Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Petitioning for a fulsome literacy in our public discourse


There is so much noise around these days about the moral and ethical transgressions of the American administration, including both “sins of commission” and “sins of omission.” The talking heads including both pundits and reporters, assuming/presuming the ‘high road’ of parental and moral rectitude, are, of course, enjoying considerable impunity from similar critical cross examination. What results is a shouting match between trump-cultists and their media echo chambers (Fox, Washington Examiner, National Inquirer) and the rest of the American media behemoths.

Watching and listening at the back of the ‘bar’ of contemporary political culture are millions of observers, students, critics and, naturally, committed supporters of the current excuse for legitimate governance that is Washington.

It appears that neither side is listening to or even hearing the other. “Guilty”-not guilty,” “indictable-not indictable,” “impeachable-not impeachable,” “trust-worthy-not trust worthy”….these canons/verbal missiles continue to echo across the battlefield, in a charade that is failing even to approximate a minimal, grade nine debate. No side wins and it seems, no side really loses, if the opinion polls are any indication: the numbers vacillate barely beyond a digit or two in any direction.

Along comes Stedman Graham (partner of Oprah Winfrey) in a new book today, Identity Leadership, in which he argues that we must “lead ourselves” before we can lead others. Getting to know ourselves, our strengths, skills and passions, and the designing a pathway toward the life that emerges from those positive aspects of our identity, in a nine-step menu, is Graham’s prescription for social transformation. Naturally, the routine of the daily grind in millions of homes, kids, school, work, evening television, bed and then repeat is hardly a recipe for putting Maslow’s “self actualization” in front of, and not following, the need to meet basic needs. Graham’s offering is to bring that reversal about.

While the Graham approach is legitimate, it perpetuates a reduction of highly complex, nuanced, non-linear, accidental, incidental and partially developmental pathways to an authentically lived life. As Katty Kay, BBC Washington correspondent puts it in answer to the question about the likelihood of Americans becoming “socialist,” there is absolutely no chance, given the American driven-ness to individual achievement, accomplishment, and the profits thereby derived.

Socialism, or any minimal movement in that direction, intimately and necessarily involves a very different perspective: the significance of the public good as a starting and supportive foundation for private pursuits. However, any discussion of the relative merits of hot-button words like “socialism” especially in the U.S. where “capitalism” is the established religion, brings about more shouting. John Hickenlooper, Democratic candidate for president, former Governor of Colorado, when asked if he were a capitalist at the beginning of his campaign, shrugged off the question preferring to avoid all labels, only to reverse himself as the campaign unfolded, to a champion of the capitalist system. The very notion (also a basic truth of the American economy) of a mixed economy, with strong public and private sectors, seems anathema to the current public discourse.

Regardless of emotional attitude, or the geographic, ethnic, linguistic, ideological, religious territory of one’s life, one’s capacity to embrace multiple perspectives simultaneously is a far more complex and worthy goal for leadership, in all cultures, for all issues. At the core of this noble path to mature, sentient, balanced and modest/humble perspective lies the highly complex process of literacy. Far from the simplistic “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic” of the past, UNESCO defines literacy in the following way:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written (and visual) materials associated with vary contexts. Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation and communication in an increasingly digital text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.

UNESCO continues (UNESCO website)

Globally, however, at least 750 millions youth and adults still cannot read and write and 250 millions children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills, This results in an exclusion of low-literate and low-skilled youth and adults from full participation in their communities and societies.
To advance literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNESCO takes the following approaches to promote literacy worldwide, with an emphasis on youth and adults:
·        Building strong foundations through early childhood care and education
·        Providing quality basic education for all children
·        Scaling-up functional literacy levels for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills
·        Developing literate environments

While UNESCO’s commendable goals apply to the developing world, ironically, the need for their application, implementation and integration in North America stares all of us in the face every day. The spectacle of a persistent shouting match between political adversaries, over much more than the “fitness” of the president for office, echoed minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day on 24-7 news channels illustrates, demonstrates and unequivocally proves the failure to apply the skills of literacy, and/or the cognitive vacuum of never having learned them among the political voices, on all sides.
Of course, the argument from the political class will focus on the ability/willingness/ time/dedication/ and level of intelligence among the consumers of national media that determine their simplification of the public issues. As a former Cabinet Minister in the Pierre Trudeau government in Canada reminded his audience, “any national issue cannot be adequately explained in a 30-second news clip”. And, he would likely continue, “the attention span of the national audience is no longer than that 30-seconds.” Today, Information World reports: “the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today (2018); the average page visit lasts less than a minute and users often leave web pages in just 10-20 seconds; 59% of senior executives would rather watch a video than read text, when both area available.” (This blog’s aspiration to enhance “reading and reflection” is under deep, serious and persistent threat of human reality!)

Code words, the life-blood of hostile political discourse, serve as weapons in a war of words, and ideological visions and aspirations. And relative moral purity attends this adolescent “paint-ball” diatribe that attempts to pass for political debate. Code words are also the vernacular of choice among marketing professionals, advertisers, and even entertainment writers. In fact, the most recent episodes of Madam Secretary, have depicted a more enhanced, nuanced, conflicted and “realistic” picture of some contemporary issues than we have been given by the “news” outlets. Branding, that most distasteful legacy of the corporate fascism to which we are being sacrificed, demands and expects each person (now become a thing) to identify his or her brand, and thereby offering specific “benefits” to anyone seeking to hire, or promote the candidate. Winning (personally, daily and predictably), in the war of words, as opposed to approaching the question of seeking the full extent of the evidence attendant on any file, has replaced the pursuit of reasoned, reasonable and relevant policies, legislation and enforcement among the political class.

There are armies of closed minds and ears on all sides of each issue, waiting to jump on the hot-button code words coming from the other side, as a legitimate participation in the public debate of the public interest. We have, collectively and collaboratively, complied with the most reductionistic level of the expression of the complex literacy skills of comprehension, interpretation, research, and then authentic communication (from our truly complex and nuanced and even poetic perceptions and convictions). In truth, we have abandoned the most elementary and basic application of our best apprehensions of the intimacies of language, the metaphoric as well as the literal, the imaginative as well as the scientific, and the comprehensive as opposed to the narrow ideological, theological, and superficially and simplistically weaponized.

And we are doing this, under an administration that fosters, encourages, enhances and epitomizes the absolute reduction of all political discourse to a zero-sum war. White supremacy grows, anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant attitudes and acts are facing us around the world, as the forces that depend on this fundamental reductionism to succeed.

We all have a significant, personal/political role to play in our water-cooler conversations that call out the code words, the racial appropriations, the sexist slurs, and all attempts to “mat-slam” our “other” (or the other on us) in order to bring a modicum of authentic, moderate, modest and ultimately psychologically healthy (as opposed to neurotic, frightened and insecure) respect to our daily encounters. Falling into the cesspool of the trump cult’s bastardization of both language and power not only does not “become” us; it renders us complicit in his (and his clones’) framing of the current reality.

And we all know where that kind of thinking, communicating, interpreting and coding led us in 1939.

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