Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category
How talk of an acre became talk of an industry
Here’s a story seemingly about not knowin’ nothin’: two friends from Boston decided to figure out why we grew so much corn in the U.S. So, naturally, they went to Iowa and hired an acre of land to grow their own corn.
As anyone would, given a compelling question.
In King Corn, friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis found their grandfathers both came from the small town of Greene, Iowa. In this documentary (a form we know as dedicated to a version of a story rather than seeking objectivity), the two friends plant, fertilize, weed, and then harvest their acre of corn. All with the help of local farmers. But this is not the gotcha-style documentary that Michael Moore practiced. These friends seem genuinely interested in all aspects, ask the dumb questions that any of us (non-farmers) might ask, and make connections with the farmers, families and communities along the way. They let their questions propel them and others join in, though we have a strong hunch where the questions are going.
As they tell their story, they identify Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford. They note how Butz initiated a government policy shift that turned small farmers into big producers (especially of corn) rather than keeping them as small producers (that is, paying them to not produce to keep prices high). The friends also talk with Michael Pollan and a number of other fancy academic big-shots with opinions and research on food and agriculture. What they found turned the conversation.
- Massive feed lots that have dialed up cattle production by letting them stand and eat corn nearly constantly. So: faster to market. The cattle continue to eat toward an upper physiologic limit and must ingest a constant stream of antibiotics to continue eating. That would be our beef industry.
- A high fructose corn syrup industry spawned from the great quantities of corn produced. High fructose corn syrup seems incredibly malleable and shows up in a high percentage of the produced foods we buy. And high fructose corn syrup, as we are learning, is just more sugary, empty calories that help contribute to our nations struggle with obesity.
What’s odd is that raising corn, on its own, is a money-losing endeavor. But with the subsidies our government kicks in, it becomes profitable for farmers to set aside enormous sections of land to grow it. And the resulting industries and practices have a problematic relationship with our culture and health.
King Corn ends up as an uncomfortable look into an industry we all partake in. And like all documentaries, there is a clear point of view, which was fun to watch. I’m certain the beef and high fructose corn syrup industries have excellent and solid rebuttals for the conclusions any viewer might form from the film.
We’re all happy with cheap food, but the film helps us ask about the long-term cost of our cheap food.
What I appreciated about the tone of the film was just two guys just asking questions (yes, I bought into that portrayal of the friends). And rather than Michael Moore-style bombast, the filmmakers presented a couple sides to the story (though certainly not all sides) through conversation. The result helps me begin to rethink the low-priced, easily available food that surrounds us and for which I am grateful.
I’ve said too much already.
If you hear this, you’ve said too much. You’ve said more than someone wanted to hear. “Good to know” is a polite way for your listener to indicate, “Please. Shut it.”
Why do we say too much?
Maybe we are excited about a topic. People will often have mercy with this motive. Sometimes the excitement rubs off. Our favorite professors and speakers demonstrated their enthusiasm for a topic by going on. And on.
Maybe it is a nervous tic that flows from fear of awkward silence.
Maybe we are hiding our tracks, like the alcoholic filling up verbal space to avoid the obvious question. Maybe our rush of words is like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, to throw our interrogators off our track.
Maybe we’re signaling dominance. Stringing together buzzwords at a rapid pace is a time-honored tactic in corporate meetings where you have no clue how to respond. The tactic usually ends in promotion because higher-ups read “kindred spirit” in your fast mumbling. Maybe our club or church or group listens for key words to show who is in and who is out, so our rush of words is a frantic attempt to show we are in.
“Good to know” is a proper, dismissive response to much of the advertising done to us: superfluous, out of step with regular life and an obvious pitch for our pocketbook.
But when we hear “Good to know,” it may be worth stepping back and getting momentarily meta, and thinking, “Oops. I might have misjudged this person’s interest. How can I get back to connection?”
Connection is the place to be. Connection gets along well with enthusiasm and does not mind probing into track-hiding. But connection does not abide dominance.
See also: How be a verbal philanthropist (#14)
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Short Answer: No One Likes Being Manipulated
On Conversation is an Engine I mostly write about communication and conversation and copywriting and how business interacts because I am fascinated by what happens when people talk. But undergirding this sense of wonder is a faith in God that makes me see much of life in theological hues. The fallout from that theological saturation means I want to approach the work of communication and persuasion from an ethical perspective—as best I can.
Lots of music labeled “Christian” does not do that.
The college I occasionally teach at has a radio station that spins out Christian music. I stopped listening years ago when I realized my emotions were being manipulated by music that was nearly content-free. It had a veneer of faith, but seemed much more about living a good life and having positive feelings.
Especially positive feelings.
I’m not against positive feelings. Happy is good in my book. Happy makes sense to me. But if happy comes from a sugar-like high that dissipates as quickly as it formed, was it real? And is happy the point of faith in God?
I argue: No.
Happy is good. Joy is better and depending on how you define things, joy lasts longer. And true is best.
And really, what is Christian music? I might argue Tom Waits has a lot more truth to offer than whatever contemporary Christian band is currently famous. The Talking Heads seemed to provide many glimpses of truth—so do many of the folk musicians I listen to. Certainly Mr. Bach and Mr. Mozart and Mr. Telemann and Mr. John Adams and even Philip Glass provide more soaring and more depth and more truth.
Of course, music is a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong. We like what we like and I don’t want to disparage anyone’s choices—really I don’t. But if I sense I’m being manipulated by sentimental lyrics, I move on.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston, in response to on the move
As far as wars go, this one is easily sustainable. And we all have a vested interest in sustaining it, because when we’re talking (even combatively), we’re, well, talking.
Just talking. Not bombing. Not spying (well, OK, probably still spying). Not releasing nerve gas on civilians (well, OK. Some of us can talk and still gas/butcher/jail civilian populations). But talking directly to our various populations is at least different than cold-warring it. Talking is the opposite of the silent treatment.
Talking accomplishes stuff: McCain’s sharp criticism of Putin comes on the heels of Putin’s criticism of Obama’s Syria plan. And Obama’s Syrian plan floated out with words and met all sorts of ridicule and resistance and ire and…success (or at least the beginning of movement toward success).
What if more of our conflicts started in our enemies op ed pages, long before we took action?
What I like most about all this talk is the corollary comments that come out when McCain or Putin or Rouhani poke their sharp sticks in the eyes of the audience. The audience responds bringing up all sorts of truth and innuendo and implications that may apply or may not apply, but all of which allows us to think together. All this talk allows us to stay engaged. Engaged audiences are a good thing.
Keep talking Mr. Putin. Say on, Mr. McCain. Let’s grab a chai, Mr. Rouhani. You are right: “constructive dialogue” is a great win for everyone. Even if Iran is on a PR spree with their new reasonable-sounding president. Let’s jump on this bandwagon. We’ll need to move to the next step, of course: if Iran’s nuclear program is truly for fuel only, then allowing third-party inspections will be not big deal, right? Inspections could begin to put the rest of the world at ease about Iran’s seeming bomb-making proclivities. On the other hand, the US also needs to offer movement toward transparency: we’ve certainly hid plenty. Being a superpower should not make us bullies—we need to play by the same rules.
Yes. Let’s chat.
We may not believe everything each other says, but talking is a start.
Image credit: Times of India
On Being recently broadcast a 51 minute conversation entitled Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue. The recording includes a bunch of great moments and thoughts about communication and conversation as David Gushee and Francis Kissling each have their say and then tell what they’ve gained from the other side of this deeply divided topic.
I need to listen to the entire conversation again.
But toward the end of there was a moment where Ms. Tippet asked about the paradox of passionately clinging to what you know is true even as you reach out to understand what your opponent/conversation partner says/thinks/feels. There is a growth that happens, a change. It is not a giving away of passion or the rightness of the cause, but a deep concern that emerges. Here’s Mr. Gushee:
…after the Princeton conference in 2010 I felt clearer [about the] the position I had going…. But also I was more clear about the intelligence and the love that motivated the people on the other side too. And I respected that…. (~43:30 to 44:01)
There is a mistaken fear about dialogue that says if I engage with another person who does not believe like I believe, I run the risk of losing what I believe. But most people find the opposite to be true: passion grows deeper and something else is added: an understanding care about the other person. The passionate divide may remain, but surrounding that divide is care for another. And that begins to change everything.
This seems to me a shining moment.
A moment many of us could pursue.
A Meditation Beyond Gay
A few days back I posted There’s Something About Out (Out Always Informs In) and noticed a slight uptick in hits. My theory: the uptick had to do with the word “out” in the headline and subhead, a signal word for the LGBT community. Walk with me as I argue the value of “out” is beyond ownership by any particular set of people and is useful for anyone trying to communicate to those outside their immediate peers.
One lesson to be learned these days is the walls that traditionally provided sharp borders for any community are falling quickly. Social media opens a rolling window into nearly any group—if you know the right search keywords. With keyword searches we expose what poets and writers are doing, what glass-blowers and comic-con enthusiasts and copywriters and geocachers are up to. The corollary is that if you are in a tightly-delineated group with high walls, there has never been a better time to begin to explain yourself to those outside, because someone is likely peering in.
Out is more and more important—especially since we battle xenophobia (fear of strangers) on so many different levels: acute and generalized, nationally, locally, in Congress and on the street. Fear of strangers ought to be decreasing given increasing frequency, but it seems the opposite is happening.
In my copywriting practice I often help clients organize their thoughts for those outside the organization. How difficult can that be? Good question. The truth is that we all get caught up using shorthand, insider terms that have less to do with communication and more to do with identifying others who are part of our tribe. Real communication happens when we make our ideas and ourselves accessible to those not from our neighborhood or company or tribe or sect.
The challenge of “out” is communication beyond our self-inscribed language borders. First we need to identify the borders (and possibly our tribe). Then we need to know what’s important and remarkable that someone outside would care about. The challenge of “out” is to step outside our circle with honest, clear language that also happens to make us vulnerable. But those things that are important to us are worth sharing.