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.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

From Now On

Sydney Fireworks, New Year 
photo credit: Rob Chandler, Fickr by Wikimedia CCA-BY-2.o Generic

"The propagandist's first requirement is to be heard," said Jacques Ellul in 1965. 

Regardless of whether or not you've heard of Ellul, this observation ought to be self-evident to anyone who thinks for more than a moment about the matter.

Why then do so many media megaphones irresistibly remain servants of someone they also regularly describe as an outrageous liar? Why magnify manufactured outrage?

When facing any other serious threat, it would be a no-brainer to first remove the threat. And, to be fair, some media are making headway in countering propaganda, mainly by bringing us other wanted news. 

By searching out lucid opponents whom any propagandist has, perhaps more yet will elaborate better and new visions for the future, without mention of the propagandist or his outrageous fantasies. 

A wonderful quality of propaganda is how quickly it decays, when denied opportunity for a "refresh."

So much "news" is still slave to the gossip formulae, named by media analysts for years, of reacting to Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence. This is sad commentary on the lack of imagination of some media and media educators when thinking of their audiences.

After too many years of countless variants of this kind of verbal and nonverbal abuse, for sure, our household will not be alone in continuing to search out the better media options.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Trouble with Theory

Supreme Court, Washington DC
photo credit: United States Government, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

At the outset, just for the record, I'm committed to theory and putting theory to work. Yet, whether "relentless public scrutiny" is just a fallacy of political theorists is about to be clarified in the United States.

We're soon to see what happens to democracy too. Coming days, weeks and maybe years will produce an uncountable number of words about this. Whatever happens, divergent ideas of popular democracy, liberal democracy, and representative democracy will likely get thrown around with abandon.

Although what we mean by democracy is a legitimate concern, perhaps the more immediate question should be who will do something useful about two especially serious failures of theory? 

Firstly, what will you do to push back on the too-frequent failure of the so-called "guardrails" of public accountability? 

Perhaps someone can tell me where the prosecution of public corruption in the United States has recently worked effectively? Most often this appears no longer expected in this oh-so-sensitive-to-popular-sentiment political climate. 

Are voters supposed to believe that the multiple statute books federally, for example, really lack "teeth" or require such difficult proof that prosecution really is worthless? 

Proof of value should be performance in use, not leaving needed laws sitting in the statute books. Goodness knows there's been plenty of malfeasance and corruption to warrant prosecutions in recent times.

Political theorists continue to write about their interviews with leading political and government pragmatists. Then, they republish as largely unqualified "wisdom" what they're told about artifacts called "guardrails," which appear to be so valued that they can't be tainted by use. 

Meantime, the numbers of whistleblowers and others leaving public service with careers and personal safety in tatters for speaking out just continue to soar. 

If a law is not useful enough to be used, the time on theorizing could be better spent dreaming up some provisions that even flawed public figures would have to use - or else, spend some time dreaming up how such failing "representatives" of the public might be removed quickly but fairly by the population if they don't. Apparently, that's a problem worthy of a legal-political science equivalent of Einstein.

Secondly, what will you do to find and urge the elected politicians who do care to do something better, to help:
1. educate everyone about detecting and calling out propaganda;
2. codify remedies to the multiple deficiencies of norms and regulations to protect the rule of law; and
3. educate everyone about putting civics to use?

I'm sure you could add much to this list, as I could, but these are gargantuan enough for a start.

Here we all are now, stuck in the effects of blatant failures in accountability, and "we, the people" remain caught in the consequences of bad actors. 

While such matters are still richly fermenting, before much further deluge of theoretical posturing, it's time to demand action.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Beyond Heavens

Orion Belt
photo credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Growing up with astronomy as an interest was some preparation for dealing with current fantasies in public communications. Although astronomers see very little of the oblivion they relentlessly probe, they often develop remarkable theories to understand the unexplained and what might feel unexplainable.

Gazing into the heavens is serious business though. These generally-trusted scientists don't confuse theory and myth. For example, shining brightly in the night sky is the welcome constancy of the planet Venus. Named for the goddess of love, a tangible value of Venus is to help navigators by pointing to the constellation Orion, the hunter. 

Orion, as we know, is also something of a bright light in mythology who has attracted varying interpretations. He had what could be called an encounter with Artemis during his quest for one of the seven nymphs sent by Zeus to guard her. Now, Artemis is the Greek equivalent of the Romans' Diana, and both were goddesses of the hunt (your choice on who to follow, I guess).

This was fascinating to the Ancients and apparently also got the interest of some astronomers with dual devotion to mythology and science. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the gods played with we mere mortals. In subsequent centuries, apart from the withering vine of astrology and the never-say-die occultists, mostly astronomers and other mere mortals have agreed that the gods and their colluder representations in the sky above us are illusions. 

Astronomers see that the forces and matter of the real universe are massive, observable, magnificent, and often beyond our grasp. At first glance, the scale might feel similar when viewing the fantasies of stoked fears, greed, and even apathy that perpetuate populist politics.

The myths are large, the outrage of conspiracy theories are galactic in size, both colorful and gaseous in composition. Just looking at and recording their aberration sure doesn't help. 

At human scale, comedy can be a usefully quick comeback. More enduring is to build systematic education in both values and analytic ability. 

Regardless of whether or not what our leaders say is truthful, lawful, and just, apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers." This is according to a 2019 worldwide study of long-term trends in politics and culture, cited in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 116, No. 9, pp. 3476-81) edited by Stephen Pinker. This study further notes that a decline in analytical communication style began around 1980.

Do I need to mention again that this was noted to be a worldwide trend (at least, in English-speaking nations)? So, the time for action is yesterday.

Of course, if the world wants to keep waiting out the passing of the equivalent of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that's an option, just not a good one in these precipitous times.