Archive for February 2010
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mission to take “sophisticated and sometimes inconclusive science, and boil it down to usable advice for lawmakers.” The article speculates (via scientists working with the IPCC) that institutional bias toward oversimplification is what lies behind the erroneous projection that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035.
If there is anyone out there who still believes in truly objective science—or truly objective anything—I’d like to meet them. It should surprise no one that we constantly arrange facts to meet our pet goals. And we infuse those facts with the urgency that fits our purpose rather than an urgency arising from the facts themselves. This is a human trait and we should expect it in every communication. Facts are facts, yes. But facts are also small pieces of a rhetorical puzzle that can (and will) be built together in a number of different ways. Is there ever a time when we experience facts in isolation—without some rhetorical flourish—that is, without some political aim that wishes to move us toward a favored action?
But persuasion is not wrong. It is a necessary piece of human life on this planet. All our actions, all our thinking, all our communication, all our learning, all of most everything is organized by political pulls. That’s not overstatement: even the best among us are always motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives. Rather than resist this fact of human life, it makes more sense to look closely at the objectives that drive us. Of course, there are two sides to every story, including this large story on climate change. Sure the WSJ is written from a conservative perspective and this article was meant to shine light on hypocritical methods of their opponents, which always makes for good reading and sells newspapers.
It’s just important that we keep in mind what stake our communication partners have in moving us one way or another. And perhaps as communicators, we do best when we state our goals early. In fact, I think our audiences are put in a positive state of listening when they hear our disclosures up front.
[I'm reposting this from about a year ago when I posted it on The Official Blog of Kirkistan, where I've stopped writing. This issue just keeps coming up.]
Before you say “Yes. Of course!” (with proper righteous indignation), consider that a career seems to move a person toward increasing levels of responsibility, toward tasks that require more maturity, toward more money (one can dream). Pick any company and follow the career path of say…well…how about a communication specialist? The communication specialist will write, manage projects, take care of details. They do well, so they are promoted to communication manager. In that position, they do some of the same tasks, though in lesser quantities, plus they manage people. They do well and graduate to director. In that position they have no project work, write only memos and emails, sit in meetings discussing what they’re teams are doing, aren’t doing and should be doing. And so a career proceeds until stopped at the individual’s level of incompetence.
This management person who was (possibly) a writer is now not writing at all and is instead directing others who carry out communication tactics. To many that is a satisfying, perfectly reasonable trajectory. And even for those who write or love to create, they can find opportunities in those positions to use their creativity to positively influence others. I’ve known some creative folks who have risen to management positions and done very well at creating imaginative and loyal teams and organizations.
But for others, this career path represents gradual movement away from craft, and away from the heart of what made work fun in the first place. A career presupposes that new skills are developed even as vision widens, which lands a person in a different job. But that is not quite the case for freelance writers. They often entertain dreams of, well, writing. It’s what they want to do. And so a career path for a freelance writer is less about successive positions (especially since freelancing is by definition outside typical corporate structures with their fixed paths) and more about finding work and the work itself.
The work itself is the career path for a freelance writer. Where there is joy in completing the work, where there is curiosity about how communication tools can fit to new situations and how those tools can resolve substantial problems—those are the milestones on the freelance writer’s career path. And over time, the writer finds herself or himself accomplishing a set of tasks with maturity and grace (one can hope). And looking back, the craft that helped accomplish tasks and assignments will have the distinct look of a career.
Do our life choices change the reality around us? Or do our choices fit us with a set of blinders so we pay attention only to what is of immediate interest? Winifred Gallagher in “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” argues that our senses are fine-tuned to track the smaller set of interests that are important to us. Her masterful book shows the physiological and neurological changes—and the enormous benefits—that happen when we pay attention. But it is also true that life choices change the reality around us.
A few of us have been reading the minor prophet Amos. Amos spoke against the treatment of the poor—over and over again. That’s what prophets do: with little personal authority (Amos was a shepherd), they get tricked-out with a much larger message (larger audience, bigger content, massive ramifications) and they…say it. Out loud. Come what may.
Which is what Amos did. He spoke out against nation after nation for taking advantage of their helpless (among other things). He had a special harangue against nations that should have known better, nations who should have had top-of-mind recollection about how they were recently saved from helplessness themselves.
As we talked about Amos, I mentioned how the poor seem almost invisible today. There are the homeless, but because I’m not paying attention (I’m not actively looking for them), I don’t see them. A couple students in my “Writing for Community” class are doing a masterful job bringing attention to the faces and people-ness of the homeless here. But how can I, how can we begin to see the poor among us? And more importantly, how can I/we keep from choices that trample on them? This spot hints at the effect of our choices: