Friday, February 16, 2018

Words: the gas in our shock-absorber, the water in our railway engines

There is a descending process, from elevated and proud, and, yes, a little haughty, to minimal and radioactive in the vernacular of public discourse. Nuance, once considered subtle, sophisticated, temperate, moderate and even poised, (like a ballerina in a pas de deux) is now considered outmoded, old-fashioned, ponderous, slow and heavy. Time (the prevailing scarcity), and instant contact, mostly in “tweets” (or more often blurps!) continue to take a large toll on our vaunted human extended concentration “span”. Words are replaced by initials; emotions by emoticons; sentences by single words or phrases; paragraphs by a single word.

And the range of words shrinks with every utterance. We are imposing a degree of acceptance on what used to be known as “the taciturn” on everyone. Verbosity, not that popular ever, has become a verbal crime. (Of course, the sale of books continues, thankfully, with literary prizes abounding; so some are obviously spending time looking at the written word, pausing to savour its subtlety and its provocations and implications.) And yet, is this another of the generational gaps, with those beyond the half-century mark pulling away from their much younger children and grandchildren?
Self-disclosure, that sine qua non of all healthy, evolving, maturing and engaging relationships, cannot but suffer from the metaphoric telegrams that pass for ‘connection’. And self-disclosure itself has never been an easy “climb” given that most prefer to present a “face”  they (we) think and believe will make (us) them more acceptable to the other. Males, especially, and many women also, are disclosure-averse, especially when it comes to their private emotions and thoughts. Possibly, there is an element of perceived inadequacy when one is asked, “How are you feeling?” that “oprahfied” question that falls like a magnetized sword dividing a room-full into one corner filled with men, another filled with women. In the male corner, the magnet has driven them away, while in the female corner, that same magnet has drawn them “in”.  John Powell, the Jesuit writer/thinker/soul-searcher, wrote a little book, (referred to several times in this space) entitled, “Why I do not tell you who I am!”….the essence of which is that who I am is all I have, and yo might reject me. So there is a long history of resistance to self-disclosure.

Frequent ‘contact’, as well all know, is no guarantee of ‘getting to know’ another person. People enter the same office space every day for decades, without “knowing” the person at the next desk. Tasks, especially those to which we have been assigned, consume most of our time, energy, concentration and emotional expressions. Of course, the “MO” of the boss is an inevitable subject of emotional response, regardless of whether it is negative or positive, and each of those extremes are moderated by a culture that permits or forbids honesty about such matters.

The schedules and activities of family members, too, will often consume most of the verbal exchanges among family members, without fully disclosing feelings and thoughts that might find objection or criticism or conflict if released. In the current social climate, we hear of the proverbial refusal even to respond to a parent’s texts by most adolescents. Choosing whom to pay attention to, if and when to respond to someone seeking response, and making such decisions at a pre-pubescent age is a radical revolution. Is this the first pre-teen generation who has faced those choices every minute, hour and day? (Tech interruptions, spaces without network connections, naturally complicate the situation, while providing alibis for those seeking reclusivity.)
The sparse and frugal sprinkling of words in our communication necessarily also raises the level of their radioactivity, prompting more extreme responses and reactions. And this is especially dangerous in the public hermeneutics of public officials’ utterances. Every word, formerly couched in a larger, more clarifying context, is now left bare and flying like a missile through the universe, not only leave their originator more exposed to misinterpretation, but also offering to the editorialists and the talking heads, a miasma of possible, and often quite extreme, readings of the meaning, intent, implications and dangers of each word. And those editorialists, and talking heads themselves, are also expected to muse publicly to an audience so divided in their political ideologies, that audiences themselves have become armed camps, with words as their weapons. And mostly those words are ‘fired’ out of context, without the supplementing of nuance, explication, intent, clarification and modest containment.
Paradoxically, the reduction of the number and the colour (literary devices, tonalities, vocabulary range, creative sentence structures) being used in public discourse, is another and significant (if unacknowledged) scarcities to which we are willingly, if unconsciously, subjecting our public debate, decisions and the range of options. And this scarcity, by compensation, elevates the emotive power of each word. So, those intuitively and creatively “using” these dynamics have more political “power” in the moment, than was previously accessed and deployed by public figures.

Critical thought has always depended on a foundational base of a substantial and broad vocabulary and the risk-taking impetus to stretch its use to provide the needed context for its delivery. Stripping our vocabulary of much of its nuanced, contextual sensibilities leaves it and all of us without much of the needed “gas” in our shock absorbers…so to speak. There has been a kind of pacing and reflective quality to much public discourse, even if it often seemed couched in gobbledegook.

Nuance does not necessarily mean legalese, obfuscation, or bafflegab. In fact, it can and often does mean greater clarity, and a rather kind spirit of the “speaker/writer” that respects the listener/reader and offers from a place of generous sharing. Of course, writers like Hemingway push back, merging a terse and pungent prose from his journalistic experience into his novels and short stories, injected with serious human drama. Poetry, too, exhibits an economy of language, that normally hits the reader/listener in the “gut” or the “heart” with its impact.

However, detailed and interesting and engaging prose need not be reserved for policy papers, doctoral theses, or legal arguments. And the history of fervent political and intellectual movements is linked inextricably to a long list of pamphleteers, essayists, and even comics. Today, magazines like The Atlantic, and The New Yorker offer some of the best writing available, along with the occasional news column from people like David Brooks, Nicholas Christof, Maureen Dowd, and in Canada, Roy MacGregor when one can find his work.

Leaving the public with headlines and tweets, while that may satisfy the “public appetite” and thereby offer its own kind of justification to those making the business decisions, robs the body politic of some of the most nourishing and potentially significant details. And their significance can not be restricted only to the immediate impact of the story, but extends to the reader/listener in generating a longer look at the story. Each story, as we all know, is never fully or adequately contained in its headline….and this is especially true if and when the headline writer misses the point of the story.

Another aspect of this pronounced reductionism in language (and thought) is that too often the political story is encapsulated in the “personality” of the main actor/speaker. And we also know that personalizing the story is another way of dismissing it from our critical observation, once again eliminating or at least reducing the number of opportunities to evaluate the proposed idea, theory, or policy option. Personalizing incidents or mini-dramas in the workplace is an important sign of the level of adult maturity among the workers. And openness to some of the conflicting pressures, on the part of factory or office or hospitality workers can to a long way to both their enhanced understanding of the enterprise and also to an enhanced and enlightened relationship between supervisory staff and supervisees.

Headlines shouting at least other, no matter the venue, are simply additional examples of what Margaret Atwood once dubbed the dialogue between the separatists and the federalists in Quebec, a “dialogue of the deaf.” Between those headlines on every subject, there are a plethora of nuanced details with which all sides can concur. And, those minimal agreements can be, and must become, the building bricks to construct walls of concensus….no matter the primary purpose of the venture. When those details are omitted, or glazed over, or ignored, the full import of any position or story is lost. And when the full ‘story’ is lost, all participants are deprived of needed resources on which to make those critical judgements about culpability, about guilt, about shared responsibility and about potential future steps.

“Due process” is not only a legal term necessary in a society to permit the “accused” his/her day in court, to defend, to explain and to perhaps even justify his behaviour, given the full disclosure of the context. Due process depends upon full disclosure, and the willingness of all parties to permit such disclosure….and that includes people in positions of responsibility making such opportunities accessible to anyone who has erred in their mind.

This instant accusation, trial and judgement that is being exercised every minute and every hour of the day, based on the words of only one side of the story, is not a perversion of justice; it is a outright denial of justice, for all. And the potential of embedding this kind of kangaroo court into the public arena, as a matter of normal censure, renders all of us endangered. Critical judgements to have any value at all, have to come out of detailed analyses of all available information, whether the issue is one of business, politics, morality and ethics or simply human relationships. Dismissal of details as boring, irrelevant, unimportant or more dangerously, damaging to the ‘story’ only demeans both the story and the story teller, not to mention the actors in the story.

Words do, in fact, matter a great deal. And un-uttered words also matter….this ‘railway’ (society, culture, body politic) needs both the coal, or the diesel, and the water necessary to cool the engine, as well as the rails and the wheels for it to function. Burning fuel, without the accompanying needed water to provide the cooling off, will shortly result in an engine burn-out.

Having been left on the side of the road at midnight, after such a burn-out, I would not recommend that kind of outcome for a modern, developed and mature culture.
There are imminent signs that burn-out is a real possibility, and words, learning them, using them, listening to them and experimenting with them could slow the danger, if not reduce its impact. 

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