Quote

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 #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.

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?”.

Footnote

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.

Thoughts on communication #2

Nobody is stupid, nobody is deluded. (Or at least, nobody should be called these words in any conversation which is intended to persuade). However, this is not quite as nicey-nicey as it sounds because …

… some people are misinformed, misled, over-confident, mis-educated, or find themselves in miscellaneous other circumstances which cause them to be wrong in specific circumstances or on specific topics.

But nobody is stupid or foolish and it is counterproductive to say that they are (even if it makes you feel ever so clever to do so).

Are those who describe other people, in public fora, as “deluded”, “confused” or some other variation on “stupid” really interested in being heard by such people, in persuading them to consider alternatives?

Or, for that matter are they really interested in anyone listening in on the conversation being persuaded? An audience to this sort of shouty “you iz stooooopid” talk can go one of two ways. They can think “how rude, the person they’re shouting at must have upset them in some deep way, so perhaps the person being yelled at is right”. Or they can feel “hey! This guy is calling someone stupid, so it’s ok to be agressive in the service of certain opinions – in fact to ally myself with those opinions shows how smart I am – yippee I can be obnoxious with a good conscience”.

*****

Side observation: robust language and hyperbole can be much less offensive in real life, and in printed media, than the same words used on the net. At least I can imagine situations where someone could say to me “sheesh – you’re talking complete crap” and I’d reply, fairly unconcernedly “oh Yeah? So come on then – what’s crap about it?”. But that sort of language really stings on the net – it’s enough to put me off entirely a lot of the time. Which suggests that there are people it puts off all of the time.

Thoughts on communication #1

[This is a very slightly tweaked version of a comment I left on the COIN blog a few weeks ago. The post itself was about the euro ‘remain’ campaign which the author described as:]

an object case in bad communications

It sure was. An interesting question which isn’t really asked though, is why on earth such bad mistakes are made – mistakes which, to anyone interested in communication issues, are pretty obvious. A possible answer which occurs to me is as follows.

In order to even start thinking about how other people might view matters requires a certain humility because there is some sense in which you have to start imagining what it’s like to not be me. Attempting to put oneself in someone else headspace first requires that one steps outside onself by temporarily suspending ones own assumptions, beliefs and ways of thinking. This is scary to do because, if done properly, (1) one has to accept the possibility that one might change one’s mind and (2) it also involves, in imagination, suspension of ones elite status.

I would also argue that even if one tries to avoid this worrisome ‘stepping outside oneself’ by relying entirely on research (and thereby fancying oneself entirely ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’) then one will not understand how to apply the research, or even understand what it is suggesting.

[counter-argument: sociopaths are supposedly excellent at manipulating people’s behaviour, but they, by definition, don’t go in for this method-acting-y thinking-yourself-into-someone-elses-head business. Still, most of us aren’t sociopaths and I think there might be something in my comment]

“Luddite”

Here’s a disclaimer which always annoys me: “I’m not a luddite but …”

This first came to my attention on one of the Open University’s internal forums. Typically, the phrase precedes a complaint about some aspect of computers: “I’m no luddite but I really dislike windows 10” or something. Funnily enough, just after I wrote the above words, I moseyed over to a quite different forum, (the internal Green Party discussion forum) only to find the latest reply starts with the words:

That is Luddite thinking,

It’s a cliché that grates with me because “luddite” is just a “boo” word. The only thing it contributes to the argument is a shot of emotion: “I really dislike this”. It is able to deliver this shot of emotion because it is generally accepted to be a Rude Word, yet it is pretty well meaningless as used in any context other than history. The Luddites were a particular historic group responding in to specific historic circumstances. (Perhaps even, you or I might have done the same in the their shoes? Or would you have willingly surrendered your livelihood?) In that trivial sense, no living person is a luddite.

If you insist that it is not meaningless at all, then the extended meaning of the term seems to be something like “hates all new technology and is therefore bad at thinking”. I do not believe there is anyone who “hates all new technology” – everybody welcomes some technological developments. So nobody is a luddite.

Equally, everyone dislikes technological developments which impact negatively on themselves (and, in realising what will truly impact on them, they might in fact be good at thinking). In that sense everyone is a luddite. By using the word as an accusation what you really mean is “you don’t like this particular innovation that I do like”. If you use the disclaimer that you are not a luddite, what you mean is “I don’t deserve to be called that horrible rude word”.

It’s quite interesting to ask what would be so bad about disliking new technology anyway – the answer is more subtle than you might think so that’s going to have to be another post. The counterpart “hooray” word to “luddite”, is of course “progress”. And that kettle of worms, or can of fish, will also have to wait to be opened.

***

See also: my comments from 2013 on the similar term “anti-car”.

The four meanings of the word “science”

Here’s something worth quoting. It’s from Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual impostures, (1998) (the numbers in square brackets are mine):

It is crucial to distinguish at least four different senses of the word ‘science’: [1] an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world; [2] a collection of accepted theoretical and experimental ideas; [3] a social community with particular mores, institutions and links to the larger society; and, finally [4] applied science and technology (with which science is often confused). All too frequently, valid criticisms of ‘science’, understood in one of these senses, are taken to be arguments against science in a different sense.

Thus it is undeniable that science [3], a social institution, is linked to political, economic and military power, and that the social role played by scientists is often pernicious. It is also true that technology [4] has mixed results – sometimes disastrous ones – and that it rarely yields the miracle solutions that its most fervent advocates regularly promise. Finally, science considered as a body of knowledge [2], is always fallible, and scientists’ errors are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, philosophical or religious prejudices.

Something of which I think we can all approve is meaning [1], “an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world”, but what of the rest?

Intellectual impostures was a vigorous takedown some of of the writings of various cultural theorists roughly grouped as “postmodernists” who decorated their not-always-entirely-penetrable writing with impressive but meaningless references to difficult scientific concepts that were way outside their area of academic expertise. The book came after the “Sokal hoax” where Alan Sokal (a physicist) submitted a paper full of sciencey gibberish to a postmodern journal which then published it. The journal itself was not, it seems, peer reviewed, so fair do’s, sort of – but really you’d think the editor would have noticed something was amiss – that is, if the sciency gibberish in other writers actually meant something.

Anyway, there was a big fuss about Sokal’s paper. Egg on faces combined with insistence that faces did not need any cleaning at all (oh yeah, “it’s a metaphor”. The point of a metaphor is to use something that is already understood by one’s audience in order to illuminate something which they do not yet understand). But stop right there. It’s all well in the past now; cultural theorists don’t write like that any more – and most of them never wrote like that in the first place. The affair still gets cited in internet commentary of course, where intellectual impostures is widely misrepresented as a cudgel for beating all social scientists, ignoring the fact that S & B are quite clear, in the section I’ve quoted, that some of the things that come under senses [2], [3], and [4] of “science” do deserve analysis and criticism by non-scientists.

Why am I quoting this in a blog that is so far contains mostly wittering about the environment? Because of the rhetorical sliding between the four meanings, whereby meaning [1] is used to justify the imposition of damaging and inequitable technology or the bullying exercise of power, still goes on in environmental debate. Meaning [1] is what gives science its status – despite the fallibilities of individual scientists, the endeavour itself is a noble one. So the label “science”, correctly applied, is, rightly, prestigious. More to the point, the label “anti-science” stings nastily and, if it can be made to stick, carries persuasive weight.

(I have some previous on this. I once wrote a short review of a rather shoddy book called the march of unreason which paints “environmentalists” (what, all of them?) as a bunch of idiots and I’ve also taken resurgence magazine to task for ignoring meaning [1] by stating that the purpose of “science” is to control the world).