the presidency, while also incorporating some language features that suggested an intuitive approach. 

The speech was structured to logically address problems facing the nation and to offer solutions. Language features included a substantial number of complete sentences, low occurrences of non-referential adverbs, prepositions, and impersonal pronouns, as well as a strong presence of such common rhetorical devices as anaphora and other parallelism, antitheses, and other features that reinforced a conceptual, analytical communication style. It also derives some punch from a frequency of verbs and verbals, especially action verbs, infinitives, and participles. 

The speech was delivered in a largely conversational tone. This combined with accumulations of many very short sentences, 38 sentence fragments, quite a few occurrences of "we/our" and imperatives, some questions, use of "and" to begin sentences and phrases, interpolations, and relatively few conjunctions, all helping to suggest an intuitive approach. 

Why this matters is that, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences not long ago had noted a decline of the analytical communication style in American presidents and other English-speaking political leaders since about 1980. Apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers."

Since the later twentieth century, mostly gone from popular taste are the long, grand rhetorical flourishes, replaced first by the conversational language and tones required on radio and television, then more recently by a snappy resonance demanded in social media. 

After the perversions of brief and snappy into untruthful, illegal, and unjust, to deliver whatever is most outrageous, perhaps we are to see whether outrageous language might more often get shunted aside by a quieter rhetoric in an analytical communication style; which is buttressed with an intuitive approach.

Perhaps it's not a total pipe dream to hope that the mix of content words in the inaugural address that actually refers to people, tangible things, and real concepts might open the way for further, similar public communications that reference reality. 

Can we even hope these continue to get some media attention, instead of the covey of "audience-tested" outrage words delivered into talking points and media releases that have become so common for too long?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Beyond Reason

photo credit: Arwen Abendstern, Fickr by Wikimedia CCA-BY-2.o Generic

As the inexorable grind of the United States legal processes progress in the coming months and years, accountability for words will come into even sharper focus.

Scrutiny of the gossip-sphere of social media might finally see some requirements for reasonable behavior beyond the user agreements of social media companies that this week proved to be valuable.

Capitol rioters are about to discover in court how sophisticated the tools of law enforcement have become during recent decades to detect bad behavior online, before and after a riot. 

Skilled analyses of the public and dark webs, assembling evidence of involvement and intent, are just some of the tools that are now routine in much law enforcement. Two decades of efforts to anticipate the intent of terrorists, by analyzing behavior and language, have delivered many advances in detecting intent.

The tools of language analysis to attribute authorship from relatively small samples of text are also much more refined. Stylometry techniques commenced almost 100 years ago have developed further from 50 years ago in Sweden and Britain to arbitrate the authorship of plays by Shakespeare, Fletcher, Marlowe and Middleton. Almost 40 years ago, I used stylistic analysis of language to advise the Director of Public Prosecutions on the likely authorship of an accused murderer's disputed police record of interview.

Public language such as the positive-sounding codewords used to incite mobs are appropriate for legal attention too. We all know what "Fight like hell" means in the context of a mob and riot; accumulated positive-sounding codewords extolling the coming utopia are not any more neutral in context and are easy to track because of their repetition.

Of course, so many criminals seem driven by belief in their own superiority that the "knock at their door" by law enforcement in coming days, weeks, months or even years will likely still be a surprise.