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Posts Tagged ‘neil postman’

my playlist

I’ve been building and rebuilding a playlist in my mind the last couple of weeks. I’ll write about it someday, I’m sure, I thought. When I’ve finally gotten it right-enough.

Without pressure or hurry, it could have been months before I solidified the playlist. But then I read a post that got me fired up, and I found my playlist.

The post bemoaned how everything is a competition now: singing, playing instruments, sports, politics. Everyone’s in it to win it. Period. Read more…

perspectiving

Earlier today, I glanced down and saw an awful, judgment-filled word scrawled in my older son’s handwriting.

Hold on now, I thought. When would he have even heard that word, and how would I have missed it in two years of having this same piece of paper behind my desk?!

Having written so recently about perspective(s), I smiled when I uncovered the rest of the paper to find the answer a split-second later. 

I’d seen the marks as they were, sure, but … I’d interpreted them upside-down, leading (briefly) to a very different, very wrong reading.

What a difference perspective–and context!–can make.

On heroing

Once upon a college-time, I found myself so useless–to myself, to others, to the world–that I wanted to die.

I challenged myself to find one thing I liked about myself; if I didn’t, I’d kill myself. If I could find one thing, though, I figured I could probably find more … with some patience.

I decided my calves were pretty rad. Seeing that one good thing paved the way for my sticking around to see more, so that one little thing meant everything: choosing life, as opposed to suicide.

Over time, I came to have faith in words. I understood them and became adept at shaping them to express precisely what I meant.

Then I began reading Neil Postman, who helped me understand some of the biases in words and word combinations, particularly English ones. Nouns are especially appropriate to represent some physical items (table; car; sandwich), but help create the illusion of stasis in some more dynamic “things” (language; people; school).

There’s a lot to this, but some of the biggest questions Postman opened for me were about this illusion of stasis, or unchangeability. By referring to “language” instead of “languaging,” English speakers may perceive language as an unchanging behemoth instead of sets of ongoing processes. By referring to people by individual, set names, we tell ourselves each person is one relatively stable unit instead of a changeable, changing entity who does the hard, ongoing work of “personing” in a rapidly changing world.

Some statements presented as fact aren’t, really.

“Projection,” as the term is used by semanticists such as Korzybski and Hayakawa, means that we transfer our own feelings and evaluations to objects outside of us. For example, we say, “John is stupid” or “Helen is smart,” as if “stupidity” and “smartness” were characteristics of John and Helen. A literal translation of “John is stupid” (that is, its most scientific meaning) might go something like this: “When I perceive John’s behavior, I am disappointed or distressed or frustrated or disgusted. The sentence I use to express my perceptions and evaluation of these events is ‘John is stupid.'”

When we say, “John is stupid,” we are talking about ourselves much more than we are talking about John. And yet, this fact is not reflected at all in this statement.

Language might actually be used to conceal more than it reveals.

At first, it felt liberating to be able to see some of the processes behind purported “things” I’d wrongly perceived as more or less stable. Slowly, though, it destroyed my faith in something that had almost always been a bedrock for me: that I could set forth words that showed precisely what I meant to almost everyone who read them. But if meaning is projected onto words by a perceiver instead of simply absorbed as stated, what I stated was far less important than the meanings being projected onto my words by readers/hearers.

With everything apparently objective revealed as potentially quite subjective, then, I lost faith in my ability to English-language … or that there was much merit in bothering to even try. I was especially disturbed by one kind of illusion I began seeing everywhere, especially in my own words: one of scale. Words can help things I’d consider enormous seem small, and can give small things an illusion of comparative enormity.

For example: If it’s a “disaster” when I flub an important meeting, what is it–apart from, of course, a crime–when hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and retirement funds due to the bad behavior of a small number of extraordinarily powerful bankers? When those bankers aren’t even held accountable, but slapped on the hand by having less-than-incremental fees effectively taken from investors … as punishment? (How is that “punishment”? How does that deter abuse of power?)

If it’s “crushing” to remember a particularly bad memory, what is it, then, when entire villages are literally crushed by American-sold (and, often, -dropped) bombs? Especially when many of those bombs are “gifts” that keep giving for decades to come?

If an especially tasty hot dog can be “awesome,” then what’s the feeling you get standing and looking upon grand portions of the Grand Canyon?

If it’s “amazing” to get a great bonus at work, what is is when a family is granted asylum … and thus given a chance at life when they’d have almost certainly died had they stayed in their (prior) home?

With so many hard-to-see flaws in tools of meaning conveyance, words, I stopped seeing the point of trying to negotiate them.

If I was no longer a(n effective) worker-of-words … what was I, even?

Last week, I was fairly bludgeoned–multiple times daily, each day–by a word that I’d always translated as representing goodness. Read more…

Not a fixed state

This morning, I read an article on business “culture.” Its author wrote about this in a way that demands quotation marks be placed around the word. Is “culture” really some fixed thing, perceived and experienced the same way by everyone?

As I read, I imagined the author conversing with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, authors of the 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. The book is less about teaching than assumptions, and specifically learning to explore and challenges one’s own assumptions, including those shaped by a specific language. One of my favorite passages is about “the mind”:

Even the words “the mind” are subtly metaphoric. Think of those words for a moment. Why the mind? Why a noun? Why a “thing”? As John Dewey and Arthur Bentley observed, we would come much closer to actuality if we spoke of “minding” (as a process) than of “the mind” (as a thing).

With that passage in mind (ahem), I chuckled at the idea of “a culture.” Why does English treat it as a thing, not a process? It’s dynamic and evolving, shaped by many factors and influences, not a point in time! It seems more apt, then, to think of “culturing” than of “culture.” Every day, through countless acts and interchanges, the people who participate in a company or community are shaping it. They might be said to be “culturing,” rather than “impacting ‘the’ culture.”

I have no answers to these questions, but I do love reflecting upon them. Before last month, I’d never really considered how language shaped my world instead of simply helping me describe it. Now, I see dozens of examples of this shaping every day. It’s fun exploring these questions I didn’t even realize were questions a few weeks ago.

If this isn’t enough for you to mull over, here’s a parting consideration I’d do well to hold in mind keep minding: “You cannot avoid making judgments, but you can become more conscious of the way you make them.” This is important because judgment can make us “behave in response to our judgments rather than that which is being judged” and because: “People and things are processes. Judgments convert them into fixed states.”

I’m not a fixed state. Are you?

This 4/4/17 post transferred from L2SP 6/3/17

Knowledge is a quest

When I began striving to speak Politics late last year, I had the notion that “politics” was a separate subject distinct from all others. The first few months, then, it was very easy to practice; everything I read was new to me and fairly easily summarized, and so I wrote almost daily.

After a few months, I started feeling like politics wasn’t really separate or distinct from anything else. Rather, it was a part of everything, and everything was a part of it. The “politics” books on my bookshelf weren’t on separate, discrete topics, but on different aspects of an interconnected everything I could only barely fathom and definitely could not articulate. The books’ covers only created an illusion of disconnectedness between the books themselves, as well as everything they attempted to represent.

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The beginning

I found it much harder to write about politics once I discerned politics wasn’t an isolated body of knowledge. Before, I’d thought politics was one thread running through a quilt. After I saw that politics was made of many subjects, moments, feelings, and experiences, I despaired of distinguishing what was related and what wasn’t, because each thread within the quilt contained elements of different subjects.

Where would I start, and where would I leave off? I had no idea, but that didn’t seem like a good reason to stop. If I persevered, I might get better at seeing which threads ran closest together, and someday expressing those connections with any clarity.

Several times recently, I’ve written about former NYU professor Neil Postman. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was required reading for three of my husband’s American Studies courses at Yale. As I began my quest for understanding, Anthony told me I’d really appreciate the book. Read more…

Retelling our tale

I recently wrote about the hope I discovered in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. Reading Neil Postman on my lunch break just now, I found a similar sentiment about hope’s power residing in uncertainty: “certainty abolishes hope, and robs us of renewal.”

The entire next page was a beautiful call for hope in a time of rampant change:

Maybe you have to read the whole book to appreciate this passage, but … I don’t think so. And so, I share it, in the hopes you’ll find a similar, healing aha! in it (and maybe, just maybe, read some more Postman afterward).

The world is not atomized

To be clear, I DID IT, TOO

Several years ago, I briefly joined a Facebook group for administrators of inspirational pages. I was deeply discomfited by the group, members of which spent much more time talking about how to get more page and post likes than how to inspire people. The proper formula at that time was just the right quote pasted on just the right pretty picture; many admins were perturbed when sharing algorithms changed so that Facebook began sharing fewer pictures.

Troubled, I wrote that I didn’t feel inspiration resided in the number of people able to see a post. Maybe one person who really needed to see a post would see it, and than an “unsuccessful” post would’ve made a world of difference to that one person. The good it worked on them would ripple outward in lovely ways, so that a post’s reach would go far beyond what some statistic on Facebook revealed.

Each post I read there left me more unnerved. I couldn’t articulate the feeling then, but it was a sensation like: We’re putting numbers over people. This technology is turning us into marketers and targets, not humans engaging with other humans.

I left the group. I eventually left Facebook, too, and found myself better able to see human beings in all their splendor after doing so.

I was on and off Twitter. I even ended up deleting my Instagram account last November, after realizing that, too, was somehow messing up how I perceived real people. In December, I wrote in “Sunlight & friends“:

Something delightful happened after I deleted my Instagram account last month: I stopped thinking of my friends as the two-dimensional representations they share there, and started remembering them as who my heart knows them to be.

I hadn’t even realized I’d been boiling them down to their most superficial selves until I was no longer doing it.

Reading a copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business last week, I was floored to find old concerns addressed with such deference to history, present, and future. That’s to say, in 1985, a scholar I’d never heard of was publishing a book that’d help 2017 me begin to find words for things I felt silly for finding disturbing. Read more…

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