28 July 2010

Who Do You Trust?

Who Do You Trust? By Lorelei Roberts

Everyone expects a snake in the grass: that's where they live. We don't expect them in our reading material. Too often, the more a periodical declares an unbiased presentation of the facts, the more you can assume a hidden agenda.

Words are vehicles for expressing thoughts. Books, letters and periodicals are a collection of words made formal. Oral or written, words are initially an expression of the ideas of the speaker or writer alone. Words collected together and presented before groups may create a following; others quote them, or adopt them in some way. Words delivered in various media often develop just such a following, and can be said to form a special interest segment. In this logical progression, a medium sometimes assumes that it represents the will or interest of a majority of people. This is where a specific journal, newspaper or broadcast steps over a very fine and possibly dangerous line: they become the self-appointed arbiters of opinion.

Such a juggernaut becomes proportionally more dangerous as it is more able to control the flow of information.

Ever notice the editorial pages in periodicals? It is a curious exercise. The publication is saying, in effect, "We absolve ourselves of editorial responsibility by presenting you with these token alternate opinions." You must trust that the editors have chosen a democratic distribution among the letters they receive. And you must trust that these letters have not been truncated or edited in some way.

Reading current opinion pieces then becomes a two-fold exercise: reading an article for information and reading the particular bias of the publisher.

Not everything has to be dispassionate to be of informational value. It's acceptable to have an opinion, making it clear from the beginning that you are not making an effort to be balanced. In this case, you acknowledge that there is always more than one point of view, but you feel strongly because... But, it is uniquely informative when you can present a case without all the baggage. Some issues are simply too complex to resolve by taking sides. Sometimes the reader must be trusted to be intelligent enough, or sensitive enough, to figure it out for themselves.

Word Face

If words are a well developed symbolism signifying speech, then catchphrases must take the notion one step further.

We've talked, recently, about the kinds of word-shorthand we use. A fascinating aspect of this is the motto, slogan or catchphrase. Companies crave brand recognition, and spend millions finding the right name for a product, the right slogan. If I whisper "Zoom, zoom," can an identification be more cryptic (but effective)? Political campaigns rally around one nutshell notion - "Yes We Can!" Even the Boy Scouts have a motto: "Be Prepared." We have Brangelina, leading us to the logical conclusion that Brad and Jennifer couldn't have a lasting relationship because their names could not be formed into a catchy blend.

The famous aren't the only ones doing this, of course. High schools are known by their team names, even though sports are an extracurricular and (presumably) not the school's core mission: Devils, Gators, Tigers. Notice how the names are generally tough-sounding: what societal shift might take place if they called themselves the Diplomats, the Benefactors, the Peacemakers. Hmmm... Granted, calling yourselves the Nice Guys seems to beg defeat on the field. However, before you jump to any conclusions, let me note that for years the toughest team to beat in my hometown was the Bluebirds. Whatever ribbing they may have taken, they pretty much beat the stuffing out of other teams.

The process by which a group chooses an identity is fascinating. Individual identity-building has a lot to do with the processes and philosophies of groups we gravitate to as we grow: for me it was the anti-war sixties, and the corresponding language. What was groovy for me is sick for my kids. The cultures in which we participate have a lot to do with our self-image, and the language we speak in our heads. It is interesting to ponder what the effect might be when media supplants the natural local language with a commercial mega-language. What if Madison Avenue (or Hollywood) is speaking so loudly in our ears that their voice is the one lodged in our self-concept?

Are the logos we surround ourselves with on a daily basis, on pants, school supplies, shoes, cars, lunch bags, etc. starting to define us? Do you Google? Branding is a not a new notion, but how we apply it is; in the past, products were branded, and now people are. Tom Peters has an article called The Brand Called You, in which he suggests that branding ourselves is a good thing. We identify ourselves in other people's minds as unique, special. The danger is that we become the brand, rather than the brand signifying us. When Mr. Peters talks about branding, he means that our actions are perceived as valuable to others. Our interior, not our exterior. We are not valuable to the extent that we internalize a slogan, but to the extent that we create a sterling character.

In the not-too-distant past, only cattle was branded. What might this bode for us?

19 July 2010

The Mel Factor: What happens when your ego grows faster than your vocabulary

Current events have shown a dark side of our language: its potential as a weapon. Words are a developed cultural symbolism used to convey thoughts and ideas. Human imagination doesn't always produce words of sweetness and light, as we know. Humans also possess a built-in gatekeeper, call it conscience, morality, ethics, good up-bringing, manners, etc. which guards the door of the mouth to prevent the issuing forth of harsh and hurtful speech. What happens when our gatekeeper is asleep at his post?

Once in a while we may be so emotionally moved that we speak more loudly, more emphatically, more pointedly, or more critically than we normally would. Once in a while we may be called upon to behave in a fairly aggressive defensive manner due to an injustice. I'm not talking about those cases.

I'm talking about the person who, with little provocation, uses language to pummel someone in an effort to demean them. The word-bully who shouts insults at the top of his/her voice, red in the face, neck cords straining, and spittle flying, so full of his/her own self-justified rage as to be completely unconcerned with any feelings but his/her need to annihilate. Not surprisingly, verbal bullies are deeply unimaginative, using more expletives than logic, sort of a cross between grade-school potty mouth and seriously egocentric adult narcissism. We'll call it the Mel Factor. Some verbal bullies erupt on any hapless victim. Most tend to pick a familiar (read family) victim, smaller and weaker, which gives them the illusion of power without any of the risks. Recent events have taught us that one does not have to be a scholar to catch the public imagination by the language one uses.

Words used to belittle, intimidate, and mortify are as surely abuse as a slap to the face. The unbridled use of abusive language, combined with overbearing physicality and menace is the fallback of a small and insecure personality. Unable to reason calmly and to generously allow for differences of style and opinion, one cannot entertain a position that is not his/her own. Or will not, having assumed the self-appointed role of the all-knowing OZ. Better to not have the ability to speak at all than to misuse it as some do.

16 July 2010

Words to Spend

Americans are a rich people. No matter our income we all have a wealth of words available for expressing whatever profound thought or hare-brained notion we wish. We have had words lavished upon us by generations past, and when we are bored with those, we make new ones. No one ever had less excuse for expressing themselves poorly than we do.

Think of it as a pocket full of words to spend, and a great, spacious-wide day to spend them in. Speak of a resplendent sunrise, sparkling dew, a downy-haired child. Or it can be a chilly dawn, a hazy sky, a smoggy drive. We have the tools to say exactly what we see, hear, think and feel. You don't have to be lyrical or break into song, just add detail - a little shine. Feeling a little self-conscious? Write your words instead - describe your excellent or awful day, your new car, your present mood or condition. Write so clearly and expressively that your great-great grandchildren, on reading what you've written, will see your day, feel your mood, smell the new car smell.

You have a great bounty of words to spend; it's the one area, even in a bad economy, that you don't have to scrimp. Don't just talk - spellbind, intrigue, edify. Language is a gift. The ability to fully communicate is a blessing. Don't squander it.

15 July 2010

KEY Words: Please, thank you, and other courtesies

"He pronounced the words: 'Open Sesame!' and the door immediately opened..." and before him was a great quantity of gold and valuable things. We all remember the story of Ali Baba and his visit to the cave of the thieves. In this story from our early youth, we learn that some words are important for opening doors.

At the library, children must use a password to get on the computers. Usually this is their library card number, or a substitute we supply at the reference desk. If they need this substitute (and even librarians don't have their cards with them at all times!) they must approach the desk and request one. The number is a password that opens the computer and these are theirs for the asking.

Oh, and they must say please.

Children, by and large, have remarkable manners, often much better than those of their parents. On the occasions that they forget, we remind them by asking, "What's the magic word?" Children always know without being told what the magic word is, and deliver it with a smile. We return the favor by giving them a heart-felt thank you when they are kind. Between request and this mannerly correction, their faces light up, without exception. We asked them, for a moment, to slow down and observe the courtesies and they, by their good natures, are glad to oblige. Children who did not feel the need of this nicety before do so now. Sure, a few see it as a game:  the "She won't give me the pass until I say it" game. But of those, the delivery of the key word improves the quality of the exchange. No one ever refuses, and no one ever gives me a hard time. I have a number of regular patrons, and they seldom forget now. A few even chat with me over little stuff from their day, because their courtesy has opened a door. I often compliment them on their lovely manners. It hasn't made them perfect angels in the library, but it has made a difference.

If only all the world functioned in the way this child-world does: "May I fish in your offshore fishing grounds, please?" "Why sure, help yourself." "How kind of you!" "Would you mind it if we go over here and make our own country based on our own ideas and beliefs and live peacefully forever?" "That would be swell, and that would give us an interesting new place to visit, and be friends."

Okay. Maybe not.

Still, you have to wonder, if manners were deeply ingrained from birth, if people were taught from very young to be sincere in their interactions and truly grateful for kindnesses, whether the world would be calmer. I am not talking about parroting words - we see this behavior everywhere: "Have a nice day." "Thanks. You too."
It is pleasant enough, but more of a Pavlovian response than an actual sentiment.

A few words have a special mission. They are meant to make us more human. And because the weight of our humanity rests with them, they should never be taken for granted. They should be delivered sincerely and directly, maybe with brief but direct eye-contact. They should be expected, as an understood recognition between valuable beings.

"Thank you for coming."
"Please don't be a stranger."
"You are welcome anytime."
"I'm grateful."
"I appreciated your kindness."

From me to you. Sincerely.

02 July 2010

The Echo

Some words hurt. They become the reverberating sound we hear when we shout into the Grand Canyons of life, echoing back to our ears pretty much the way they left our mouths: they are what they are, and there's no taking them back.

It is the mark of the kind-hearted soul to avoid hurtful words whenever possible. And it is the measure of a society to care when someone hurts. If you recall, there is a parable about the penitent, guilt stricken because his words had injured another. Seeking the advice of the sage, the supplicant was told to take the feathers from a pillow and place one on each doorstep in the village, signifying the number of people who had heard the slander. After completing this task, the gossip returned to the wise man for further instruction. Told to gather up every feather again, he protested: "Surely the wind has blown the feathers where I cannot find them!" "And so carry your words, my friend," he was gently reminded.

Wit and slander are divided at times by a razor-thin line. Do you ever hear friends banter back and forth with outrageous insults? We all toss off these little barbs in good fun, the idea being to make the insult so completely unbelievable as to ensure that we are not misunderstood. If we know (and love) one another well enough, we know how to avoid the truly sensitive issues and the soft spots in each others' psyche. Occasionally, we overstep and feelings are hurt, but if we are good friends, we make amends and exercise the discretion in the future which good friendship expects. We have known people who use a fine-tuned wit to injure without regard, and we eventually learn to exclude them or avoid them. The damage from such thoughtlessness can be extensive and most people of good conscience are uncomfortable in its presence.

Public wit becomes a little trickier. Take for example, the celebrity "roast." People who are friends, family and close colleagues of an honoree are assigned to deliver speeches that have the dual object of displaying the good nature of the mark, and conveying their sincere respect and affection. This is done (paradoxically) by lampooning them almost without mercy. The effect, when done right, is meant to be light-hearted and humorous but with a clear undertone of high regard. These occasions are meant to be fun: to convey honor without all the cloying and fussy praise. Once in a while, we cringe at some point which the honoree seems to take in stride, illustrating the very small margin for error.

I cannot say what it is of human nature that we entertain ourselves this way. But as a society becomes more sophisticated, or in other words more worldly, this type of wit becomes a sort of verbal game of "chicken," where the weak are offended and the strong become verbal bullies.

I reflect on this because of an article I read in a recent Time magazine. I don't think it is necessary to pinion the author. It is an author who, in fact, I have admired in the past. On the very off chance he reads this post, he may know of my general regard. He will also know that he stepped over this line as surely as much of his readership knew it. In the article, entitled My Own Private India, this well-respected writer used language that made me gasp: he spoke of one ethnic group in terms so breathtakingly unflattering that there was no turn-around place, no redemption. In a roast, the speaker may say a few outrageous things but culminate in a generous and thoughtful conclusion. I nervously waited for this turn-around, but it never came.

We see that hurtful speech has a private voice and a public voice. In this case, I wonder if a public voice occasionally chooses art over better judgment and becomes a little too removed from the personal impact of his words. Speaking aloud in a populated room, it is too late to depend on those gasping sounds to let us know when we have erred. Even worse, when we are alone and groping for the witty and urbane, it is hard to trust our own echo.