Showing posts with label labels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label labels. Show all posts

Friday, November 3

Recognizing Political Spin

Thomas Friedman demonstrated a classic example of political spin with his op-ed column in The New York Times on Nov. 3, “Insulting Our Troops, and Our Intelligence" by turning John Kerry's mangled quote into a George Bush administration criticism.

For those that missed it, John Kerry said “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Many people, especially those in uniform, were offended by the statement because it basically implies our troops represent a less educated portion of the population (which is why they join the military). Nothing could be further than the truth. In fact, we very likely have the best educated military today than we have had in the entire history of the United States. These are smart men and women, many of whom graduated at or near the top of their high school classes, many of whom have advanced degrees, and many of whom will go on to earn advanced degrees once their enlistment ends. Several of them are my friends.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration, with Republicans facing a heated election year, were quick to correct Kerry's misstatement, defending our troops, regardless of where they may be stationed, and shifting the topic of the day from select Republican missteps into select Democrat missteps. Today, Friedman managed to eke out a full reversal with his op-ed piece, somehow making Kerry's political gaffe a Bush administration responsibility. Sadly, because the op-ed piece appears in The New York Times, some people will give it more credit than what it is: an opinion piece.

Politics aside, and not considering my own feelings about Iraq, this is what is known as a political spin: shifting a political flashpoint to another topic, preferably one that puts your opponent in a bad light. Some people are good at it. Friedman is very good at it. And at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: doesn't anyone want to discuss what's best for America anymore, without polarizing everything from political issues to personal assessments?

Thursday, October 26

Correcting For Politics

I seldom write about the same subject two posts in a row, but the Wee Shu Min story (after her father, Wee Siew Kim, apologized for his apology) continues to develop as a topical case study about political correctness. Specially, he apologized for saying "I should not have said what I did about people's inability to take the brutal truth and strong language" and reinforced that he counseled his daughter Shu Min.

In the United States, it's called political correctness (PC), though the concept is not exclusive to the English language. The term is commonly used to describe language, or behavior, which is claimed to be calculated to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to the racial, cultural, or other identity groups being described.

The "earliest cited usage of the term" is said to come from a U.S. Supreme Court decision — Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) — where it clearly means that the statement it referred to is not ''literally'' correct. However, for most Americans, the real PC movement began in late 1980's and early 1990's. By the end of the 1990's, the term was equally loathed by political conservatives and liberals alike because more often than not it hindered communication rather than enhanced it.

Part of the reason Americans began abandoning PC usage came after the push to use "gender-neutral" job titles ("lineworker" instead of "lineman," "chairperson" or "chair" instead of "chairman," etc.). Some stuck. Some did not ("maintenance hole" never really replaced "manhole"). Some, it depends on who you talk to (many female executives have insisted on being identified as chairman vs. chairperson.) And some characterizations are moving targets, most notably among people over age 55, who have been reclassified from "elder" to "elderly" to "senior" to "older adult" to "active adult" in the last few decades. In addition, ''handicapped'' became ''disabled'' became ''people with disabilities.''

Besides renaming specific groups and objects, particularly around issues of race and gender, the real movement was aimed at watering down heated political speak about social issues, as if social issues can somehow be discussed without emotion or passion. And that is the real trap Wee Siew Kim is putting himself in. As I've written before, public figures and companies are seldom judged on a crisis, but rather on how well they manage the crisis (even if it really wasn't a crisis to begin with).

In Singapore, many bloggers seem to feel that the issue, not the words, deserve discussion. But unfortunately, they are learning just as Americans (or should I say people of the United States?) continue to learn, that too much focus on semantics will always overshadow the real issues, paralyzing entire communities and countries. Analyzing the apology and demanding an apology will serve as nothing more than a distraction over the real issue. Meanwhile, nothing is done.

Certainly, this is not a popular view, not even among some fellow citizens, but a solution for Singapore borders on the obvious. As long as a society prefers capitalism over communism, which has proven ineffective as the great equalizer it was claimed to be (communistic leaders often assume exclusive privileges over the people anyway), then there will always be people who covet what other people have, even if what they have or do not have was their own choice. Anyway, all that is missing, or seems to be missing, is opportunity.

Ergo, Derek Wee was possibly right in his assessment of a problem. However, Wee Shu Min was perhaps equally right to say the solution was not for the government to create jobs to meet the skill sets of the workers (which despite her colorful quips is really what she meant, I think). However, that is not to say that the government could not invest in a worker rehabilitation program that provides these unemployed workers with the skill sets they need to meet the demand of the job market. Then, those who choose to pursue marketable skills will be qualified to fill those jobs, currently being taken by foreigners.

The concept is simple enough. Give a man a fish and he has a meal. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life. And if too many people are fishing, then teach him another trade that is underserved. And if progress replaces that need, teach him something else. (Historically speaking, governments did not subsidize corrals when the automobile made them obsolete.)

But alas, all this is lost in the focus of whether calling something the brutal truth is appropriate or not. And meanwhile, the real effort to communicate is spiraling out of control because rather than propose a solution to the problem, Wee Siew Kim has to provide apology after apology because his daughter posted it rather than some other 18-year-old, who would have been largely ignored for making the same statements.

This basically means that 18-year-olds who happen to have parents in prominent positions are held to a different standard, are required to censor their ideas, and are not entitled to the same liberty and freedom of thought as other people. And if that is not discrimination on its face, then I do not know what is.

Tuesday, October 24

Sanitizing Personal Opinion

There seems to be much ado about Wee Shu Min, a teenage blogger whose online journal was criticized as insensitive and elitist. The story has escalated to the point of absurdity with her father, MP Wee Siew Kim, and the principal of Raffles Junior College telling The Straits Times that Miss Wee had received counseling for using insensitive language.

She has since shut down her blog and apologized for her comments, though not directly to Mr. Derek Wee, a Singaporean who works for a multinational corporation. He had written in his blog on Oct 12 that he was concerned about competition from foreign talent and the lack of job opportunities for older workers. Miss Wee had responded to him on her blog, calling him old and unmotivated and said he was overly reliant on the government.

She specifically wrote: 'Derek, Derek, Derek darling, how can you expect to have an iron rice bowl or a solid future if you cannot spell? There's no point in lambasting the Government for making our society one that is, I quote, 'far too survival of the fittest.' If uncertainty of success offends you so much, you will certainly be poor and miserable.' She concluded by telling Mr. Wee to 'get out of my elite uncaring face.'

In the apology, Wee Siew Kim went further to say that in "In our current desire to encourage more debate, especially through the Internet, our comments must be tempered with sensitivity. I will not gag her, since she's 18 and should be able to stand by what she says. ... Nonetheless, I have counselled her to learn from it. Some people cannot take the brutal truth and that sort of language, so she ought to learn from it."

Before writing an unpopular opinion, I will offer up that as an accredited business communicator, I adhere to the International Association of Business Communicators' Code of Ethics, which encourages members to "engage in communication that is not only legal, but also ethical and sensitive to cultural values and beliefs; and engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding; among other things." I wish more bloggers would consider such ethical guidelines before posting various rants on the Web.

However, Wee Shu Min has obviously not bonded herself to such a code, and therefore, must be respected for her opinion, no matter how insensitive or elitist it may have come across. If anything, I have personally welcomed people to state their minds, no matter how insensitive, ignorant, or bigoted they may be, because it is the very language they use that may reveal their own lack of credibility or character. In fact, Wee Shu Min self-describes herself as elitist and insensitive, which seems to me to make any criticisms of her for being that rather redundant.

In sum, both Derek Wee and Wee Shu Min have a right to their respective opinions. It seems to me that Derek Wee probably made the stronger case, given that Wee Shu Min did resort to name-calling and colorful insults as one might suspect from an 18-year-old college student. However, the equally aggressive rebuttals and public outcry, and then public apology by her father and the principal of her college, seems largely disproportionate.

If anything, her post did succeed in revealing the country's growing disconnect, perhaps, between younger and older adults, skilled and unskilled workers, and/or affluent and less affluent citizens. Until that is addressed, with open dialogue, there is little chance any measures could be taken to address Derek Wee's concerns and grievances.

But then again, I live in a country that, despite occasional pressure to be 'politically correct' in stating opinions, allows for unpopular language under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Although frequently tested, one simple truth remains: the abuse of free speech will die in a day, but the censorship of free speech, including rants from those like Wee Shu Min, will span generations.

Tuesday, October 17

Questioning Ethics

If you want to shake up people's definition of ethics, go no further than the Internet.

Some of the same folks who easily chastise Rep. Mark Foley e-mails and private messages, laughed as they discovered Augusten Burroughs frequently amused himself by placing fake personal ads, and smirked when Jude Law's character pretends to be Julia Roberts and sucks in Clive Owen (Closer), are now defending married men and women seeking extramarital affairs on Craig's List personal ads.

The controversial practice, which has been around for some time, has been brought to center stage after after Michael Crook, a 28-year-old Liverpool, N.Y., man posed as 19-year-old Melissa and coaxed personal information from Kevin Murphy, who answered a personal advertisement on Craig's List. Crook then shared the information about the extramatarial affair with Murphy's wife, bosses, co-workers, several of his company's corporate accounts, and on his Website, which is dedicated to exposing Internet infidelity.

According to Abigail Goldman's story in the Las Vegas Sun, ethics experts say the stunt is immoral. Legal experts say it encroaches upon the gray territory of online liberties. Internet rights experts say it raises questions about privacy in cyberspace.

Does it? While two wrongs might not make a right, the question of the First Amendment still hangs over the entire argument. We cannot censor people from sharing any portion of a conversation, online or otherwise, if they choose to publish it. Can we?

Sure, some might argue that Crook and similar publishers are defrauding these men, but aren't they themselves attempting to defraud single women as available, only offering up their marital status when it suits them (to say nothing of what they are doing to their spouses)? Are people so naive to believe that personal ad exchanges are honest, despite years and years of articles that point out they are generally rife with fraud as those who post and respond frequently shave 10 years, 20 pounds, change jobs, and even their own names along the way? Where is the outrage in this seemingly accepted practice?

Ergo, there is only one answer here. If we are talking about ethics, they are all wrong. But if we are talking about stupidity, then those seeking online affairs retain all the honors. Maybe not today nor even tomorrow, but someone somewhere has stored all that personal informational shared over the Internet, innocently or not, possibly with the receiving party totally unaware (given that traces of pictures and e-mails remain on hard drives long after they are 'erased' and Google archives Website pages so they can be viewed long after you've taken them down).

As I've posted before, there is no such thing as a private conversation. So unless you would be proud to see what you say or do on the cover of the Wall Street Journal (Crook, I might point out, is proud of what he is doing), don't say or do it. It's about that simple. This holds to be especially true on the Internet because the information you put out there is much more permanent than anyone ever imagined, and the risk of it resurfacing is far greater than you ever considered.

Tuesday, September 26

Attacking Allen's Past

Recent headlines have created a buzz about Sen. George Allen after three former college football teammates say he repeatedly used an inflammatory racial epithet and demonstrated racist attitudes toward blacks during the early 1970's.

Perhaps it's because one of my favorite made-for-TV movies in the 70s was Brian's Song, which recalls the details of Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan), a football player stricken with terminal cancer, and his friendship with Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), who helps him through the difficult struggle, but the so-called Allen controversy is none too surprising to me. Allen, like many people, grew up in an era known for racial tension and played in a sport that struggled with the question of desegregation. Many people were confused about race at the time, black and white equally.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, racial tension is created after team coach George Halas decides that the pair should room together during training camp and road games because they are both rookie fullbacks. Given the fact that Piccolo is white and Sayers is African-American during a time when blacks were still fighting for civil rights in America, it was viewed as a progressive and controversial decision. At the time, no black player had ever been the roommate of a white player in the history of the NFL. Eventually, the racial tension gives way to understanding.

It seems that Allen took a somewhat similar journey in that he once embraced some shortcomings of 70s-era Southern culture, but then later concluded the Confederate flag was a symbol of violence for black Americans (as opposed to thinking it a symbol for the Dukes of Hazzard) and expressed some regret. "There are a lot of things that I wish I had learned earlier in life," Allen said in an appearance this month on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I grew up in a football family, as you well know, and my parents and those teams taught me a lot," Allen said on the program. "And one of the things that you learn in football is that you don't care about someone's race or ethnicity or religion."

At present, this does not seem all that dissimilar from the made-up brand damage recently experienced by Tiger Woods' wife, where false allegations created some temporary brand damage. In truth, of 19 former teammates and college friends, two said they do not remember Allen acting in an overtly racist manner. Seven others said they did not know Allen well outside the football team, but do not remember him demonstrating any racist feelings. Seven more teammates and friends said they knew Allen well and did not believe he held racist views.

The seemingly lone, non-anonymous vocal attacker is a radiologist in North Carolina who played tight end on the team when Allen was quarterback. He claims Allen came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place' and used the N-word on a regular basis. Ironically, it was the radiologist who sported the nickname 'wizard.'

I'm unconvinced that Allen was an active racist as this former teammate claims, but Allen's team has to do a better job addressing it in a timely manner. Unresponsiveness gives credibility to even the most baseless charges.

Thursday, August 18

Working With A Living Language

Working with a living language is both a blessing and a curse. It gives writers like me the opportunity to invent new definitions for clarity, but it can also cause headaches when other writers use the weight of words to mask their intent.

For example, when I was still evolving my company from the freelance writer I was into the corporation it is today, most Internet search engines narrowly categorized writers into very specific disciplines. You were either a copywriter (meaning advertising) or a freelance writer (meaning journalist), a technical writer or a business writer, a direct response writer or a script writer, or ... blah, blah, blah.

Since I didn't want to limit our capabilities to any of these categories, I was one of the first, if not the first, to lobby for a new term: writing services. It made sense, because our company works within all the other sub-categories. Today, most Internet search engines include a 'writing services' category. It works well for our company and the few others like us because the definition better clarifies what we offer. It's not the only example I could cite, but I like to think that it's a good one.

Then, of course, there are shifts in our language that I do not appreciate because the goal is not to add clarity but rather to mask a meaning. One of my least favorite in Nevada (and I hope it dies a horrible death) is the concept of 'government revenue.' There is no such thing. Governments do not have revenues, they have budgets that are created by taking a percentage of other people's revenue. Yours and mine, to be precise.

Sure, you can find it in some dictionaries. Revenue: the income of a government from all sources appropriated for the payment of public expenses. No problem ... until you abuse the usage. It's easy to do. Ask the handful of government officials who began pushing a perceived need to 'increase government revenue' in Nevada a few years ago. That sounds almost admirable until you appreciate they wanted to 'increase taxes.' (As footnote, they were never going to appropriate money for the payment of public expenses. Rather, they appropriated money in order to create additional public expenses.)

Personally, I've always subscribed to an underutilized code of ethics in communication developed by the International Association of Business Communicators. While there are several points worth considering at IABC Code of Ethics, the one that best fits this post is: engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding.

The real buzz term in this case is 'mutual understanding.' Communication should be designed to clarify rather than confuse your audience. It's a concept that many people forget, including those people who call you on the telephone and claim it's a courtesy call. Baloney. It's a direct marketing call, pure and simple.

Oh well. The most we can hope for is that the definitions with merits outweigh the abuses at the end of the day. And today, there was one that came out of a new survey by Zogby International for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The definition of old, it seems, is changing again.

Based on a pool of 1,000 people by telephone about what they considered to be "old," a third of the participants claimed
that 71 to 80 is considered old. Younger survey participants, those under 30, considered 61 to 70 to be over the hill. Among the respondents 65 or older, nearly 60 percent said that 71 to 90 was considered old. And even younger people, those between 18 and 24, have adjusted their idea of old. A majority--59 percent--refer to "old" as someone over 60.

Zogby International claims this shows that since the population is aging, the idea that old begins at 30 as it did in the 1960s is long gone. (Given that I'm over 30, er barely if you allow me a little fudged indulgence, I'd like to think that this new definition of old is a merit.) Grin. More to the point though, as people live longer and there are an increased number of people working or donating time to their community later in life, the definition and the attitudes about the definition will change.

And that is the best thing about working with a living language. You have to stay up to date with the language and, with luck, use it responsibly so that you create more mutual understandings than maximum confusions.

Monday, August 8

Operating In Educational Boxes

When I was in seventh grade, I stumbled onto something. I discovered that I love to read. It was an accident, like many discoveries in life, but nonetheless, it was one of the longest lasting and most impactful lessons I ever learned. I’ll never forget the circumstances either.

I remember spending a significant amount of time in the library looking for a book because my reading teacher, Richard Pyle, told everyone in the class that they could pick any book they wanted. Any book at all. Then, he asked us to read the book while we were in class and write a book report. I was a bright kid (or so I thought at the time) and set out to find the book that meant the most to me -- the one with the fewest pages so I could complete the task at hand, earn my A, and twiddle my thumbs or draw pictures on my notepad for the rest of the semester.

There was another reason I wanted a short book. I was afraid. In third grade, my grandmother held me back because she noticed that I seemed to be falling behind on my reading skills. In order to correct the problem, she pulled me from the Milwaukee public school system and enrolled me in a Catholic school, Holy Redeemer. It seems she decided that a stricter school would be better for me.

Their solution was simple and it seemed to work. Talkative children, which is how the public school system labeled me on early report cards, were always seated in the front of the class at Holy Redeemer. A firm hand can change even the most undisciplined children, which I might have been, considering I drew pictures in my spelling book while attending public school. Within the span of a single year, my reading improved and they discovered I had a natural aptitude for math.

I was relabeled from undisciplined to misunderstood. However, one fact remained. I had some ground to make up; and for some time, I classified myself as a slow reader. Later, in fifth grade, another discovery was made. It seems that Holy Redeemer solved my talking ‘problem,’ but they never saw the real problem. I needed glasses. In fact, it was one of the reasons I talked in class. I lost interest in the lessons because I could not see the chalkboard from the back row (my last name, at the time, started with an 'R' and seating in the public school system was alphabetical order).

By the time I was in seventh grade, it made sense that I wanted to take the easy way out. I chose a novella with a science fiction twist; something about a future where people could replace any organ they wanted in a vain attempt to defeat the natural aging process. While the story is interesting, it never had a lasting impact on me.

I finished my hundred-some pages and book report in two weeks, a record pace, faster than anyone else in the class. As the only one to have completed the assignment, Mr. Pyle freely admitted that I had earned not only an A, but the highest grade in my class to date. I thought I had it made for the rest of the semester, but Mr. Pyle was not content to let me sit in his class and twiddle my thumbs. He told me that he knew I was trying to take the easy way out and that he hoped I would accept his challenge to keep the highest score in the class by taking on a second assignment.

He handed me a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert, a huge book in comparison to my first choice. I accepted the challenge and it became one of my favorite books because it was so easy for me to read. For those who do not know the story, a short summary might be that it was about a fatherless boy in a new and foreign land who possessed hidden talents that were waiting to be unlocked.

I won't go into the details, but I related to the story. Given this small section of history, it is also no surprise that I related to a reader's editorial that was published in the Review-Journal last Sunday. It was written by the teacher whose frustration with with our area's failing school system seems to have manifested itself into the notion that not all schoolchildren have the same potential. While she certainly raised some valid points in her piece, I can only hope some aspects of the article never solidify into a popular movement to shuffle underperforming students into trade schools like they do in Europe.

Please don't misunderstand me. I appreciate the plight of teachers in southern Nevada more than most; I am friends with several who are working in other trades after being disenfranchised by the school district. However, I am also hoping that the teachers who are still working here, despite their less than perfect working conditions, do not lose sight of the fact that when people ask the wrong questions they tend to find excuses instead of answers.

Contrary to this teacher's editorial, all children DO have an equal potential to excel and the burden, however unpleasant, undercompensated, or unappreciated, is probably a teacher's most important job. Otherwise, someone who might later become a professional writer and communication strategist might be mislabeled and ushered off to trade school not because they lacked motivation or intelligence, but because they needed glasses. Thank goodness for those few teachers like Mr. Pyle who took the time to call one child's bluff and help them realize a lifelong love for reading, which later became writing.

So what am I reading today? While I certainly read entertaining works that range from Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Hiding Place by Corrie Tenboom, I also read more significant works. Recently, I finished 1776 by esteemed historian David McCullough, which I originally picked up because of my interest in history and politics. And while a few of my friends have found it a curious choice, I recently started reading In Search of Schodinger's Cat by John Gribbin.

If you don't know, Gribbin's book is about quantum physics. Believe it or not, quantum physics is a subject that applies to communication and education as much as it applies to science and mechanics. In fact, what I've already learned from this book (and I probably already knew it) is that throughout history, people tend to invent theories, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to operate in boxes shaped by those theories, opinions, and ideas. Then, once they are safely (or unsafely) wrapped up in their boxes, they stop making progress until, finally, and hopefully not too late, someone comes along and disproves all those old theories, opinions, and ideas. And that, the ability to break out of the educational box, not trade schools, is what is needed most here in southern Nevada.
 

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