Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Ability to Communicate

I recently got embroiled in a stupid argument with some neo-cons on a local newspaper's discussion board.  It was about a lawsuit that the municipality recently lost with a construction company about building a new City Hall. I made a mistake by confusing a figure ($20 million) that was being thrown around with regard to the suit.  The company asked for that as a settlement.  I assumed that this was for damages, whereas it appears to be a payment that the city refused to pay once it severed its contract.

To a large extent, the reason why I made the mistake was because of the bizarre way that one of the people on the list argues.  He doesn't actually write much of anything himself, he just cuts and pastes large swathes of legal information he finds on the internet and "lets it speak for itself".  When confronted by very large chunks of verbiage written in legal mumbo jumbo, it is very easy to miss the meaning.

What this has got me thinking about is how many problems in society come from people's inability to express themselves.  In a more mundane example, I remember being asked at work to locate power outlets buried under carpeting at work.  One of the day staff gave me a map that showed how to locate these outlets under the carpet.  She said that "its absolutely the same everywhere in the library".  I looked and looked, cut many dry holes in the carpet and didn't come up with anything.  I went back to her and said "I can't find the outlets, are you sure that that map is accurate?"  Yes!  She was absolutely adamant that everywhere in the library was the same.  So I went back, did some more measurements, cut some more dry holes, and still didn't find anything.  I went back a third time and said that I had tried and cut all sorts of holes and I still couldn't find anything where it was supposed to be in the reserve area on the first floor.  At that point she said "Yes, the map works everywhere in the library---except on the first floor."

I know that this woman wants to do the best job that she can.  I also think that she believes she does.  Moreover, I'm pretty sure that she thinks I'm a bit of a "screw-up" because I "waste" so much time thinking about things and questioning people about issues instead of just saying "yes sir!" when asked to do something.  And it isn't that she lied to me, it's just that she had used what I call "universal absolute" language when what she should have done is used "nuanced" language instead.  If she had said "almost everywhere in the library is the same", there would never have been any problem.  Just like if the person posting about the lawsuit had bothered to use his own words to explain that "this $20 million figure is not for damages but rather deferred payment" instead of cutting and pasting something from a judge's findings.

I used to get really outraged about this sort of thing because I saw it as being done for some sort of ulterior purpose.  That is, the guy who uses cut and paste to make his points was trying to confuse people on purpose to slag the Mayor, and, my co-worker got some glee out of seeing me get blamed for wrecking a carpet.  But over the years I've come to the conclusion that in the majority of cases this sort of thing happens simply because many people don't have the ability to express themselves with any clarity or precision.

It is the case, of course, that sometimes the point that is being communicated is not a literal piece of information, but rather that of the relative power of the players involved.   The famous scene from the movie "Cool Hand Luke" is about this power in-balance.  Luke, for one reason or another, seems to act as if he has more personal autonomy than the prison warden wants to allow him.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, the problem with Luke is that he simply refuses to internalize the rules and culture of prison life. This really is a big problem for the warden, because it would be impossible to run a prison without the tacit cooperation of the inmates.  When a charismatic prisoner comes along who refuses to "play ball", the authority really does have to find some way of getting him or her to "play ball".  And in many cases, it does simply involve finding some way to communicate the new power balance.  This can include forcing him to wear leg irons or striking him every time he makes a smart comment. The same sort of thing happens in the army during basic training, which is all about teaching people to follow orders instantly and without question.  Since the whole point of the exercise is to by-pass the discursive intellect and get people to act without thinking, force is the main instrument of communication.

This issue of communication is important for anyone who is interested in Eastern Philosophy where it manifests itself in language that is often gnomic instead of clear and precise.  Consider the following scene from the sci-fi series "Babylon Five", which gives two neat examples of gnomic sayings in response to a specific question.

The initial snippet involves the Centari Ambassador, Londo, being asked to help the parents of a child to get "justice".  His answer is "how much justice can you afford?" The Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, is being asked if he will be willing to intervene to stop an operation by the station physician to save the life of a child.  (The procedure is against the parent's religious beliefs.)  Kosh's answer is "The avalanche has already started.  It is too late for the pebbles to vote."  Londo is asking for a bribe, whereas Kosh is suggesting that the situation is already beyond the ability of both the parents and ambassadors to influence.

Gnomic answers are used for a variety of reasons.  In the case of people, like Londo, asking for bribes, they help people avoid making any blunt statements that can be used against him at a later time.  They might also allow both parties to avoid offending their overt belief system by making what they are doing seem like a trivial exercise.  Bribes are often "tarted up" this way by calling them "gratuities" or "coffee money" and so forth.

The sort of answer that Kosh offers is used to brush off someone without diminishing his standing in their eyes.  As fundamentalists, the parents probably wouldn't be able to understand a more complex answer that tries to explain why their belief system is faulty.  Instead, they'd probably be offended, which might end up threatening the Vorlon relationship with their society.  So by tossing out some sort of enigmatic statement that pretty much absolves Kosh of any personal responsibility (after all, things are already beyond his ability to do anything), he not only avoids getting stuck to an ethical tar-baby, he also preserves the dignity and supernatural aura that adheres to the Vorlon "brand".

Language can also be used to answer a question by encouraging the person asking the question to go through a non-verbal exercise that helps them answer the question for themselves.  Consider the following from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

The Gates of Paradise 
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked:  "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin.  "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued:  "So you have a sword!  Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
Hakuin could have tried to explain to Nobushige that Heaven and Hell were metaphorical representations of mental states, but he probably thought that a soldier would have have had a hard time following an abstract argument.  So Hakuin decided that the best way to explain his position would be to try and force the soldier to recreate the mental states involved during their exchange.  The hope would be that it would be such a forceful experience that the Nobushige would have to acknowledge the truth of what Hakuin was expressing.

Yet another way of communicating with people is to use what are called "plastic words". defines these as "language twisted to fit various circumstances by politicians and other officials; words that can mean everything and nothing".  These are used by politicians and marketers because they allow people to talk to a group of people composed of folks who see things in various different ways, and yet seem to be agreeing with all of them at the same time.  The best example of this that I can think of is the phrase "sustainable development".

"Sustainable development" was crafted as a response to the Club of Rome's statement that said that there are "Limits to Growth" that a finite planet imposes on the human race.  It should be self-evidently true that the planet places constraints on how many people the earth can support and how large the economy can grow.  But this threatens so many entrenched elements of society that a huge backlash developed to the term.  As a result, a United Nations commissioned a group to study the relationship between the economy and the environment, which became known as the "Brundtland Commission" (named after the chairwoman.)  This group published a report, which ended up promoting the concept of "sustainable development" in opposition to "limits to growth".  Because there was so much institutional support for the former, and opposition to the latter, it quickly became the only language used.

  "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

The thing to remember about sustainable development is that depending on where you place the emphasis, it can mean two things that are pretty much opposed to each other.  It can mean "sustainability" to people, which means that the environment is being used in a way that allows it to exist in an non-degraded way for the indefinite future.  Or, it can also mean "development" to people, which means really fast economic growth for economies that are not at the same rate of industrialization as those of Europe and North America.  It also steadfastly refuses to admit that there is a inherent contradiction between these two agendas.  When I talk to people about this, it becomes very clear to me that the consensus amongst most people is that the sustainable development means "sustained economic growth" more than anything else.  This is the power of "plastic words", they can sound good but stop real conversation short because they ultimately do not mean much of anything at all.  In contrast "limits to growth" is the opposite of plastic.  Everyone knows right from the get go what that phrase means. That's why powerful interests moved heaven and earth to replace it.


Anonymous said...

I listen to much miss-information, plastic words, and double speak on the subject of the middle east and the Israel Palestine war.

dltrammel said...

very good post