Reframing travel

From David Fleming’s Lean logic, which I’m currently plodding through. It’s under the entry for Localisation, and struck me (a) because it’s a good example of reframing as a rhetorical technique and (b) in a series of previous posts I’ve banged on at length about travel.

Localisation stands [in current cirumstances],  at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative. Does that mean the end of travel? On the contrary, it means the end of mass dislocation – and the recovery of place. Travel now finds its purpose, taking you to a place which is not in essentials identical to the one you have left, but to one which is interesting and finds you interesting, that wants to hear your song, that dances to a different tune.

Thoughts on communication #6 (escalation)

Online communication* tends to foster certain, ahem, negative behaviour which make it often a rather bruising experience. My current online hangout is the members’ forum of the Green Party and even that bunch of mild-mannered people has given rise to a couple of barroom brawls in the short time I’ve been watching it (one of the brawls prompted this post).

I know only too well why people behave the way they do online – in Jaron Lanier’s phrase, I have met my Inner Troll. Therefore I’m mainly interested in the question: what can I personally do about the things I’m complaining about? One thing I can do is the be aware of the inbuilt tendency towards unintentional escalation and try to make allowances for it.


Online disputation in which there are two clear “sides” can result in both sides claiming that the other side is bullying them – and both sides seeming to be right in that claim.  There’s a very interesting article by the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert about this – basically that we try to give an equally-weighted response to any perceived ‘attack’ but that we are rubbish at judging this accurately and end up responding with an escalated attack, to which our opponent tries to respond equally, but in fact misjudges and escalates … it’s worth reading (despite the bad formatting) because it refers to actual experiments.


*and I’ve been watching it for longer than most: first e-mail lists, then webpages, then blog comments, then forums and now, from a distance, through binoculars, the sheer ghastliness that is twitter.

Thoughts on communication #5 (“tone policing”)

I recently came across the term “tone policing”. I try to read beyond the bare words, and I often talk about the “tone” of a piece of writing or speaking (not a million miles from the sort of thing you do in studying english literature). I also sometimes say that getting all shouty is (usually) a very poor persuasive strategy (are you really trying to persuade or are are you just performing for your supporters? Or even merely relishing the sensation of being ‘in the right’?); I think this is a reasonable point of commonsense psychology. I was therefore slightly concerned that I will sooner or later be “called out” (yuck!) for “tone policing”. The meaning wasn’t entirely self-evident to me so I looked it up.

“Tone policing” it turns out, is not an unreasonable thing to object to. It seems to refer to replying to a forcefully-expressed argument by saying something along the lines of “you know you’d really make your case better if you didn’t come across as so angry”, which of course is infuriatingly patronising because it ignores the substantive point that is being made and it presumes to teach you a basic lesson about how to conduct yourself in public. So, it’s a useful term, especially as “microagressions” might be getting a bit stale and we all love novelty. However, it does grate a tiny bit.

Language can be thought of as a weapon (Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by uses ‘argument is war’ as one of its main examples). The “Tone policing” charge was devised as a defence against an unfair rhetorical device (and it works by drawing attention to the fact that such a device has been used), yet it does seem to have some pre-emptive attack potential.

Discussing the way people express themselves can be legitimate. Forceful expression can itself be a rhetorical device – “look how incredibly passionate I am!” and a charge of tone policing could be an attempt to assert the primacy and authenticity of one’s passionate assertions over any attempt to suggest that there is a rhetorical device being used (“I feel so strongly how dare you say anything that I could possibly interpret as being against me personally!”).

All part of the rhetorical arms race.


Individual and collective

As individual action, and why it’s worth doing, seems to be one of the themes of this blog, here are some apposite words from Kevin Anderson:

“I do not see the individual and collective (formal and informal institutions) as separate. They are unavoidably and intimately entwined, only drawn apart as a convenient reductionist tool of analysis to help make sense of complicated and complex issues. But we have to repeatedly remind ourselves that the separation is nothing but an epistemological construct – it is not ‘real’.[…]

When I focus on the individual, I’m seeing them, typically, as a symbolic but essential catalyst for collective (system) change.[…]

So individuals are solely an ignition source for the flames from which a Phoenix may arise – but only if others and ultimately institutions are mobilised.”

Is it safe to come out yet?

There are still a few rocks hitting the ground, but the wailing and rending of garments seems to be fading out. I really was intending to say not one damn word about you-know-what, and keep my thoughts entirely to myself, but I suppose I have at least to say something about why I felt like this. Anyway this blog does emit the occasional parp about politics, so here we go.

The first thing is, I live in the UK, I do not live in the flaming United States. Why the hell should I be expected to have an intense interest in the minutiae of their bloody election and follow all the day-to-day yelps and growls of the process? Yes, the result is relevant to the whole world, and hence to me, because one needs to have a good general idea of what is happening globally as one of the factors in making one’s own future plans. It would be foolish to be indifferent to the result but there was no point at all in getting all worked up about a process whose eventual result I have no possibility whatsoever of affecting. The sight of so many British citizens expressing forceful public opinions about the US election and then joining in the post-result keening and moaning led me to the dark suspicion that at least a few people might have been using it as mere emotional pornography. An election is not the cup final.

The second thing is that I have previously noticed that US citizens can get all shirty when us Brits start joining in with their elections. Back at the start of the eighties I recall a USian grad student of my acquaintance getting all pouty and upset at British people expressing dismay and fearfulness about Reagan’s election. I thought this was a bit oversensitive, but later it occurred to me that the President, as well as having an executive function, is also the head of state – basically they are the Queen, and really, you shouldn’t diss somebody’s queen. (Viewed purely as the symbolic embodiment of the state, Reagan was actually a good choice. Just a pity he had a bit of real power as well). I finally understood properly how she must have felt when I came across USians pompously “congratulating” us on our recent referendum result. Piss off, you know nothing about it!

Which brings me to the third thing. Of course this Trump fellow seems a ghastly prospect, but really, what do I know? What I have been following, is not so much the BBC and the guardian, but the comments on John Michael Greer’s blog, because they are from people with an actual vote in the election, and who are usually pretty articulate. Two points – neither of which I could have gleaned from the British media – became clear. The first is how much Hilary Clinton is hated – loathed is probably a better term – much more so than can be accounted for by misogyny alone. The commentariat was by no means one-sided and some cogent arguments were presented by those who were voting for her – but it was “voting” rather than “supporting” if you see what I mean. What was also enlightening were the reasons given for this negativity – most prominently that her record showed her to be dangerously hawkish and that she would continue business-as-usual – increasing foreign intervention, increasing wealth disparity, nice words about sustainability but no effective action, and so on.

The second point which I wouldn’t have picked up from the British media is that there was a non-stupid, non-racist, non-whateverist, case for voting for DT. In its simplest form this amounted to “better the devil you don’t know” – in other words, if HC has a record as a politician which you think bad, and DT has no record at all, then you have no real idea of what he’ll do, and at least there’s a a chance of things being different, and if they are different then there is a chance of them being better. That seems a fair enough argument to me – in desperate situations, gambling can be a rational choice. I note that Andrew Rawnsley has just said something similar but only after the fact:

A big chunk of the electorate in western democracies are, for various reasons, so discontented that they are willing to blow up conventional politics – if only to see what happens next. A lot of Trump voters told pollsters they didn’t think he was fit to be president, but put him there anyway.

A strange thing (among all the other strange things) is that the wailers and moaners seem to imagine that DT will necessarily do what he says. Isn’t it obvious that he was just saying whatever he thought would get a response? Some of his remarks contradicted each other and even amongst more reputable politicians, haven’t you noticed that they don’t (or can’t) always do what they said they were going to? There are a few articles out there arguing that some of the things DT is accused of were themselves simply made up (this one is widely cited, but there are others). Really, I’m not expressing a substantive opinion about the US election: I’m saying that I’m agnostic in the original sense, not only do I not know, but I cannot know what is going to happen. What I do know is that politics is a messy, incoherent, pragmatic and confused business: the ‘art of the possible’ as Harold Wilson put it. Therefore investing any emotion in the result is a complete waste of energy and probably some sort of displacement activity.

So my final point is that there is no point in being either pessimistic or optimistic because (again) we really do not know what will happen. To quote my earlier post:

Whatever nice plan you have (“we could meet all the worlds energy needs if only we spent enough money on …”) you can be sure it won’t work out quite as you thought. On the other hand, silk purses do sometimes emerge from the sows ears of apparently disastrous decisions

Clive Lord (revered elder of the Green Party) has a couple of recent posts speculating how a silk purse could emerge from this particular sows ear – whatever else DT may or may not be, he isn’t an ideological neoliberal.

Thoughts on communication #4 (“calling out”)

Words I never use: “Calling out”

Well obviously I am using them in order to say that I don’t use them, but you know what I mean – I won’t say or write “calling out” without holding such a smelly and disgusting object at a distance with a nice clean pair of quotation marks.

It is equally obvious that I’m quite happy to call out to my friends across the street, or answer a shout which is calling out for help. No, I’m objecting to the relatively recent usage of the term – heard in contexts such as:

“I have to call you out for that statement” or “this behaviour should be called out at every opportunity”

As to “relatively recent”, my subjective observation is that it only started a few years ago – certainly the meaning I grew up with had no hint of morality about it. All of a sudden the air is thick with people being “called out”. Google has an entertaining tool which will generate a usage frequency graph from a large collection of books. Here’s one for american english:
and here’s one for british english:Looking at the british graph – get a load of that gradient starting around maybe 2002 or so. (Which would be compatible with the steep rise in internet usage in the Uk in the early noughties). Anyway, that was just idle curiosity, let’s get to the the real point:

What is wrong with “calling out”?

In one sense nothing at all. Language changes, new words and meanings come in all the time. People use neologisms because they find them useful. I ain’t no language pedant. I make up new words all the time – it demonstrates robustitude of thought.

Anyway, “calling out” rubs me up the wrong way and I want to explain why. I wince slightly when I hear or read the term (no-one has actually used it at me, so far), because it sounds off-puttingly self-righteous1. Note that I’m not accusing people of being self-righteous, I’m saying that (to me) it sounds so. I wonder why? Why these words – what images are they suggesting?

The metaphor I pick up is of literally calling someone out – asking them to step aside from whatever they are doing in order to be told off for an infringement of some sort (the images that come to my mind are of a child being called out of class, or someone in the military being called out to receive a disciplinary ‘chat’). What is squirmy for me about “I need to call you out on that!” is that some sort of superiority has been asserted – the caller is assuming that their right to “call out” is unquestioned. Furthermore the superiority that is being assumed is moral superiority. Now obviously, ethical discussion is not out-of-bounds, not by any means, and some stances really are morally superior, but “calling out” is so un-nuanced that it doesn’t look like discussion, it looks like a crude “I have the high ground here and you’re stuck in the mud, all decent people think the same, don’t even think of trying to defend yourself”.

“Calling out” is one of those rhetorical manoeuvres that internet discussion seems to breed. I have a dark suspicion that – and here I really must stress that this suspicion is based on myself, on attempting to introspect the dubious machinations of my own inner world, I am not accusing anyone else of anything (‘anyone else’ must examine their own conscience) – I have a dark suspicion that some people, sometimes, actually enjoy being angry. I’m probably quite enjoying being angry about this in fact. Ahem.


Some words and phrases that I find useful when refusing to “call you out”:

“I think you’re wrong (because)” “ I protest about that (because)” “I can’t let you get away with that (because)”, “you have omitted some important points (which are)”, “you are only looking at one side of the question”, “that has dangerous implications (which are)”, “you are ignoring (whatever)”, object to, complain about, demur, attempt to rebut, naive, unconsidered, over-simplified, “I’m not sure you understand all the implications of what you’ve just said”, “do you really mean that?”.


1. I’ve just discovered that there is now something called “tone policing” which is felt to be oppressive. Having read a few books on socio-linguistics I’d prefer to say that my opinions on this are not “tone policing” but rather “discourse analysis”. Actually, they’re neither, I’m just explaining why I wince slightly when someone says it.


Not talking about climate

From George Marshall on climate outreach (my bolding):

My view is that the climate change community (a deliberately all-embracing term that encompasses politicians, policy makers, scientists and  campaign organizations) have all underestimated the critical importance of social conversations in generating change. Peer-to-peer conversations provide a vital signal to us about the issues that are important and the opinions that are socially required for us to hold. And the conversation itself provides us with the forum within which we can then rehearse and negotiate our own views.

Such climate conversations are the essential underpinning for political change. If people do not mention climate change with friends, they do not mention it to pollsters either, which is why climate change never appears on the regular polls of key voter issues and is sidelined in elections. Politicians see it as a risky and divisive issue which will yield few votes so they too avoid mentioning climate change.

(The piece is about how little we talk about this – ‘stealth denial’ (“the fact that the majority of those who understand the problem intellectually don’t live as though they do“). Oh how true – I’ve talked a bit myself about how difficult it is to bring up such subjects in everyday life – relevant bit is halfway through, below the asterisks)