Conversations

You and I find ourselves sitting in a pub. Within earshot, we can faintly overhear two other conversations.

One conversation sounds like a rigorous dialogue between two intellectuals. The level of their discourse renders you and I as curious laypersons. We admire their knowledge and academic prowess in the field of their expertise (even if we are confused by their technicality and lexicon). Their discussion seems to exude urgency.

The other conversation in auditory range involves two enthusiastic individuals pouring over colourful, popular magazines. Their exuberance is as visible as it is audible. We hear snippets of their fast moving conversation, which touches on flashpoints of fashion, the rumoured lives of popular celebrities, clips of sport highlight reels, viral cat videos, and the domestic complexities of fictional characters on television.

On the surface, the two conversations seem like they belong in alternate universes. As we sit here, we would likely (and easily) differentiate between the flaky banter of pop culture and the consequential exchange of the specialists. Yet our judgments themselves are superficial. Consider what the two conversations have in common.

Both discussions are intensely relational. While we might suppose that the academics are “all business” and the boisterous cultural consumers are “all play,” such an arbitrary division only exists in our minds. The learned experts are no less relational creatures than their counterparts. In fact, to the same extent that popular culture creates a shared language for human connection, you will sense and see no less human need for commonly held values at a scholarly conference. Both conversations, different as they may be on the surface, exist as essential platforms of human connection. The extreme dissimilarity of their content does not diminish the identical nature of their function — two humans interacting in a pub over a set of creative and shared ideas.

Equally, both conversations include reference points for respect between people. Both frequencies of dialogue come with their own codes of conduct, and both celebrate different domains of knowledge. Even so, do we calculate their value differently? What shall we say of consequence?

On one level, we might hypothesize that the conversation between two research professors about theoretical chemistry of a new vaccine will have ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ impact on the world, but we would be remiss to ignore the fact that reality television influences the lives — and minds — of millions of people. Fluency and influence in either domain can lead to ‘consequence,’ and how we go about differentiating impact ‘value’ will be in large part dependent on what we value in the first place.

The point of this reflection: we humans are a connective species, and our need for interconnectivity underscores everything we do. Consider a brilliant discovery in a laboratory by a single scientist (a notably rare scenario as most discoveries involve teams): even the biggest breakthrough carries no consequence until the network of social nodes succeeds in transferring the knowledge where it needs to go. Ultimately, ‘consequence’ is simply the result of where we move knowledge.

So is there a fruitless human conversation? Could you ‘waste’ time in a meaningless dialogue today? Or, could buried treasure lay in every interaction of humanity, across the bizarre, divergent, and creative landscapes of our imaginations? I suppose the only way to really find out is to listen — non-judgmentally — to both conversations.

What are your conversations about today?

[This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters – Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013.]

God of Leadership

There are certain kinds of human activities that we observe behaviourally and then describe as ‘leadership.’ We call the people who do these activities ‘leaders.’ And as we describe leadership, we shape the parameters of what who recognize and ‘observe’ as leaders. Observation, description, and back again. Around and around it goes; a feedback loop. Along the way, we write lots of books and design conferences about how to be better leaders.

But what is leadership? Ask five different people, get ten different answers. In the meantime, there is apparently a lot of cash to be made by telling people the secrets of these mysterious ‘leadership skills.’ But who defines leadership? Who benefits the most by peddling concrete definitions about how ‘good leaders’ act in the world? Who gets to decide what makes a ‘great leader’ so ‘great’ in the first place?

To ponder… I’m thinking about leadership as something like reified cultural iconography. Like a cathedral, a ‘leadership conference’ is a brick and mortar edifice that converts a set of cultural ideas into physical infrastructure. The infrastructure is real. (And the take-home paycheque of leadership gurus — like the temple priests — is real, too.) But the concept of leadership, well, maybe it’s more like a god than anything else.

The Medium is the Epistemology

Put a group of people in a room. Give them a whiteboard, pens, and markers. Ask them to develop an idea.

Put the same group of people in another room. Give them pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, a stage, a guitar, and LEGO. Ask them to develop an idea.

How different will the ideas be that emerge from the two different rooms? Do these rooms represent a shift from semantics to somatics? Does each room favour a different ontology above the other? Are we culturally enslaved to a kind of linguistic-bound epistemology at the expense of other ways of knowing?

I know many people who are more than happy to play with bristol board and post-it notes who, when invited into the other room, tend to flee in terror. This observation isn’t a value judgment about them as people. It is interesting to me how culturally conditioned we are to ‘think out loud’ with pen and paper, but not so much with just about everything else. Our culture is so deeply embedded in written language that we seem to equate ‘meaningful thinking’ to ‘letters on a page.’

From ‘But…’ to ‘Yes, And…’

One of the tidbits I appreciated from Andre Vashist’s presentation at the System Thinking Exchange this morning was this little takeaway:

Try replacing the word ‘but…’ with ‘yes, and…’

‘That’s a great idea, but…’ positions the remaining words to stand in opposition to the idea. ‘But’ is used as a contradiction to the proposition that the idea is ‘great.’ Alternatively, ‘That’s a great idea, yes, and…’ invites layer and nuance.

How many things exist as binaries? Replacing ‘but’ with ‘yes, and’ — in speech and in writing — is a very interesting experiment.

Not getting angry about issues that make me angry

I have been thinking about this image a lot recently:

This graphic is taken from research published this summer. The image represents 563,312 tweets about three polarizing issues in the United States: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change.

The study presented two particularly compelling findings. First, tweets that are emotional and moral are retweeted significantly more than posts that are emotional without expressing moral indignation. Translated: if you want to get lots of retweets, let loose your outrage at wrongs committed by someone else.

The second intriguing finding of the study — illustrated above — is that your emotionally-amped indignation only goes viral as a ‘social contagion’ within the boundaries of your ideological group. Emotional-moral language galvanizes people to spread a message quickly, but only amongst themselves. Emotionally charged tweets about moral issues thus render a map that illustrates the polarization of society as a whole.

When I look at the image above, I reflect on my choice of words and language over the last few years. I wonder how I am implicated in this graphic. Ideally speaking, I guess I assume we all have a responsibility to forge (or reforge?) some middle ground: not because we need to compromise our convictions, but because history has nothing encouraging to say about societies that splinter at the ideological seam. But how do I, as an individual, engage with the most emotion-inducing moral debates without merely adding to the echo chamber of my choir? How do I talk about morally-charged issues without getting angry? Where am I engaged in a discourse at the convergence of these blue and red clusters? How do I intentionally not get angry about the very things that I am most angry about in the first place?

I suspect this image also captures at least some of the reason so many people I speak with do not describe the present state of Twitter as a particularly edifying experience. It seems like Twitter is, at this point, just making everyone upset. And divided.

The self-defeating loneliness of dogmatic self-acceptance

‘I don’t care what you think’ poses as a rejection of other people’s opinions and parades as the acceptance of self. But to adopt this concept of ‘self-acceptance in a vacuum’ you must pretend that you are not a human being — you must think of yourself as some alien creature that hasn’t been evolving and adapting for millions of years to live and work in hierarchical social groups. In short, you must think of yourself as a god: self-existent and self-sufficient.

In contrast, being part of a supportive, caring human community means being surrounded by people who genuinely do care about what you think.

Intimacy is not a prevalent feature in a room full of people whose common belief is that nobody in the room has an opinion that matters. Insisting that you don’t care what others think amounts to alienating and isolating yourself. Thus we can feel the aching loneliness behind the image when someone posts a selfie and declares, ’This is my image and identity, and I don’t care what people think of me.’

‘I don’t care what you think’ might be more accurately translated: ‘I am more concerned with someone else’s opinion than I am with your opinion.’ So in the end, it is possible that the I-don’t-care selfie is more about identifying the support of one’s in-group than claiming independence from the opinions of people in general. In other words, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about me’ could equate to ‘Who cares, supports, and validates identities that look like this?’

Sometimes ‘I don’t care what you think’ might be a desperate and public attempt to figure out who, in fact, actually cares the most.

If you really don’t care what I think, why do you need me to think you don’t care?

This is a short reflection about a common and quirky(?) statement: ‘I don’t care what you think.’

‘I don’t care what you think’ raises a question: what is the point of saying it?

Only someone who really cares what I think needs me to know how much they don’t care. And it appears that they care a great deal that I understand that they don’t care. In fact, appearing to not care is something they seem to care about a great deal.

‘I don’t care what you think’ thus says a great deal about what the speaker wants me to think. Otherwise, there is very little point in speaking the words in the first place. The fact they are saying these words suggests that, in fact, they do care what I think. The phrase is an interesting paradox of language, when you think about it.

The more emphatically someone tries to convince me that they don’t care about my opinion, the more apparent it seems how much they in fact care deeply about my perception of their opinion.

Critical Thinking: A Cheatsheet

  1. What would it take to convince me that I am wrong? (Falsifiability)

  2. How could I empirically prove the exact opposite of what I suspect to be true? (Null hypothesis)

  3. How could someone else argue that my position is illogical or irrational? (Self-debate)

  4. Who benefits the most when I hold this belief? (Critical discourse analysis)

  5. How would a rational person who holds an opposing viewpoint explain and justify their position? (Empathy)

  6. Can I conceptualize an alternative position that does not yield a binary ‘true or false’ dichotomy? (Non-dualism)

  7. How does my position and experience in society inform my assumptions and perspective? (Reflexive intersectionality)

  8. What unconscious mental shortcuts can I identify in my reasoning and rationale? (Cognitive bias mitigation)

  9. How can I guard myself against the illusion that I am reasoning objectively? (Skepticism)

  10. What beliefs have I already unconsciously accepted in order to arrive at my present position? (Presuppositions, tacit assumptions)

  11. What do the words that I use to express my beliefs connote implicitly that they do not denote explicitly? (Semantics, pragmatics)

  12. What are the psychological, social, institutional, or cultural costs of changing my mind? (Motivated reasoning)

  13. How would my identity be threatened if my beliefs or reasoning were shown to be flawed? (Externalize epistemology)

  14. If faced with sufficient counter-evidence, would I care about truth enough to abandon my present beliefs? (Ideological commitments)

  15. Who is framing, shaping, and informing the questions that I can even think to ask? (Social influence)

  16. What questions am I most afraid to ask? (Courage)

Whose version of the past counts? Do the residents of Utopia have a history? What makes time invisible?

The past, it seems, does not exist anymore. It is inaccessible and unalterable. Once the egg is scrambled and fried, it can no longer be reshaped and reconstructed into its oval shell. As far as human perception goes, the arrow of time goes decidedly in only one direction.

But the past also seems very much a part of every moment. The chair you are sitting on came from somewhere in history, but now it is inexplicably part of your present reality. When we react to the past — whether to heal from its scars or celebrate its highlights — we find our immediate priorities being shaped by a history we can no longer access.

The past, even though it is gone, always seems to be part of the present. As T.S. Eilot wrote,

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

For humans, time is about much more than eggs and chairs. Time becomes inseparable from our identities and the narratives we use to orient ourselves in the world. Does our position or role in society shape the way we think about time? Why do different people and different cultures have such distinct differences in the way they think about their history and lineage? After we recorded the podcast, Jasmine minded me of this quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:

social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.

The Panel

Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, researcher, podcaster. His podcast, ‘Talking to Canadians’ (co-produced with historian and PEI-based writer Ryan O’Connor) debuted in January of 2017. Jeremy is also a published editorialist, essayist and poet and his work has appeared in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani) thinks time is fascinating. Both tangible and abstract, time exists within spaces of paradox, intrigue, science, and folklore. Jasmine does not question whether time is real, but the ways in which it is constructed at different times to be real, and the impact it has on our imagination and existence. She has time, or is it hers to have? Either ways, she will be making the time to talk about time, hoping that in time she will understand time.

Thomas Peace (@tpcanoe) is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College. His research focuses on the diverse ways in which Indigenous peoples in the northeast and lower Great Lakes engaged with colonial schooling and colonial colleges at the turn of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the founding editors of ActiveHistory.ca.

And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question

Have you ever had a time in your life when a friend or colleague asked a question that made you stop and see the world differently? Have you ever pivoted or readjusted your approach to an issue because you thought of a way to think about it from a new perspective? Have you ever encountered a question that invited you to rethink your assumptions and biases in a safe and non-threatening way?

What is better than a good question? Join us for a conversation all about learning to ask better questions.

Internet Trolling: A People’s Philosophy

Who gets to define and label ‘trolls’? Will there be redemption for the comment section?

Once touted as a hopeful platform for generative, democratic participation, many people now see online discussion as a cesspool of hatred and toxicity. Just how angry is the Internet?

Yimin Chen (@Shinypants0) is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, where he studies satire, clickbait, and other types of “fake news”. His research interests include online communication, internet culture, and memes. In his spare time, Yimin co-hosts Western’s Gradcast podcast and occasionally finds time to work on his dissertation on internet trolling.

Justina Díaz Legaspe is a professor and researcher in Philosophy of Language, with a PhD from the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). Her main focus is on evaluative and discriminatory language. She is currently a post-doctoral visitor in the Philosophy Department of Western University, where she is conducting research on the meaning and use of slurring expressions. One of her goals is to come up with guidelines for fruitful exchanges with users of these expressions.