Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Ugh! Harumph!!"

I've recently had some experiences that, to me, illustrate a fascinating discrepancy between what people express and how other people perceive these expressions. These experiences have got me reflecting on how amazing it is that humans can even communicate on anything more than the most basic levels (i.e., "need food now," "want sex now," "you go away now," "you come here now," "no," "yes," etc., like some stereotyped cave-dwelling hominid).

The first example is based on the experiences I've had just about every quarter of the course I teach. I start every quarter by reading academic articles on the topic of sustainability, and I explain to my students that, yes, these articles approach their topics from a relatively abstract, philosophical perspective, but I start the quarter this way--in the clouds, so to speak--because over the course of the quarter we're gradually going to ground these abstractions in the specific lived experiences of specific community members. The theory and philosophy we learn at the beginning of the quarter will help inform the practical knowledge that we'll be gaining, and the practical knowledge will also be seen to exist within a broader context of history, culture, theory, etc. My personal view here is that both the theoretical and the practical are incomplete without one another.

Pretty much every quarter, at least a few students in the class critique these articles because they don't identify practical examples of sustainability-in-action.

The dynamic in my courses, then, is that in spite of the fact that I tell students that what they're about to read will be heavy on theory and light on practice, and that we'll be working our way, very purposefully, toward practice, some students still feel the need to critique the articles along these lines. Student critiques also arise in spite of the fact that the authors have stated clearly in their articles their thesis, purpose, and approach.

Such critiques are, to me, like critiquing a history of the American Civil War because it doesn't go into detail about the Crusades, or like critiquing an apple because it doesn't taste like an orange.

I realize that many senior undergraduates are still in the process of learning how to really read and understand academic articles (I speak from direct personal experience here), and I'm not writing this post to lament higher education. However, I am fascinated that in spite of my own and the authors' clear and repeated expressions that these articles won't be providing practical examples, many students still expend (waste?) their time formulating such critiques.

Another example stems from a conversation I recently had with a good friend on the topic of this post of mine. We weren't discussing the content of this post per se, but, rather, the definition of atheism itself.

In the post, I very purposely, very deliberately, and, I thought, very clearly defined what I meant by the word "atheism." Atheism is a loaded word in our culture, so I wanted to make it explicitly clear how I defined it so that the contentious discussion that followed wouldn't become mired in meaningless posturing among discussants who did not define their terms clearly. That is, if someone wanted to engage me in that discussion and used the definition of atheism that I offered, we could have a meaningful discussion; if someone wanted to critique my definition of atheism, we could also have a meaningful discussion; however, if someone came to the conversation with an implicit definition of "atheism" and failed to express this definition explicitly, then the discussion would be meaningless because I would be saying "apple apple apple" and he or she would be hearing "orange orange orange," and vice-versa.

So, the discussion with my friend progressed along the apples vs. oranges track for quite a few minutes until I realized that my friend was talking about a completely different definition of atheism. My friend's definition was that atheism itself was a religion and by self-identifying (even in the qualified way that I did) as an atheist I was being as hard-headed as other religious fundamentalists.

However, I did not define atheism in the way that my friend was defining it. My definition was: "disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings."

That's it -- that's where I began my discussion: From a clear, concise position. I then built a more nuanced argument that qualified my "belief" in atheism with my "belief" in agnosticism, in which I also defined agnosticism very clearly.

I may be running the risk, dear reader, of distracting you from the purpose of this post, so before you find yourself wanting to berate me for spiritual beliefs that you disagree with or lambasting me for teaching a class that focuses on the New World Order notion of "sustainability," I'll bring the discussion back to a clear focus:
    Regardless of how clear and concise some people try to be in their expressions, some people are likely to read-in to these expressions, and often this reading-in will take these other people very far afield from the purpose, scope, and intent of the original words.
This is why I'm so fascinated at times that humans can even communicate at more than the most basic, animal, levels.

I'm not saying here that I'm immune to this dynamic; I could provide examples of where I've done the distracting reading-in to someone else's words. However, such a dynamic as I identify above seems to me like a waste of all of our time (at least at times).

Relating this to the field of history, if I were to read-in to my sources whatever I thought or wanted to see there, I wouldn't be an historian at all, I would be a polemicist, or a propagandist, or an ideologue, or something like that. The discipline of history involves learning the fundamental research and analysis tools to interpret historical sources, for sure, and to try to understand the lives and times of other groups of people, but not to read-in to my sources whatever I want to so as to confirm whatever point I already had in mind. If this were the case then one wouldn't need to go to school to learn the discipline of history, one could just sit at home on the Internet and make stuff up about alien visitation, lizard people, Atlantis, moon landing cover-ups, etc.[1]

The moral of my tale is this:
    True communication comes from actually listening to what other people have to say, not projecting our own versions of reality onto others, so we'll all be better off the more that we can take a step back from a given statement or piece of writing and give other people the respect of actually hearing and trying to understand what they're actually expressing.

(In reviewing what I just wrote, I realized that I've just spent a lot of extra words re-stating the Golden Rule. Go figure.)

[1] Oh, wait -- there are people doing this already (but I'm not going to link to any of this nonsense from here).



  1. Okay, this is my second attempt at posting my thoughts. I learned the hard way that I need to write in Word first and then cut and paste to your blog – 25 minutes of writing later, my post was GONE! I don’t believe my second go at this will be anywhere near as good as the first, but here goes.

    So, I think you are not going to win this one. Communication is inherently flawed because we all receive messages through our own unique filter. This filter is formed through our experiences, values, knowledge, schema…call it what you like! Every one of us has a very unique view of this world. While we may think that we are sending clear messages that are explicit, they are received through the filter of our listener and modified to fit the schema hooks that are available in their brain. No schema hooks, no comprendo. So the message comes back to us as either rejected or warped.

    I have been trying harder lately to make sure I repeat back messages that I THINK I’m hearing to the people I communicate with – especially if it is a high stakes situation that requires true listening. What is surprising to me is that sometimes even just repeating back the words of the speaker does not show that I’ve understood the message! There is nuance and non-verbal messages and body language that go along with what a speaker says. And if I don’t repeat back to the person what they said with the nuance they originally imbued, they will reject what I say and may even think I’m mocking them! Just think about how misconstrued an innocent email can become because the receiver did not comprehend the nuance beneath the message.

    As for the angle on the field of history, I have a question for you: do you think that historians provide “pure” interpretations of history, and if so, what is meant by a “pure” interpretation?? Here’s my take on history: the event happens, multiple people try to “interpret” it and write it down, then more people (historians) “interpret” the interpretations until we are left with something that may not resemble the original at all (take the Bible for example). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that historians commit malfeasance on purpose; I’m only saying that each of them (including you) interprets history through your unique lens. Who is to say, after all, that even at the moment of action the historical event can be reported purely? This is what makes history (and communication) rich! The fact that there can be, and are, multiple interpretations based on who is receiving the information.

    So, how to remedy this conundrum? You can’t! Expect that people will misunderstand your messages even when you think you have been explicit, try to understand the messages that are sent to you to the best of your ability, and accept the fact that sometimes even if the message is understood, the receiver still may not agree  (I include the smiley face to soften my message since the nuance may not be apparent).

  2. Great points, Heidi.

    we all receive messages through our own unique filter. This filter is formed through our experiences, values, knowledge, schema

    This is a fascinating point, and one that I return to often. One way I have tried to address this issue is in my post "On Science and Trust." This post featured a fascinating radio program about the creation of the scientific method. Robert Boyle and the first advocates of this method in 17th century England were trying to create a system that enabled people to come to agreement on fundamental processes and techniques precisely so that they could avoid conflict. This method has achieved some amazing concordance among people with otherwise very different cultural and spiritual beliefs.

    However, for people who don't first agree to follow the scientific method, very different cultural and spiritual beliefs make it hard to come to agreement on fundamental principles. What to do in these instances I don't know, besides start with the Golden Rule.

    I have been trying harder lately to make sure I repeat back messages that I THINK I’m hearing to the people I communicate with

    Excellent -- the Golden Rule in action!

    since the nuance may not be apparent

    If I had a nickel for every time this happened to me . . . etc. This happens to me with just about every post I write on the topic of religion that people comment on.

    : )

    Regarding your question about history and purity, that topic deserves a post of its own (stay tuned).