From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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Language in the Words of Helen Keller

October 19, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I often study the idea of Language. I am curious about how language comes to be meaningful, communicative and permanent. Yet, at the same time, language is so flexible and manipulative. This elasticity allows it to grow, change and expand to incorporate new ideas and influences. Yet, language can also restrict in unseen ways. One thing that is often forgotten, however, once one becomes proficient in reading and speaking, is the power of learning how to communicate. In order to experience this, we can witness the curiosity of young children in the learning process. Rarely do we remember this process ourselves. But we have been gifted with the wonderful, powerful story of Helen Keller, who writes eloquently about her own dawn of language. The rest of today’s blog contains two long quotes from The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, which demonstrate the magic and beauty of language, communication and connection.

From Chapter IV:

“The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”

From Chapter VI:

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"

"No," said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

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A Blog Is A Blog

June 30, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

What is a blog? While unofficial, it appears that the first blog dates back to 1994. Weblogs, coined in 1997, became plain old blogs in 1999. Then, as their popularity rose, Merriam-Webster presented it as the word of the year in 2004. Back then, the word was defined as, “Online journal where the writer presents a record of activities, thoughts, or beliefs.”

Blogs continue to be a space for contemplation, ideas, crafts, words or sharing your favorite pieces of culture. They have greatly expanded due to the converging rise of Do-It-Yourself projects. Merriam-Webster now defines blog as “a website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks, videos, and photographs provided by the writer.” In a second definition, Merriam-Webster claims that a blog can also be associated with an online publication that “relates to a particular topic and consists of articles and personal commentary by one or more authors.” An important aspect of both definitions is that they rely on the term “personal”. While writers always share something personal, there is movement away from the idea of a professional writer, into more of an amateur field.

There are many reasons for the desire to share something personal. However, personal implies that the entire conversation is personal. In other words, it is a conversation typically reserved for an audience among family and friends. Precisely who is included in our personal circle? Our thoughts are certainly personal, and yet, the rise in blogging suggests that humans have a need to more widely distribute their own thoughts. Does a blog offer effective contemplation, conversation? Does it provide a necessary and useful format for society? Or should blogs be relegated to personal interest?

Blogs reflect, I believe, the way in which our societal structure has changed over the past thirty to fifty years. Neighborhoods no longer define community. Instead, we create community through schools, interest groups, activities, churches and family structures. As society alters the style of our community, so does our style of communication. In part, these arose simultaneously. For example, we have access to transportation and communication devices with a fair amount of ease. Our ability to text, call, email, or facetime enables us to travel great distances without leaving our homes. It also allows us the freedom to make plans and change them up to the moment. Transportation grants the freedom to make plans in any number of locations. We can visit friends all over the world with relative ease. And while it is not impossible to maintain strong connections through words alone, visiting certainly helps.

Having this great power of movement, however, also changes the dynamics of our close relationships. While many studies show a correlation between good health and positive relationships, society continues to rely on social media as one form of relationship. I wonder, therefore, how healthy that relationship is for the human psyche and does it fit the need that we need it to fill?

One potentially problematic aspect of blogs is that the writer can claim anything. For the most part, there is no editor or fact-checker. Whether looking up information about cooking, crafting, politics or historical fact, it is likely that you will stumble upon nearly every side of a coin, regardless of fact. Also, it may be difficult to find the information that you need. Searching for a particular issue, may actually lead you astray. In other words, the reader must do their own homework since searchability and reliability remain unresolved issues of blogs.

Having said that, I believe that blogs provide a space in which we can enhance our levels of contemplation. For example, writing offers many potential benefits. A society which writes must be thinking about a wide variety of issues, entertainments and interests. I like the idea that we can form a web of communication with others whom we do not know, have never met and are unlikely to meet. It has the potential to bring us together in contemplation and discussion, not necessarily in agreement. It seems important to support a society of writers and thinkers. To my mind, this is the best that a blog community can offer: serious contemplation of any subject, coupled by thoughtful commentary.

However, the most glaring drawback of blog community is the lack of personal interaction. Without the handshake, hug, facial expression or physical presence, some people feel it is acceptable to write something that would be deemed inappropriate in a social setting. It is as if we enable an internal editor when speaking publicly, but dissociate ourselves from this very same editing device when speaking electronically. This divide seriously puzzles and frightens me.

I hope that as the blogging community grows, our awareness of socially appropriate speech will re-engage, that we will be reminded of the power of speech, of courtesy and grace. I enjoy presenting my thoughts in dialogue and I appreciate the responses that articulate both thoughtful approval and dissent. While I still much prefer human interaction and direct conversation, I can see the potential service that blogs may provide.

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Picking Up On The Cues

May 12, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Communication necessarily involves empathy. To listen requires a silencing of the self. However, to understand requires tools contained within the self. This opens up a paradox: how to listen and translate at the same time. Non-verbal communication often enhances face-to-face interactions. Literature gives any number of wonderful scenes enhanced by non-verbal cues. As I think about and develop an understanding of non-verbal communication for today's post, I am going to focus on three works. First, a quote by Plutarch regarding Caius Gracchus, then a scene from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and, finally, a scene from the 2016 film Arrival.

Plutarch spends quite a bit of time discussing communication in the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. He claims that a real understanding of character comes not through actions alone, but through the way a man uses words, interacts with others and his style of living. Plutarch often notes that temperance is a trait common to many of these great men, but what temperance is, remains to be seen. Plutarch indicates that abstaining from excess – in all aspects of one's life – is a necessary attribute of temperance. This is proven through the detail provided regarding style of food, sleep, and dress, among other things. But most importantly, temperance can be shown in a man's speech and public behavior. Plutarch's favorite exchanges involve senators who spoke their minds but held their tempers.

Plutarch's frustration with political corruption is apparent when he notes that senators have become afraid to vote according to their conscience. He gives exceeding praise, however, to those men who risk their support by offering thoughtful discussion of a new idea. In the following long quote, Plutarch describes the scene of the senate, brimming with corruption. Caius Gracchus, after having witnessed his brother's brutal death by senators in the senate chamber, proceeded to win a popular vote. He too decided to support the populace and not necessarily the wealthy senators. His action speaks loudly.

Plutarch writes: “While he was arguing for the ratification of this law, his behavior was observed to show in many respects unusual earnestness, and whereas other popular leaders had always hitherto, when speaking, turned their faces towards the senate house, and the place called the comitium, he, on the contrary, was the first man that in his harangue to the people turned himself the other way, towards them, and continued after that time to do so. An insignificant movement and change of posture, yet it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.” In this single, dramatic action, Caius demonstrates the way in which speech succeeds better when directed at the party one wishes to address, regardless of prior custom. In other words, body language is a form of presence, a form of signification that transfers audibly.

Dostoevsky describes an extremely awkward moment in Brothers Karamazov in which the action of bowing can be seen as a form of speech. Upon Alyosha's entrance into the monastery, his family meets with Zosima, the elder. Generally, an elder warrants great respect. In this case, however, Alyosha's family is unable (or unwilling) to demonstrate appropriate respect. Whether or not they believe in a higher order (though they all verbally claim to) does not matter. What matters is Dostoevsky's description of their awkward introduction, which speaks volumes.

Dostoevsky writes: “The elder Zosima came out accompanied by a novice and Alyosha. The hieromonks rose and greeted him with a very deep bow, touching the ground with their fingers, and, having received his blessing, kissed his hand. When he had blessed them, the elder returned the same deep bow to each of them, touching the ground with his fingers, and asked a blessing of each of them for himself. The whole ceremony was performed very seriously, not at all like some everyday ritual, but almost with a certain feeling. To Miusov, however, it all seemed done with deliberate suggestion. He stood in front of all his fellow visitors. He ought – and he had even pondered it the previous evening – despite all his ideas, just out of simple courtesy (since it was customary there), to come up and receive the elder's blessing, at least receive his blessing, even if he did not kiss his hand. But now, seeing all this bowing and kissing of the hieromonks, he instantly changed his mind: gravely and with dignity he made a rather deep bow, by worldly standards, and went over to a chair. Fyodor Pavlovich did exactly the same, this time, like an ape, mimicking Miusov perfectly. Ivan Fyodorovich bowed with great dignity and propriety, but he, too, kept his hands at his sides, while Kalganov was so nonplussed that he did not bow at all. The elder let fall the hand he had raised for the blessing and, bowing to them once more, invited them all to sit down. The blood rushed to Alyosha's cheeks; he was ashamed.” Custom has been cast aside on a whim, or perhaps an emotion. Either way, Miusov's very quick change of mind affects the entire room, who follows his example. All of this seems to be driven by an inability to set ego aside.

Likewise, in Arrival, Professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), is the only one able to set aside her ego and, miraculously, her fear. This film offers an excellent look at all aspects of communication. Since Louise Banks tries to communicate with aliens, she is forced to start at the very beginning of language, but even determining what is the beginning may seem confusing. In a very dramatic scene, she removes all protective gear and shows her bare hand to the aliens. This hand on the wall gives them a visual indication of one defining characteristic of humans. We use our hands for everything even down to our greetings. In presenting her bare-skinned hand, her face (without a helmet) and her eyes, she makes an offering. This gesture is simultaneously weak and strong. Weak because she has taken a chance on being misunderstood (in addition to the idea of alien contamination, etc.); strong because she boldly announces her ability and desire to communicate. And, of course, the aliens respond enthusiastically. This position recreates the very paradox of communication itself: how to listen and translate at the same time, how to be simultaneously open and closed (or weak and strong). 

These three examples illustrate some of the potential forces which can block or affect communication. In the first, Caius balances custom with his desire to actually speak to the people. Knowing that the senators would not approve, knowing that his abrupt change could be mistaken or disliked, he bravely took a chance. In Dostoevsky's hilarious scene, Miusov throws both custom and respect out the window on a whim. It appears that his fragile ego will not stand the idea that, in this spiritual world, even novices receive signs of great respect. Perhaps, he is intimidated by their spirituality. Perhaps he thinks all religion is hogwash. Either way, he instantly pulls back and refuses a proper introduction, which influences the next person's bow, and on down to the last member of the party, causing great anguish for the young Alyosha. Finally, Arrival depicts the courage necessary to step as far outside of oneself as possible in order to listen to another's language. To make meaning of these cues, is the next part of the story.

The simplest sentences can be bungled and confused between two people who speak the same language. These three examples exhibit the hilarious, intimidating, nervous or frightening experiences that may accompany communication. Our world depends upon understanding. These three examples substantiate why we might want to attend to the non-verbal aspects of communication in addition to the words.

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