Overcoming Cultural Dissonance

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As an organization, a faith community has multi-dimensional views of what constitutes the “good” that it aspires to reflect. Some constituents may define it as tending to the emotional and spiritual needs of the congregational flock, while others may interpret the good as integration with and serving the broader community. Fulfilling the teachings of the Torah, Bible or other sacred texts may constitute the good to others, and still others may interpret it as maintaining a well managed, fiscally sound organization that represents responsible stewardship of the community’s collective resources.

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Myriad stories reflect these and other diverse perspectives to form the community of memory, connecting learnings from the past through the present to inform the unseen future of the organization. By virtue of its role in interpreting information and making decisions that have broad cultural implications, the leadership of the faith community, in the form of the board of trustees or equivalent, is at the nexus of this continuous transformation.

I once served on a task team that was charged by our board with updating and amending the congregational by-laws. One of the chief tasks was to reduce the number of trustees. Leading up to this assignment, a strategic planning process had determined that the board’s size was encumbering its ability to make decisions and conduct the Temple’s affairs effectively.

Our team recommended a systematic reduction in the number of at-large board members during subsequent nominating classes, and elimination of permanent reserved slots for the presidents of three affinity groups Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.28.50 PMwithin the congregation. These groups represented three large and influential demographic segments, the Brotherhood for men, the Sisterhood for women, and SPICE (“Special Programs of Interest and Concern to Elders”) for seniors. Our reasoning was that most board members were members of at least one of the groups, and thus, the interests of the groups were already being served. The benefit to having their leaders on the board was superseded by the organizational imperative of reducing the size of the governing body.

The negative reaction from these groups and their agents was loud and emotional, and constituted a rhetorical interruption within the temple. Their leaders, citing the importance of the respective groups to the congregation, Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.04.25 PMmaintained that not only was the “routine” of their appointment appropriate, but our suggestion was an affront. The situation was exacerbated by perceptions
among Brotherhood leaders that the board did not adequately acknowledge their group’s volunteer and financial support for the congregation. Ultimately the board approved our recommendation to reduce at-large seats but rejected the other suggestion, largely as a result of a vigorous lobbying by the Brotherhood and SPICE. (The Sisterhood was ambivalent.)

In hindsight, I believe we adhered to several ethical communications behaviors to mitigate the rhetorical interruption – although we didn’t know it at the time (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 163)! The task team  met with the leaders of each group to explain our reasoning, and held “town hall” style meetings with the congregation. Although neither activity was particularly pleasant for us, both represented attempts to listen without demand and be attentive to the situational dynamics and the ground of the Other(s).

But had we followed the dictates of dialogic ethics more closely, there may have been a different outcome. For example, we might have leaned less Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.03.25 PMtoward “telling” about our reasoning and more to learning from the Other in the moment, thus serving the need for reflective understanding of communicative action in the given situation. The history of these groups’ representation on the board was an important contextual element, to which we clearly did not give adequate regard. We certainly were open to compromise from the outset, but making a proposal instead of engaging in dialogic negotiation probably “poisoned the well” in terms of building trust.

I guess we should have seen it coming. Pragmatism and sound reasoning alone are not enough to win the day; when it comes to organizational and intercultural communications, the soft skills of listening, attentiveness, and dialogic negotiation define ethical competence, and enhance the likelihood for success (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 152).

Reference:

Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

 

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Journalistic Malpractice

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A recent story in The Washington Post about a civil verdict in favor of a man wrongfully convicted of murder provoked readers to explore the principle of justice in America, particularly as it relates to black citizens. Their discussion, if you could characterize the virtual interchange as that, illustrates the fallacy of unmediated online comment sections as legitimate exercises in public discourse ethics.

Post reporter Spencer Hsu described how a jury ruled that District of Columbia police violated the civil rights of Donald E. Gates, when it effectively framed him for the murder of a university student in 1981. Gates served 27 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, before being exonerated in 2009 as a result of DNA testing (Hsu, S., 2015).

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 11.17.09 PMNot surprisingly, the story elicited strong opinions from readers, most of whom decried the injustice and called for punishment of the police officers involved in the case who deliberately falsified evidence in attempting to have Gates convicted. A typical comment: “Any detectives involved in this travesty should be stripped of any retirement benefits they may be receiving, lose every penny of wealth they may have accumulated, and lose any property they own. The only way to deter this type of judicial or law enforcement misconduct (and the term misconduct is way to mild for these actions), is to inflict serious and irreparable personal and financial pain. In this case, unfortunately, the only folks to feel pain will be the law abiding citizens of the District of Columbia.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 11.14.20 PMSome readers tied the case to the current national debate about perceived biases in the judicial system against black Americans, and the related “Black Lives Matter” movement. Others cited the case as an example of a fatally flawed system incapable of doling out justice consistently and fairly.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.16.14 PMScreen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.15.23 PMScreen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.16.55 PMGiven the flagrant nature of the case, hyperbolic sentiments are to be expected and some perhaps warranted. Many points were legitimate, while others were irrational (“Stripped of retirement?? They should be shot!”). A theme of what constitutes appropriate legal process provided examples of “undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion,” when some readers weighed in only to be corrected by others apparently with legal training and experience.

This particular collection of comments typifies why such online discussions are not suitable for protecting the public “sacred space.” Foremost, there was little or no balance in points of view evident. The discussion lacked legitimate voices of the judicial system, such as police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Although the story illustrated how the Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 11.05.59 PMsystem failed, the public certainly would have benefited from an eloquent defense of the broader principles of justice involved, explanations for why the injustice occurred, and what can and is happening to prevent such problems from recurring in Washington and elsewhere. What about the voice of Gates or others who had been wrongfully convicted, or those of family members of the victims involved in their cases? Public accountability in the pursuit of public discourse ethics mandates “the communicative commitments of (a) diversity of ideas, (b) engagement of public decision making, and (c) a public account for continuing a communicative practice or changing that practice” (Arnett et al., 2009, pp. 102-103). All three would have been served by adding diverse perspectives to the discussion.

I have long believed that editors and content managers who oversee online news stories and their comment sections are committing journalistic malpractice but not taking a more active moderating role. In the spirit of First Amendment free expression and/or out of sheer laziness, they follow lais·sez-faire policies and only intervene for blatantly racist, sexist, or similarly offensive remarks. As a result, these comment sections rarely offer up any substantive conversations that might legitimately lead to societal benefit –- at least in proportion to the effort and number of words rendered in such spaces across the Internet. Most readers simply ignore these comments, much less learn anything from them.

Informed moderators charged with enforcing balance and well-reasoned comments would go a long way to correcting this problem. This may not be as difficult as it appears; the discipline involved is not so different from good old-fashioned editing of the caliber we used to see in newspaper anScreen Shot 2015-11-18 at 11.12.02 PMd magazine reporting. Ensuring fairness, balance, well thought-out positions, and respectful exchanges would be a good start. There may be some risk that those with limited writing or communications skills could feel left out, but moderators could be trained to recognize and accommodate their needs in order to encourage participation. It would be worth the extra effort, given the potential benefit to the protection and preservation of our public realm.

References:

Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Hsu, S. (2015, November 18). D.C.police framed man imprisoned 27 years for 1981 murder, U.S. jury finds. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com

Editing Techniques for Life

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Defining a personal narrative is not as easy as it first seems. That’s probably because we are not as accustomed to describing our narratives as we are living them. Opportunities are rare; the only ones that come to mind are a college essay, lecturing your children, the capstones of a resume or perhaps an online dating profile. The other challenge is distilling so much about a life perspective into one statement, which reminds me of the story about the Egyptian Pharaoh who directed an advisor to sum up all economic policy and wisdom into a single sentence. The advisor’s response was “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which itself could be someone’s personal narrative.

My life’s narrative would have to be the virtue in efficiency, or something similar. This approach sounds a bit mechanical and impractical, because life — as we all know — is complex and messy. Then again, cutting a direct path is often the best way to traverse a thicket. I tend to approach most situations and challenges by first asking rhetorically, “What is the best, most effective way of proceeding?” This construct was the “dwelling place” for pursuing and protecting my sense of the good (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38).

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 3.53.53 PMAt its foundation, this is an editor’s mindset, and there is no coincidence that I have been a writer and editor since high school. In journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill, we were taught to be frugal with language. To shoe-horn an article into the news hole, pare unnecessary words like you would cut gristle from a steak. No more than 35 words in the lead of a news story. Why use two words when one will do? It was not unusual to get an assignment back with remarks to the effective of: “Nice work. Now cut the word count in half.” In addition to much tighter copy, that mandate delivers surprising clarity of thought and intent. Your readers always appreciate the effort. I suppose that is why Twitter is my social media channel of choice.

There are analogies in life. I tend to follow a short list of maxims, some of which have been borrowed from the editing process. Examples include being direct whenever possible, because people appreciate candor. Or avoiding clichés, because they are a clear sign that you really don’t have anything to say, don’t know what to say or how to say it. And honoring deadlines, because that reflects being reliable and trustworthy.

On a more spiritual level, “The Golden Rule” (see previous blog post) is a simple yet universal precept for navigating many situations, whether broaching an emotional subject with a friend or co-worker or allowing someone to merge into rush hour traffic. Other constructs imply similar brevity in thought, action and/or outcomes. Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 4.14.08 PMTell the truth from the start, because it’s a lot easier to remember the details than if you lie or exaggerate (a frequent lesson for my children when they were young). Listen before opening your mouth, because someone else may say what you are thinking, or better yet, have a better idea. Set an agenda and stick to it.

These and other guidelines are basically editing techniques for living. They help form a narrative that enables me to focus my time and energy on what is important. Like a well-written lead in a news story, perhaps my life will turn out to be just as compelling.

Reference:

Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: Sage Publications, Inc.

“The Good” in My Life

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This shows the different interpretations of “The Golden Rule” by major world religions. We hung this poster in our children’s rooms when they were young.

Upon review, it is apparent that “The Good” in my life is comprised of inalienable beliefs about, simply put, how people relate to one another, especially with empathy. The central belief is the so-called “Golden Rule,” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Also called the Ethic of Reciprocity, this concept is about as universal as there can be; in fact, versions exist in the writings of every major faith tradition. I believe this is due to the fact that the saying speaks to the fundamental behaviors and attitudes that contribute to a high functioning society regardless of historical context, such as mutual respect, empathy and compassion.

When people do not honor the “Golden Rule,” or place other beliefs over it, problems inevitably arise. Take for example the current news story about the school resource officer in the Columbia, S.C. high school who was fired for flipping the desk of a black student, dragging her across the floor and forcibly subduing Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 4.05.52 PMher. The officer may not have behaved in this way had he first considered whether he
would have approved of similar treatment of his daughter. Similarly, the student may not have refused to comply with the teacher’s requests to stop using her cell phone in class (behavior which precipitated the officer’s action) if she had thought about how it would feel to be ignored or denigrated by someone else. This particular story was more complex, with racial implications, for example. But there is little doubt that it represents a failure by the people involved to show respect and empathy for each other at a basic level, the essence of the “Golden Rule.”

Another “good” in my personal and professional interactions is the importance of fairness and balance to understanding. Whether a news story or disagreement with a spouse or friend, the principle applies: you must try to see the situation through a different lens than your own. I have found this value especially helpful in leadership roles, such as on boards and committees. Never assume to know everything about a situation, and in fact, hearing different perspectives is most often beneficial in myriad and often unforeseen ways. Just the attempt to hear the opposing position can be profound in terms of maintaining trust in the group and making progress on the matter at hand.

There are other “goods” that are imperative, such as humane behavior toward animals. I’ve always believed that you can tell a great deal about a person’s morality by how he or she treats animals. The same holds true for cultures. But this is a more nuanced argument in a Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 4.07.41 PMpost modern world. I learned this in an undergraduate English class, when I wrote an essay about bullfighting. To me, the practice is inhumane and barbaric. However, a fellow student who was Spanish accused me of being an arrogant, ethnocentric American who believed in the supremacy of my culture and attempted to force values on others, out of context and with no regard for their rich histories and cultures. It was a rude awakening. I still believe bullfighting is inhumane, and I have the right to that opinion. But my view is not the only one that is valid. In hindsight, this was probably my first lesson in communications ethics literacy!