Archive for the 'Rhetoric' Category


Words for a Cause

Many of the most popular causes in the world have a word problem. In particular, I wonder if proponents of global climate change would face less resistance if the words global warming had never been associated with their cause. This post isn’t about the validity of the cause but rather what’s happening because of the words associated with it.

For instance, it’s April 13 and there’s still several inches of snow on the ground where I live. Spring has been colder than previous years by several degrees, delaying planting in my farming community and increasing comments about how the global warming people must have got it wrong. For the world as a whole, the words global warming fail to entirely explain what’s happening, making it easy for opponents to push back.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of accuracy and the ability for words to remain flexible. Perhaps these two goals seem contradictory, but I believe that the most accurate words leave room for day-to-day realities and allow causes to gain authority. What would happen if the words global warming were no longer relied on to describe climate events around the world? What if proponents only used global climate change? Isn’t easier to defend such a position versus the too narrow definition of global warming?

One can argue that if the words are too broad their impact is lessened. Again, it comes back to a question of accuracy. It also becomes an issue of whether one is willing to take the necessary time to find the best words. How many causes, products, service, etc., do you know would benefit from using different words?


Broken Politics

I’m been quiet the last few weeks on the presidential election. Recent events in both parties, however, have made it worth revisiting the campaigns and the language associated with them. To clarify my position before diving in, I support none of the candidates (even the ones no longer in the race), and I believe both the Republican and Democratic parties are broken. With that out of the way…

The New York Times Contradiction

Less than a month ago, The New York Times (NYT) endorsed John McCain. Here’s bit of what it had to say:

…there is a choice to be made, and it is an easy one. Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe. With a record of working across the aisle to develop sound bipartisan legislation, he would offer a choice to a broader range of Americans than the rest of the Republican field.

We have shuddered at Mr. McCain’s occasional, tactical pander to the right because he has demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle. He was an early advocate for battling global warming and risked his presidential bid to uphold fundamental American values in the immigration debate. A genuine war hero among Republicans who proclaim their zeal to be commander in chief, Mr. McCain argues passionately that a country’s treatment of prisoners in the worst of times says a great deal about its character. (link)

Clearly, the NYT expressed some reservations. After all, there’s no love lost between it and the Republican party. A close reading of the endorsement shows no sign that the NYT had any concerns about the moral fiber of McCain, which makes this week’s NYT story, less than a month after the endorsement, so interesting:

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

Obvious contradiction, anyone? In this instance the issue isn’t about the candidate, but about the media. I’d love to have witnessed the discussions on the second story, mainly to see if anyone pointed out that less than a month ago, no mention was made of any character issues in the NYT’s endorsement.

I’m personally no fan of McCain. I admire his service, both in combat and as a senator, to this country, but I do not believe it qualifies as an automatic pass to the White House. However, the NYT’s ought to be ashamed of itself. If the lobbyist story is true, it needs to revoke its endorsement. And if the story is mostly innuendo, they owe McCain an apology. At minimum, I could have done without the sexual overtones. I’m more concerned about what politicians do out of bed for lobbyists versus in bed.

The Democratic Dilemma

The majority of my friends are Democratic, or at least lean that way. I’m more of a small ‘l’ libertarian. However, I’ve watched with some compassion as the Democrats ask themselves who is best suited to head their party. Whichever individual they choose, makes history, but whichever individual they choose has potential issues with a national electorate.

With Hillary, everyone knows the mud will fly, but she’s capable of managing it…I think. She also faces a divided nation. I can’t imagine how it feels to know that people, individuals you’ve never met, hate you. Even voters who might support her are convinced she’s too polarizing. Erin Kotecki Vest actually published a letter at Huffington Post asking Clinton to step aside. (link)

For Obama fans, I feel the most sympathy for you, because in spite of the excitement he generates, he hasn’t been truly tested. Yes, he’s a powerful speaker. Yes, he’s probably capable of great things. However, I believe the media isn’t doing him any favors by not asking the hard questions or closely examining his voting record. Such things will come up in a national campaign. I’m not convinced that he won’t do what every other candidate has done at some point: make a mistake. He’s human, and with his lack of experience and depending on the size of the mistake, it could seal his fate.

If he should win, I’m worried you’re in for serious disappointment based on what I’ve seen out the Democratic Congress for almost two years. I’ve been thinking about something Dave Winer posted last week:

The Dems should be aiming at running the table, taking solid majorities in both houses and a mandate-level plurality for President Obama, an LBJ-level landslide. We need a government, not more bullshit. The Republics need to move over for four to eight years so we can resume our position of leadership in the world, the new world, not the old one. The one where our workers have to compete for the business. We used to get all the business by default. That’s not the world we live in anymore folks. The Republics don’t get that. (link)

As I noted before, I think both major parties are broken. I don’t think the question is whether the Democrats want to effect change, but whether they can. Amongst my Democratic friends, there’s often the lament that the party as a group has a hard time getting it together. Individual Democrats may step out from the party and shine (Obama at the ’04 convention comes to mind), but as a group, they have trouble working with themselves.

I’ll grant you that the majorities in both houses of Congress are incredibly slim, but in theory, why aren’t the Democrats voting “no” to everything that comes from the Bush White House? Does having a greater majority actually fix the underlying problem highlighted by slimmer margins? The same problems exist in the Republican party, but they do a better job of sugarcoating it. I think Warren Beatty had the right of it: “We don’t need a third party. We need a second party.” (link)

Change Bigger than a Candidate

This year’s race has fascinated me. So many people, voices, words, etc. The one thing lacking, in spite of all the rhetoric, was change that’s bigger than a candidate. No matter who you’re rooting for, these individuals are ultimately the leaders for two parties not committed to change unless it’s to their benefit.

I know good men and women are serving in Congress, trying to be real representatives for their constituents. I also know that not so good men and women are serving in Congress, doing their best to profit from their positions of power. How do you put your faith in one person to swing the balance in favor of the good? Doesn’t long-term change demand something more, something that starts at the foundation and works its way to the top?

I don’t know the answers. And perhaps I’m not helping by posing the questions. I simply think we shouldn’t kid ourselves when we step into the voting booth that candidate selection alone is enough to effect the change we so desperately seek.



Language Crashes

Magnetic lettersI’m not a particularly patient person. I’m reminded of this shortcoming every time I get in a car. No, I don’t subscribe to out-of-control road rage, but I do tap the steering wheel and “yell” at the cars going under the speed limit or straddling the lane lines. (I offset this aggravation by singing along with the radio, but only if I’m alone. Yes, I’m weird.) I also try to avoid offensive gestures unless they’re directed my way first, which doesn’t happen very often.

On closer inspection, there’s something interesting that happens when we drive our cars: we’ve created another, mostly non-verbal language to effectively communicate actions and behavior. What does your driving language say about you? Do you use your signal? Do you yield to oncoming traffic? Do you run red lights?

Think about the judgment calls you’ve made concerning other drivers. For example, if there’s really as many idiots in the world as my driving experience would indicate, we’re in trouble. However, I suspect just like our verbal language skills, our driving language skills aren’t always adequate to the situation.

One day driving home from work on the freeway, I carefully checked my mirrors and went to move into the right lane. I’m not sure if it was a shadow or just a quick look, but I luckily saw the motorcycle previously in my blind spot just seconds prior to completing my move. A quick wave from myself and the motorcyclist made it clear that we were both aware of the close call. But what if I hadn’t seen him in that split second? Regardless of how carefully I checked my mirrors and looked around, there still could have been an accident.

Causing Language Crashes

I think these accidents happen in regular language, too. We know all the “rules,” we try to carefully consider all the circumstances, but sometimes it still isn’t enough and we end up making a gaffe, creating a language crash. Most of our individual language crashes don’t amount to much, unless we happen to be in the public eye.

Our fear of crashes can inhibit us from saying things of value. Modern day business and politics punishes crashes so harshly that our leaders have taken refuge in meaningless, lifeless rhetoric that tells us little but lowers their risk of a crash. I’ve said many times that I’d much rather engage in conversation with someone I disagree with 100%, if she is equally engaged, versus chatting with someone who completely agrees with me, but can’t tell me why he does.

No Patience for Language

We’ve run out patience with our language. I haven’t decided if it’s a time issue, where we think we shouldn’t have to listen as much or as closely to get the message, or if it’s a question of knowledge. I posted before about how I tend to use “big” words and some friends like to tease about my word usage. To me, it’s not a question of using big words. I’m using my vocabulary. It just happens that my vocabulary is a little larger than most.

Sometimes I feel sheepish when I get the “look” that I’ve used yet another “big” word, but at the same time, why are we so willing to put words into categories? I don’t think we should all be walking around with dictionaries, but I’m not convinced that words should go unspoken simply because they aren’t common. The same goes for the thoughts and ideas we share with one another.

Accepting the Language Challenge

Today’s politicians aren’t necessarily any worse or better than their predecessors. The same goes for CEOs of large companies and any other individual in a position of authority. Today’s leaders, however, face the dreaded sound bite and a public with an increasingly short attention span who has little interest in hearing an opinion that differs from their own. So we hear very little that challenges us and even less that interests or moves us.

You should be challenged when leaders, or anyone else for that matter, speaks. I’m not calling for adding unneeded complexity to our conversations. Rather, I’m pushing for adding new ideas that challenge the status quo, forcing you to determine what you really believe. Do you actually prefer hearing the same thing over and over again just because it’s easy to understand?

To break the cycle, we have to increase our patience for language and ideas. We have to embrace all parts of language, even the one’s we may not fully understand yet or that make us uncomfortable. We have to be open to crashing more than once as we pursue long-term ideas and results that take time and patience, two things that seem to be lacking in today’s society.

What about you? Have you crashed lately?


(Image courtesy of Gaetan Lee. Some rights reserved.)


Fighting the Urge to Panic

Panic ButtonThe government is coming to your rescue. This morning President Bush gave a non-detailed statement about how the government will help stave off the coming economic crisis.

“The package must be big enough to make a difference in an economy as large as ours,” Bush said. “By passing a growth package quickly, we can provide a shot in the arm to keep a fundamentally strong economy healthy, and it will help keep economic sectors that are going through adjustments, such as the housing market, from adversely affecting other parts of our economy.” (link)

But wait, the Los Angeles Times reports that no consensus exists that a recession awaits the American economy.

But some analysts say the action in stocks and bonds is overstating the chances of grave trouble in the economy. And they contend that the Federal Reserve, Congress and the Bush administration are being goaded by markets to take economic-stimulus measures that may be costly, excessive and even unnecessary. “The administration, Congress, the Fed and the day traders on Wall Street all seem to be in panic mode,” said Allan Meltzer, a veteran economist and Fed watcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Uncomfortable with Bumpiness

Ah, yes. Panic. A sensation that seems to grip individuals, groups, and countries for sometimes inexplicable reasons. These events make an excellent case study of sorts for how unaccustomed we are to bumpiness in our lives. For many individuals, particularly in the Western world, their biggest crisis during a day can involve getting the blue screen of death. However, for other individuals, say for example the people trying to survive the current turmoil in Kenya, actual survival is a daily concern.

We’re spoiled. As danah boyd points out:

Part of why people are so shocked about what is going on in Kenya right now is because Kenya was so stable. (I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Gore supporters would’ve taken to the streets after my country’s corrupt election rather than be so complacent.) (link)

What would have happened if there had been riots in the street after the 2000 election? We take our general, day to day stability for granted, giving little to thought to how often unrest impacts other countries. So when the media types start talking about how the American economy is taking a dive, and the general population gets caught up in the hubbub, I wonder about our ability to avoid panic-induced behavior.

Panic Incited by Government

Going back to the post I wrote yesterday, we’re being told a story about the economy. Yes, some people are losing their homes, some people are losing their jobs. For comparison, consider these little facts: the jobless rate in 1930, prior to the Great Depression was 8.7% and topped out at 24.9% in 1933. Today’s unemployment rate? 5.0%.

Without questions, things aren’t as happy and carefree as they were back in the late 90s and during the last few years. They’re is more volatility in the markets and in the world, but the sky isn’t falling (yet), so don’t let panic rule your decisions. Pay attention to the words you’re hearing from government officials. Pay attention to how quickly the economy became a central news topic. This story is being told for a reason.

Panic Incited by Business

Panic also makes an appearance courtesy of certain business practices. We’re told that we NEED certain products or services. Consider how many things we consider necessities that previous generations managed quite ably without: television, computers, iPods, cell phones, and automobiles. On top of what we now consider necessities, we allow ourselves to be goaded into panicking if we don’t have the latest and greatest. (What? My iPod only holds 40GB! I must have the 80GB version.)

Panic is an emotion that groups have taken advantage of throughout the ages to accomplish their goals. Keep this fact in mind the next time someone tries to make you feel uptight and worried about events. Take a deep breath, step back, and ask yourself, “Who stands to gain if I panic?” I promise that the person who benefits isn’t you.


(Image courtesy of Isaac Schlueter. Some rights reserved.)


Staking Out the Past

There’s an interesting, and what could be considered nonpolitical, thing happening on the Republican side of the presidential campaign: the five front runners have all invoked the ghost of Ronald Reagan to promote the legitimacy of their campaigns. Why is this important? For now, ignore the contradiction of them claiming to be candidates of change and consider this: these presidential hopefuls are equating themselves to the past. What would happen if a business positioned itself as the standard bearer for a company long past its prime?

The past is where it’s at for a reason. Ideally, we learn from the past and make plans for the future that apply those lessons. However, I don’t think you’ve actually applied a lesson if you’re claiming to be the modern day incarnation of the past. The issues and problems of 20+ years ago are not the exact ones either a business or a country faces today. Any time I hear someone positioning him or herself in relation to the past, I start to wonder.

For example, what would you think of a company that claims the title of today’s Enron? Ludicrous, right? But that’s exactly what happens in politics. The politicians hope we forget Iran-Contra, the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, and Watergate when they invoke political leaders from the past. It’s one of the few industries that subscribes to the ignorance theory: if I ignore it, maybe everyone else will, too.

In the business world, consumers and investors have longer memories. We’d never touch a company claiming to be the new Enron. In fact, companies associated with bad events or issues change their names (e.g., Arthur Anderson becomes Accenture, Amway becomes Quixtar, Philip Morris becomes Altria, etc.). We challenge this practice more in the business world (still not as much as I think we should), but we swoon for politicians when they throw out Kennedy, Reagan, et. al., as the leaders who molded their beliefs, as their modern-day heirs.

The next time you hear anyone—in business or in politics—lay claim to the past as some heir apparent, raise both eyebrows. I don’t want an immortal Regan as president nor do I want the next Ken Lay running the company where I own stock. I want individuals who are grounded in today’s world, students of the past, but with an understanding that the future will likely hold new challenges. Those leaders are the individuals of change we desperately need in this world—not the people busy trying to reclaim the past.



Arrogance No Substitute for Real Conversation

Sigh. Poor communication skills seem to be one of the few things the American government excels at. In spite of 29 states introducing legislation, and six actually passing bills against its implementation, the federal government is moving ahead with its REAL ID program. I’ve written about REAL ID issues in the past. However, this time it’s the federal government’s arrogance that baffles me.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, citizens of states that have balked at implementing the national ID authentication program will face some difficulty starting in May when anyone with a non-compliant ID won’t be allowed to board a plane or enter a federal building. Consider the following that came from an official spokesman:

“Come May 2008, [their] citizens . . . will feel the consequences” of the states’ resistance, Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said Friday. (link)

Feel the consequences? Last I checked, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed that REAL ID wasn’t about creating a national ID card. Doesn’t that mean that states still have the right to determine how they issue their driver’s licenses? Combine this fact with the ominous mention of “consequences,” and I’m wondering at the federal government’s marketing strategy. How do they expect to convince anyone? Or do they only plan on ramming it through with brute force? Personally, I’m betting on the latter given the federal government’s past behavior.

I’m still stuck on an official spokesman throwing around threats of “consequences” for state’s exercising their constitutional rights. Stop trying to scare me (“For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”) and engage me as a citizen with a brain. Clearly there’s a reason to question the program. Otherwise, why are over half the states introducing, and in some cases passing, legislation putting a halt to it? The small, optimistic part of me hopes that things improve after the next election, but I have a hard time believing that any candidate is genuinely interested in rolling back government power and oversight. I wish that governments, like businesses, understood that you need conversation to stay relevant. Arrogance won’t cut it.



Looking for Answers in Numbers

Spiekermann House NumbersWe have gone crazy with numbers. No matter where you look, it seems like we’re trying to reduce life and people to a bunch of digits. I posted yesterday on how if you want to be a successful creator, you have to be an equally good listener. Besides listening, I think you have to stop seeing people like they’re a number.

For the last week, pundits and other media types have wondered how pollsters got the data so wrong in New Hampshire, predicting a blow out for Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama. In the end, Hillary Clinton “stunned” said pollsters with a “comeback win.” Of late, I’m seeing two trends: (1) people want numbers to be the ultimate answer to the question (whatever it may be); and (2) the rhetoric surrounding data feels more forced.

Numbers as the Answer

There’s beauty in numbers. They give the appearance of a clear and concise answer to many sticky problems. There’s an issue with relying so heavily on numbers for the answers. Data shields the source of the numbers—people—and people are anything but clear and concise. But we so desperately want clarity that we latch on to the numbers to declare victories, defeats, and everything else in between.

Forcing Numbers into Boxes

Whether it’s how the stock market performed or the latest poll on whatever topic that holds the public’s attention, the translators of said data are in trouble. For years, people dutifully answered questions put to them by pollsters. Now, some people intentionally give the “wrong” answers, hoping to skew the results. However, this reality seems to have little effect on the people gravely sharing the results of said poll as thought it contains the answer to life itself. The same goes for market research. Will we ever own up to the fact that we put huge amounts of money and time behind data that may or may not be valid?

Sometimes Numbers Matter—Sometimes They Don’t

On Thursday, Jeremiah Owyang commented on how happy people were that he posted data on social networks. He made the incredibly important point that:

Without insight, context, and analysis, data itself is a crutch, and remember the numbers only indicate what has happened, and sometimes point to what could happen.

There’s a reason why polls don’t always match up with election results, or why products predicted to fly off the shelf stay in place: human beings don’t like being seen as numbers. Reminiscent of a child who refuses to do what a parent wants, even though what the parent says makes sense, we fight the notion that someone can direct our individual behavior. Deep down, we hate the thought of being predictable and easy to categorize. What child says, “I hope a marketer has my buying behavior totally figured out by the time I’m 18?” We don’t want to lose our mystery, and numbers have a way of stripping the mystery from each of us.

From now on, the next time you see anyone touting a number as an answer, ask yourself whether the question posed is really answered by a number or if it’s a bit more complicated. I’m betting on complicated if the question is about people, because humanity is rarely that easy to define or to describe.


(Image courtesy of Stewf. Some rights reserved.)

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