Gone fishing – critical thinking matters

The kind folks from @UNDP_Danmark tweeted out this handy infographic on critical thinking last week:

critical thinking matters

Not exactly as compact as the original fish proverb. But these days, when people seem so primed to disagree with each other, maybe we do need to spell things out. Details make a story sing.

Critical thinking and frames

I’m trying to pay attention to how I frame stories these days. Because, as political linguist George Lakoff has been telling us for decades, the words we use to construct our frame can either draw people into the story or push them away.

If we have any hope of salvaging our suddenly fragile democracy, we need to choose frames that draw people in. So let’s see how we do with the fish tale, shall we?

Give someone a fish, and they eat for a day. But help them become self-sufficient by teaching them to fish and they can feed themselves, their families, and maybe even their communities. 

When we invest in maintaining the purity of our water, we get clean, healthy fish that nourish us. If we stop protecting our environment, our food supply becomes impure and we put our families’ health at risk.

When we invest in our educational system, we strengthen our economy. We provide greater opportunities for our students, who become our workforce. Investing in education makes people better able to make wise decisions to keep their families, their communities, and their country safe.

I wrote those words and they sound like complete bull to me.

Using “families” to justify anything implies that families are somehow the highest, most valuable unit of society. I don’t believe that for a second – it completely invalidates my own existence, and that of many other people as well. But that’s how red voters see the world.

“Protecting” resonates more with them than “regulating.” And the focus of that protecting – their families – resonates more than something more nebulous like “the environment ” or “future generations.” Investing in education will make students more effective bread-winners.

I hate that this stuff works. But we need to use what works.

So let’s not let them talk about rolling back environmental regulations. They’re eliminating protections.

And let’s not let them talk about “protecting” people with the anti-transgender bathroom laws. No, no – what they’re really doing is creating unnecessary regulations.

And while they’re fighting “fake media,” we need to do all we can to #ProtectTheTruth.

Talking blue (and red) – practical advice in Robb Willer’s TED Talk

“Blue language” usually means swearing. Why? Not even Slate knows, though this article “Sacré bleu! Why is blue the most profane color?” offers some historical tidbits. But these days “talking blue” might describe a liberal’s inability to communicate with a conservative. You can articulate the liberal worldview until you’re blue in the face, but if the person on the other side of the conversation holds a conservative worldview, you will never understand each other.

Talking blue to your mirror

Or as social psychologist Robb Willer says,

“…when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.”

That’s from his TED Talk “How to have better political conversations.” Have a listen and learn how to use “moral reframing” to step away from the mirror and begin the process of connecting with people more challenging than your reflection.

Like George Lakoff, Willer sees partisan messaging as rooted in different core values:

“…liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do.”

You may recall the line in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. Well, every time we frame an issue in terms of “fairness and equality”—talking blue—a liberal angel loses its wings.

If we want to reach conservatives, we have to stop talking blue
A screenshot from Robb Willer’s TED Talk

I get it: To me issues like LGBT rights are unquestionably about fairness and equality. And I don’t have to abandon that belief—but if I want a Conservative to hear me, I’d do better to talk about how it’s also an issue of patriotism. “We don’t treat people differently in this country; we don’t interfere in people’s bedrooms; that’s not what Americans do.”

I don’t know. I haven’t got all the answers. But Willer’s argument made me shout “D’oh!” and hit my forehead. We need to replace shouts with conversations; we need to replace contempt with empathy; we need to replace disdain with respect. And yes, both sides need to do this. But the more we embrace empathy and respect, the more the other side will as well.

So how do you do that?

Notice the way Willer combines liberal and conservative language at the end of his TED Talk:

“So this is my call to you: let’s put this country back together. Let’s do it despite the politicians and the media and Facebook and Twitter and Congressional redistricting and all of it, all the things that divide us. Let’s do it because it’s right. And let’s do it because this hate and contempt that flows through all of us every day makes us ugly and it corrupts us, and it threatens the very fabric of our society. We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.”


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The language of lying – how to spot it

Lying has always been with us—ever since Eve said, “Oh, nothing much…” when the Lord asked what she and Adam had been eating in the Garden of Eden. But it seems to be making a comeback in what used to be known as civil society, so we need to get better at identifying and handling it.

In yesterday’s blog, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss taught us how to engage in dialogue with people who would rather be spouting a monologue. Today, he’s back with some tips on how to spot a liar.

How hard is that? you may be wondering. And you’re right; often it’s not. Some liars are just straight out of a Meghan Trainor song: “I know you lie, ’cause your lips are movin’…”

But everyone talks; we can’t assume that everyone lies. (I hope that’s still true.) So how can we sort out the information from the lies?

In his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, Voss cites a Harvard Business School study that attempts to differentiate between “lies, deception by omission, and truths.”

“…professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie.”

Lying and misdirection

Lying? I don't know. Are his lips moving?

People who lie on Twitter have a 140-character check on their loquaciousness. But they can easily employ the distancing effect of the third-person. It’s a classic misdirection technique: Look at them, not at me.

The Harvard study also identifies another misdirection technique used in lying. Voss tells us

“that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W.C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit.”

The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “The Pinocchio Effect”—after the story of the puppet-turned-“real boy” whose nose grew longer when he was lying. Speaking of puppets, this sentence makes James Joyce look like a piker.

The sentence so long it requires its own subhead

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians  are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Lying can confuse your SEO program.
My SEO program asks an unanswerable question

If all those words make your eyes glaze over, just go to the videotape. There may be truth in there, but who can find it? Who can find anything coherent in this mass of sound—with little fury, this time, but still signifying nothing.

You must meet George Lakoff

If that seems like “word salad” to you, then you are not George Lakoff. (If you are George Lakoff, I think I may faint.)

I’ve been following the indispensable political linguist George Lakoff ever since I read his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate. I see there’s a 2014 edition; it’s high time to revisit this classic.

In his August 2016 blog post, “Understanding Trump’s Use of Language,” Lakoff makes the disturbing (to me) argument that Trump’s word salad is actually a carefully plated main dish. I cannot do justice here to Lakoff’s long, detailed, analysis. But here’s a sample of his argument, with my emphasis to give you an idea of why I find it so disturbing:

“So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic.”

Understanding the language our new leaders speak will be key to understanding what they may or may not be planning to do.

All of us who value language—writers and readers alike—need to fight to keep words married to their original, objective meanings. And to keep leaders accountable to the meaning of the words they speak.

I wish us all luck.


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