Hurricane Harvey as one metaphor for our current political climate and the role of CMM as a first responder
It has been a week since the costliest natural disaster (estimated at $190 billion dollars) to hit the United States made landfall in the State of Texas. The eye of the storm was very slow moving and, unlike most hurricanes that lose energy and keep moving after hitting landfall, Harvey stalled and hovered over Houston, the fourth largest city and a key economic center in the United States. In the course of a few days, Harvey retraced his steps and meandered back to the Gulf of Mexico, only to regain strength and make landfall again. This happened three times before moving out of the region and into several other States. Meteorologist Jeff Masters in an August 28th PBS interview said, “Harvey dumped so much water, that the storm pulled flood water back up into itself and dumped it again as more rain.” As a result, parts of Houston may be uninhabitable for months.
I’m struck by Master’s description of the phenomenon of a torrent of water dumped from inside a storm system that is so strong that it creates “a feedback loop” that pulls water back into itself, only to repeat the process…not once or twice, but three times. According to the Washington Post, as of August 29 Houston had more water dumped in its city than the entire Western half of the United States has received all year. The images on TV and social media bear witness to the power of this storm: To survive, people had to act differently and, in many cases, counter-intuitively. Residents were told to stay in their homes while water was rising, until rescue boats, kayaks, high water vehicles, or helicopters could bring them to safety. They were instructed to move to their rooftop if necessary. The counter-intuitive instructions, to stay in your home, only work if you believe help is on the way. Those who ventured out either on foot or in their car risked death; we saw and heard tragic stories of individuals and families who drowned in their vehicles, overtaken by the power of the rising water.
Help was on the way… as the Country witnessed acts of heroism, courage and inspiration. Thousands of rescue workers, neighbors, strangers, and out-of-State citizens risked their lives to help those in need. It was a stunning display of humanity at its best, in a time when the Country and the world are experiencing anger, polarization and division.
I’d like to offer four reasons (among others) for what made that possible. First, there was clear leadership from the Mayor of Houston and the Chief of Police. They provided continual briefings, instructing residents on what to do to stay safe as rescue workers were fanning out across the city to rescue those in danger. They provided detailed information about shelters and safe places where food, water, clothes and beds were available. They spoke of “we” and “us”; we are in this together…we will work together to overcome this tragedy… we need each other and we must pull together… Second, first responders were prepared. Whether on land or air, these responders had tools and skills to get to places in the city that could not be reached in the “normal” ways. They worked tirelessly, sacrificing their own lives for the safety and well-being of others. Third, ordinary people did extraordinary acts of kindness and courage. Neighbors formed a human chain to help a pregnant woman to safety. Hundreds of volunteers showed up at shelters to help distribute food and clothes. Health care professionals from around the Country volunteered their time and expertise to help in shelters, clinics and hospitals. Citizens with boats from several States came with their boats to personally help rescue those stranded in their homes. Fourth, Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the Country. What we saw was compassion and humanity and not partisan, ethnic, and racial divides. People of all backgrounds—ethnic, racial, religious, political, economic—worked on behalf of all people.
The tragedy of the storm elicited “the better angels of our nature.” It’s been an inspiring example of how we can, or rather how we should, be together. The disaster elicited the best in us and the outpouring of support from across the Country demonstrates that we can work together and be together in humble and compassionate and courageous ways.
Harvey as Metaphor
We are in another hurricane, much like Harvey, where the storm has dropped so much water, and toxic water at that, that a “feedback loop” has occurred keeping this devastating storm in place. But unlike the natural disaster arising from real hurricanes, this is a disaster made totally by us. The disaster is our current political climate and it has created so much polarization that even neighbors and family members have a difficult time talking to each other. The other night, my husband and I were at a small dinner party in our community. The hostess of the party said she had a fun game for us to play if we were interested. The game, she said, is called, “left, right and center.” One of the guests immediately said, “Oh, I hope this isn’t a political game because if it is I’m not interested”. We learned that this wasn’t a political game at all but the mere mention of anything that might possibly be political raised the tension in the room.
One of the heuristics of CMM that I find very useful is the concept of logical, or moral, force. It is the perceived “oughtness” or the strong pull to act in any given situation. Seeing the water overtaking the city of Houston and the thousands of people trapped in their homes created a very strong moral force and sense of oughtness to act compassionately. The typical rules for what to do no longer applied; instead people risked their own lives to do what they could to save the lives of others.
But the hurricane that we are continuing to make in this current political climate doesn’t seem to be eliciting the kind of compassion we are seeing in Houston. Quite the contrary, we are eliciting and making increased anger, outrage and division on all sides of the political spectrum. However, both situations have something in common: What we are seeing in the “real Harvey” with acts that bring us together and in “Harvey as a metaphor” with acts that further divide us, is the extraordinary power of “logical or moral force”.
Our political climate of divisiveness has been increasing for decades but the last few years have reached a crescendo of anger and outrage on all sides of the political spectrum. This outrage is consistent with what Barnett Pearce and Stephen Littlejohn termed “moral conflicts.” About logical force and moral conflict, Pearce says:
“Over the years I’ve been struck by how powerful logical force is…. In moral conflict, I’ve found that people who do things that others find loathsome are, in their own mind, doing exactly what they feel that they should and must do. To denounce one side or the other is only to perpetuate the conflict; the possibility of moving forward together begins when each side can acknowledge—not necessarily approvingly—that the other is acting, within their own social world, out of a sense of duty and honor equivalent to their own” (W.B.Pearce, Making Social Worlds, 2007, pg. 120).
I find it extraordinarily difficult to genuinely acknowledge those whose stories and behavior I abhor, especially when their behavior strikes at the heart of my strong beliefs and values. To act differently, perhaps even humbly and compassionately… and especially in this climate, takes a willingness to momentarily step out of the flow of my own moral force and to act in a new way to help make social worlds that don’t drown us all. I’ve asked myself, are there lessons from the “real Harvey” to help us think about the moral conflicts of our current situation and ways to act differently? My answer is, yes, I think so.
One of the lessons is that good leadership matters. The Houston Mayor and Police Chief worked together, despite their different roles, ethnicities and race. They encouraged calm, they praised the various individuals, units and organizations who were involved in search and rescue, and they worked closely with the media to get the word out to the community and beyond about various aspects of the unfolding situation. Overall, their actions elicited responses and “next turns” that brought individuals, groups and organizations together to help, rather than hurt, the situation.
Another lesson is that good leadership alone isn’t enough. Although good leadership created the broader context and frame for people to work together, it was the courage of thousands of people who acted in unusual and bold ways that made a difference. The first responders were also trained to handle crisis situations. And although Harvey created conditions never before seen in Houston, the responders had the tools and training to do their job of saving lives.
Can we use these lessons to think about the political storms that are drowning us in division, hatred, fear, and misunderstanding? How about adding the tools and heuristics of CMM to help us be first responders? This is what I’ve been pondering. The rest of this paper is my way of working out some “next turns” to lessen the “toxic feedback loop” of our current political climate and to act more compassionately toward those who do things that I find “loathsome.” I invite you to join me in this endeavor.
Let me begin with transparency so you know what informs my personal sense of “oughtness” or moral force. I am not a Donald Trump supporter nor have I ever been. I was quite disturbed observing candidate Trump say and do things that were demeaning, divisive, and mean-spirited. I was also concerned by his apparent lack of knowledge about the complexities of our domestic and global challenges. My concern has grown exponentially now that he is President. I find his words and actions abhorrent and frightening. As I am writing this, a news headline popped up on my phone saying he plans to withdraw from a South Korean trade deal. If it’s true, this comes at a time when the possibility of a North Korean military conflict is higher than it’s ever been. It is another example of actions that I find deeply troubling.
I am also disgusted by the polarization and dysfunction in Congress. In 2007, a group of us were very concerned about the polarization in Washington (we thought it was bad then and could have never imagined today’s situation). We thought we could help by providing members of Congress and their staffers information about the dialogue and deliberation field as a positive way to engage with their constituents. We had an all-day “behind closed door meeting“ at DeAnza College where I was teaching at the time, with current and past state and national legislators, a sampling of organizations representing the dialogue and deliberation community, and social innovators.
What I learned reinforced what I thought to be true but didn’t know for sure: Once elected, these “public servants” are beholden to their party. We had former Members of Congress in the room who had run on a platform of “compromise and bi-partisanship.” They won! But once in office their party leadership told them that the goal was to be the party in power: This meant to stay in power at all costs if their party was currently the majority or to win back power if their party was in the minority. The strategy for both sides was to not work across the aisle. These newly elected officials were told that if they did, they would not get the support they needed from the party when it came time for re-election. Both people, one Democrat and one Republican, decided to buck the party and work across the aisle. They also did not get their party’s support when they ran for re-election and they both lost. We heard this story from current state officials as well. That meeting was a turning point for me in understanding the rules of engagement in the halls of power and the immense damage this is causing our democracy and civic life. It has only grown worse since 2007 as stalemate and gridlock are the order of the day. The net effect for me is that I dislike both parties and the dysfunctional system they have made by their allegiance to party politics above all else (I also realize that this is not the only reason for our broken political system—the issues are much more complicated than that. But “party allegiance” has created a very strong logical and moral force that explains why, among other things, politicians act and vote the way they do).
There are also important people in my life who think very differently than me. There are some who enthusiastically supported candidate Trump and still support President Trump. Others continue to believe in and unequivocally support their political party. My way of being, especially with the former group, is to avoid political conversations, much like the guest at the dinner party who quickly opted out of a “left, right, center” game. But Harvey as a metaphor for our civic hurricane has inspired me to use my CMM tools to rethink what I and we can do.
Donald Trump’s speech in Phoenix, AZ, August 23, 2017: What this speech can teach us
President Trump gave a speech to an auditorium filled with supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after a protest and counter-protest occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia which left a woman dead from a white supremacist who drove through a crowd of counter-demonstrators. President Trump had been criticized for the way he handled the situation as he waffled back and forth between denouncing white supremacists, the KKK, and ultra-nationalists and equating the counter-protestors as equally at fault for the violence. There was a significant difference between his prepared remarks that denounced these groups and his informal, off-the-cuff remarks that did not make distinctions between groups promoting hate and bigotry and the protestors who were marching against it. Because of this discrepancy, and his initial remarks that did not condemn white supremacists and the KKK, he was criticized by most media outlets and the leadership of both political parties. Following these events, I saw a stunning statistic based on a poll that said 61 percent of his base thought there was nothing that Donald Trump could say or do that would affect their support of him.
When I heard the speech President Trump gave to his “base” in Phoenix, I was disturbed, especially because my own “moral force” storied this speech as another example of his narcissistic and unhinged personality. But I’ve taken a step back from my own moral force and I decided to listen to the speech again and to stay in the tension of the speech by transcribing it. I saw this as an opportunity to use what I know of CMM to stay present with the people who like and enthusiastically support President Trump.
A central concept in CMM is “speech acts.” Speech acts point to the daily things that we say and do that might be experienced as promises, threats, insults, complements, and speculations, to name a few. Because speech acts are never done alone but in relationship with others, the way we story what the previous act might mean can make the difference between a fight or a laugh. My husband, Fred, has a sense of humor that can sound like an insult if you don’t understand the speech act of playful humor he is attempting to perform. Just before finishing the first sentence of this paragraph, he walked into our house and saw me sitting at our kitchen counter in a top with no pants. His first comment to me in a shocking tone was “where’s your pants?” This could easily start an argument if I misinterpret his speech act as criticism rather than playful banter. Fortunately, I know him well enough to understand what that speech act was doing—it was giving us a laugh instead of a fight. Misunderstandings happen when the speech act of one person is interpreted by the other person quite differently than was intended by the first person.
Multiple speech acts occur within episodes and these speech acts and episodes can form patterns of communication if they are repeated often enough and conjointly enacted over time. One of the reasons patterns continue, even when they are dysfunctional and toxic, is because of the logical or moral force that various speech acts within the pattern call forth among the participants. So, one way of helping to make better social worlds is to be mindful of what speech acts, episodes, and patterns are “doing” in our relational lives and what kind of moral force they are calling forth in each of us. When we can name those acts and patterns that are not serving us well and acknowledge the moral force that guides our stories and actions, we are in a much better place to change the pattern and, consequently, the social world.
Transcribing President Trump’s speech helped me get beyond naming the speech act as “political rally to pump up the base” to seeing it as a template for the larger pattern that helps fuel the hurricane we are in. It also helped me better understand the 61 percent who said they support the President regardless of what he says or does.
Structure and Content of the President’s Speech
The speech was an hour and sixteen-minutes and it occurred in a Phoenix Convention Center to a large group of his supporters. The speech had four distinct parts: 1. A unity theme (10:00 minutes), 2. A “I’ve been misrepresented and wronged and the media is to blame” theme (27:00 minutes), 3. A “what my administration is doing and the people/forces that are obstructing it” theme (37:00), and 4. A unity theme (2:00).
President Trump began by thanking four people who gave opening remarks: Mike Pence; Reverend Franklin Graham who gave an opening prayer; Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ben Carson. He then said “America is indeed a nation of faith.” After reminiscing about his first rally speech in Phoenix shortly after he announced he was running for President, he told the crowd,
“Our message is still clear. We are fully and completely committed to our agenda and we will not stop until the job is done. This evening, joining together with friends, we reaffirm our shared customs and values: We love our Country; we celebrate our troops; we embrace our freedom; we respect our flag; we are proud of our history; we cherish our constitutional rights, including our 2nd amendment right to bear arms; we fully protect religious liberty; we believe in law and order and support the incredible men and women of law enforcement; we pledge our allegiance to one nation under God. You always understood what Washington D.C. did not; our movement is built on love. It’s love for our fellow citizens, it’s love for struggling Americans who have been left behind, and love for every American child who deserves a chance to have all of their dreams come true. From the inner cities to rural outposts, from the sunbelt to the rustbelt, from East to West and North to South, it is built on the conviction that every American from every background is entitled to a Government that puts their needs first…. We believe that every American has the right to live in dignity. Respect for America requires respect for all of its people. Loyalty to our nation requires loyalty to each other. We all share the same home, the same dreams, the same hopes for a better future. Wounds inflicted on one member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one American suffers an injustice, all America suffers together. It’s time for us to follow the example of our brave American soldiers. I was with them last night at Fort Myers. No matter where they come from, no matter what faith they practice, they form a single unbreakable team. That’s what we are. As a Nation, we are a team. We are all united by devotion to our Country and its mission. It’s time we all remember that we are on the same team. We are all Americans and we all believe right now in America first. It’s happening and it’s happening fast. It’s called, Make America Great Again. It’s coming back really fast. We want every child to succeed, every community to prosper and every American to have a chance at a better life. What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America, and tonight this entire arena stands united in the forceful condemnation of the thugs who perpetuate hatred and violence (the crowd cheers).”
At this point a new conversational turn begins…
I’ve been misrepresented and wronged and the media is to blame theme
“But the very dishonest media—those people up there with all the cameras (points to a section of the arena where media cameras are positioned… he takes out a piece of paper from his coat pocket while the audience boos. This lasts for about 30 seconds). So the, and I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories, they have no sources in many cases. They say, ‘a source says’ and there is no such thing. They don’t report the facts, just like they don’t want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred and bigotry and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the White Supremacists, the KKK. I openly called for unity, healing and love and they know it (points to the media section) because they were all there. So what I did (takes out another paper from his jacket) is, and I’m doing this more than anything else, I’d like to take a minute to show how damned dishonest these people are.”
The President then read quotes of what he said to condemn hatred, bigotry and violence and how the media responded, saying, for example… ”he didn’t say it fast enough, he didn’t do it on time, it took more than a day so he must be a racist…” Throughout the twenty-seven minutes of this conversational turn, he told the crowd what he had said and how the media misconstrued it. There were also digressions during this portion of the speech; I’d like to provide a sample of these.
“The next time I said something about Charlottesville I said, I love all (emphasizes this word) of the people of our Country (makes a point of saying this over again). We are going to make America great again but we’re going to make it great for all of the people in the U.S. And then they say he is a racist. (A protestor starts screaming and is taken away). Don’t worry, it’s only one voice and it’s not a powerful voice (people start yelling Trump, Trump Trump…). How did he get in here? He’s supposed to be with a few people outside (referring to his opening remarks that there were only a handful of protestors outside). All week they’ve been talking about the massive crowds that are going to be outside. Where are they? Well, it’s hot out. They show up with helmets and the black masks and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything. ANTIFA (he says this very slowly and forcefully in reference to a far-left leaning group of anarchists). Back to what I said…”
“It’s time to expose the crooked media’s deceptions and to challenge their role in fomenting divisions. And, yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and heritage. You see it. You are smart people. These (points to media gallery) are truly dishonest people. Not all of them. You have some good reporters and fair journalists but for the most part honestly these are really, really dishonest people. They are bad people and I think they don’t like our Country. I really believe that. And I don’t believe they are going to change and that’s why I do this. If it would change, I’d never say it. The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself. Look out there—the live red lights, they are turning those suckers off fast. Like CNN. It doesn’t want its falling viewership to see what I’m saying…. (in reference to media’s response to his tweets, “he’s in another twitter storm”). These are sick people. You know what I don’t understand? You would think they would want to make our Country great again and I honestly believe they don’t. If you want to discover the source of division in our Country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media, which would rather get ratings and clicks than to tell the truth. The New York Times essentially apologized for getting the election results so wrong. For two weeks I got good coverage and then they reverted back and they are worse than before. The Washington Post is terrible. You have some great and honest papers and great networks. I’ll tell you Fox treated me fairly. Someday they might treat me bad. I’ll let you know when they do… I’m the person who wants to tell the truth. I’m an honest person and you know what I’m saying is exactly right. Media gives a platform to hate groups. The media turns a blind eye to gang violence on the streets, the failure of our public schools, the destruction of our wealth through our terrible trade deals made by politicians who should have never been allowed to be politicians. And their incredible hostility towards our police who work so hard. My administration is committed to safety and the rule of law…. You’re safe in this room.”
This last statement transitioned into the third turn in this speech, in which President Trump talked about the achievements of his administration.
What my administration is doing and the people/forces that are obstructing it theme
President Trump began this portion of the speech by discussing immigration and the border wall, followed by health care, reforming the Veterans Administration, increasing defense funding, North Korea, a pro-worker agenda, unleashing job creating American energy, our disastrous trade deals, tax reform, and infrastructure. Most of these topic areas included commentary about the people, organizations and situations that have negatively affected his goals. I would like to provide a sampling.
“All of the Democrats in Congress, they do one thing well. They have no ideas, they have no policies. All they do is obstruct. That’s all they are good at. They have no ideas, no policies except for maybe total socialism, or a step beyond it. Under their policies your taxes will double or triple, your services will diminish and your borders will be left wide open for anyone to come into the Country. Obamacare is a disaster. And we were ONE VOTE (says slowly and with emphasis) away from repealing and replacing this disastrous legislation (Arizona Republican Senator John McCain voted against the legislation. He had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and the Senate postponed their vote until he flew back from an Arizona hospital to vote. He cast the last vote—a “no” vote to which the Senators responded with a gasp). ONE VOTE AWAY (he repeats this slowly three times). Think of it. Seven years the Republicans saying they will repeal and replace (crowd begins shouting “drain that swamp!”). They said to the President, please Mr. President, don’t mention any names. So I won’t. ONE VOTE AWAY. And I won’t mention your other Senator who is weak on crime and weak on the border. So I won’t talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is (Senator Jeff Flake, Arizona’s other Republican Senator, had just published a book criticizing the leadership of the President, among other things). We’re going to get rid of Obamacare. ONE VOTE. I won’t stop….. ONE VOTE. Speak to your Senator.”
“We are taking power out of the hands of donors and special interests and putting it in the hands of people who voted for us. The same failed voices in Washington who opposed our movement are the same people who gave us one terrible trade deal after another, who sacrificed our sovereignty, our wealth, and our jobs. We don’t need advice from the Washington D.C. swamp. We need right now to drain the swamp. That’s what’s happening too, believe me. Washington is full of people who are only looking out for themselves. But I didn’t come to Washington for me. I’ve had a great life, great success. I’ve enjoyed my life. Most people think I’m crazy to have done this. And I think they are right. But I enjoy it because we’ve made so much…. I don’t believe any President has accomplished as much as this President in the first six or seven months. I really don’t.”
“In the proud tradition of George Washington (pauses)—please don’t take down his statue. Is that sad? Really sad? To Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt—I see they want to take Teddy Roosevelt. They are trying to figure out why, they don’t know. They are trying to take away our culture, they are trying to take away our history. And weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, 100 years. You go back to a University and it’s gone. Weak, weak people. We are going to protect American industry and the American worker. No longer will we allow other Countries to close our factories, steal our jobs and drain our wealth. We are building our future with American hands, American labor, American aluminum and steel. We will buy American and will hire American. I immediately withdrew the U.S. from the disastrous (emphasizes) transpacific partnership. It would have been a disaster. And you know one of the worst deals in history anyone has entered into, we have begun formal renegotiation with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). And I must be honest, personally I don’t think we can make a deal because we have been so badly taken advantage of. They made such great deals—both Countries—that I don’t think we can make a deal. I think we will probably end up terminating NAFTA. But we’re going to see what happens, ok? You’re in good hands, I can tell you.”
After over an hour of a speech filled with divisive me/them and us/them language, the speech ends with a call to unity:
“It’s time to remember what our brave soldiers taught. Americans share one flag, one home and one glorious destiny. We live according to the same law, raise our children by the same values, and we are all made by the same almighty God (crowd cheers). As long as we remember these truths, as long as we have enough strength and courage in our souls, then there is no challenge too great, no task too large, no dream beyond our reach. We are Americans and the future belongs to us. This is our moment, this is our chance, this is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before. To rebuild our future, to deliver justice for every forgotten man, woman and child. Freedom will prevail. Our values will endure. Our citizens will prosper. Our beloved nation will succeed like never, ever before. So to Americans young and old, near and far, in cities small and large, we say these words again tonight. We will
Make America strong again
Make America wealthy again
Make America proud again
Make America safe again
And we will make America great again (chanted by the crowd)”
What this Speech Can Teach Us
This speech, I believe, is a prototype for Donald Trump’s way of being. He says so many things that contradict each other that this creates moral ambiguity…. unless there is a “first turn” that punctuates how you hear the rest of his message. Consequently, I hope you read the previous section slowly enough to feel the moral forces at work that cause people to punctuate this speech quite differently and to keep the storms of division dumping rain on us. If you support the President, this speech reinforces that support. His unity sections are lofty and high-minded. He unequivocally and unapologetically names the values that are central to many, perhaps most, Americans: “…Love for our fellow citizens, love for struggling Americans who have been left behind, and love for every American child who deserves a chance to have all of their dreams come true….Every American has the right to live in dignity…every American from every background is entitled to a Government that puts their needs first…”
The President was also unequivocal about the values of Country, flag, protection from those who want to harm the United States, the importance of the rule of law, America first, etc. For supporters, the unity theme is heard as a speech act of compassionate and strong leadership. An aspect of this strong leadership is contained in the middle sections of the speech as well: calling out those who are attempting to undermine the agenda of “Make America Great Again.” Politicians have always made distinctions between “us” and “them.” President Trump has taken those distinctions to another level, calling out anyone (including members of his own party) and everyone (including entire sectors like the media) who criticize him or his agenda. His harsh rhetoric of naming individuals, groups, and sectors as “bad people,” “dishonest,” “they don’t like our Country”… strengthens the moral force of support for the President. His actions of calling these groups out is a sign of his strength and courage to stand up against those who are trying to do him and the Country harm. A supporter with a strong moral force will feel and believe that “he speaks for me.”
Those who oppose the President have an equally strong moral force that points them in the opposite direction. The middle part of the speech reinforces the President’s lack of discipline and leadership. His demeaning rhetoric towards those who disagree with him, his disparaging comments about allies like Canada and Mexico, and his reckless comments about an entire industry (media) undermine democracy and erode trust. And because these comments happen all the time, they undermine anything positive he might be saying in the unity portion of the speech. The logical force of those who oppose President Trump will sensitize them to hear this speech as another example of his dangerous views. Someone opposing President Trump with a strong logical force will say, “he will never speak for me.”
And so it goes.
In the 1989 book, Communication and the Human Condition, Barnett Pearce talked about four broad forms of communication, each of which calls forth a different way of being human. One of these forms is ethnocentric communication. Ethnocentric communication is characterized by “us/them” rhetoric, which leads to the enactment of patterns that privilege my way of being over yours. Says Pearce,
“The term ‘ethnocentric’ means viewing other cultures from the perspective of one’s own….However, I want to use the term more generally to describe a form of communication that occurs within families and neighborhoods as well as between cultures. In ethnocentric communication, whatever ‘we’ are is defined in part by its contrast with ‘them’ and ‘our’ resources include specific ways of dealing with ‘them’ such that those resources are not put at risk….Ethnocentric communication is the norm in contemporary American society….It also structures domestic political discourse” (pg. 120).
Our political system has been replete with ethnocentric patterns that have only increased over time in tone, frequency, and duration. President Trump has changed the rules of engagement from attacking the opposing party to attacking anyone (including groups and sectors) who is not perceived, from his perspective, as one of “us.” This pattern has now infected our entire culture and it’s playing out in families, friendships, offices, and public spaces. The moral forces of living within systems and energy fields of ethnocentric patterns compel us to say and do things to others that we don’t like or want to do. And so, for many of us, the most compassionate thing we can think to do is to not talk with others who are not like us and to avoid any semblance of a “left, right, center” game. At least that’s a story of my life, at the moment.
This is why the “Harvey as metaphor” doesn’t quite fit our current state of affairs. Although Harvey caused devastation in Houston, the storm eventually moved on. We have been in a perpetual political hurricane for decades; so much so, that polarization, divisiveness and ethnocentric ways of being have become the “way it is.” Therefore, I’d like to suggest another metaphor that feels a bit closer to our current crisis.
I’ve been told that if you boil water and put a frog in it, the frog will immediately sense the danger and jump out. But if you put a frog in cool water and gradually heat it up, the frog will not jump out and will eventually die from the boiling water. The slow increase in temperature keeps the frog from understanding the life-threatening danger that a hotter temperature of water will produce. We are in a pot of water that has been slowly heating up. Instead of paying attention to the increased temperature of the water and the life-threatening situation this temperature is causing, we are arguing over who is right about…name your issue. If this metaphor is even close to what I perceive as our current (worldwide) political and social crisis, we may find ourselves doomed as a species if we don’t understand the nature of the rising temperatures of the water we are swimming in and act differently.
I mentioned that there are four forms of communication and ways of being human described in Communication and the Human Condition. The fourth, and the least developed when the book was published in 1989, is Cosmopolitan communication. This is a form of communication that sees differences as sites for exploration and recognizes that the moral forces that guide each of our stories and actions are honorable within their own logic of meaning and action.
By the time Making Social Worlds was published in 2007, Pearce was able to speak more articulately and forcefully about this form of communication:
Cosmopolitan communication patterns see differences as normal and as sites for exploration. In this form of communication, one would not expect or want to ‘resolve’ differences. Instead, the challenge is to find ways of coordinating with each other in a social world that has in it many different social worlds, and in which people not only are different, but should be different….Personally, I believe that the world is far too complex and dangerous for us to adopt a laissez-faire approach to forms of communication. The issues confronting us—as individuals, as families, as nations, as a civilization—are too important to stuff them into inadequate forms of communication. My own professional practice as a consultant and facilitator attempts to spur the evolution of forms of communication toward what I’m here calling cosmopolitan communication and sometimes call dialogic communication. As a cosmopolitan communicator, I acknowledge that this choice is not the one that everyone would make, and I seek to coordinate my actions with those who disagree rather than trying to persuade or coerce them into agreeing with me” (pg. 161).
There is a qualitatively different moral force at work in this pattern of communication. We need to look for it, study it, and enact it as much as possible.
What Hurricane Harvey has shown us
I hope these reflections have encouraged you to think about what those of us in the CMM community can do in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our organizations, in our communities, and in our Country (wherever in the world you live) to be first responders of better patterns of communication. Although we are in a cultural force-field of ethnocentric patterns, we have tools to help make more mindful and compassionate social worlds. Here are a few ideas that come to mind.
First, we can recognize our individual logical or moral forces will pull us in a particular direction and affect how we see, story, and treat other people. To the extent that our moral forces see those people who say and do things that we disagree with as “loathsome,” “narcissistic,” “morally bankrupt” (use your word of choice that casts them as “them”), we are more likely to be pulled into and reproduce ethnocentric patterns of communication that will keep the storm waters flooding us. If we can treat the stories and actions of others ‘not like us’ with curiosity and humility, we have a better chance of enacting dialogic or cosmopolitan patterns of communication. The goal, of course, is not to make them more like me but to make openings for deeper understanding and compassion. I was successful in doing this when I listened to President Trump’s speech a second time without privileging my own moral force, although I still have strong feelings about what he says and does.
We can also be on the lookout for political leaders (local, State and national) who are attempting to enact speech acts and episodes that are closer to cosmopolitan forms of communication. My Republican Senator, John McCain, just published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post (August 31) titled, It’s time Congress returns to regular order. Among other things, he said:
Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again. Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government—with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority—was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.”
Note that he is not talking about issues or people but about the “dysfunctional rules of engagement” that have created a toxic system. We should acknowledge and support actions like McCain’s given the strength of the logical forces and ethnocentric waters that he lives in daily. We can’t change Congress, but we can encourage and support those in Congress that are attempting to call into question a polluted system and who are putting their political careers on the line to work across the aisle. There are a handful of people who are doing this now; we should do whatever we can to acknowledge and support the leadership they are providing in attempting to change a toxic culture.
We should also be on the lookout for leaders in other contexts—civic, organizational, spiritual—who are refusing to engage in ethnocentric patterns and are inviting us to work and be together much like the Mayor and Police Chief of Houston demonstrated throughout the city’s worst-ever crisis. We should study what they say and do that creates more compassionate and humane forms of communication and encourage other leaders to do the same.
Those of us in the CMM community can remind ourselves, and each other, of the tools at our disposal. This requires, first and foremost, a commitment to a mindful life. What frames are we using to think about a situation? How often do we think about our own moral forces that may be fueling unwanted patterns and episodes? When is the last time we reached out to someone whose views are counter to ours in an attempt to truly understand their social worlds? When is the last time we reached out to one of our CMM friends or colleagues asking them to help us, for example, story a situation in a more expansive frame? These are just a few of the many questions we can be asking and actions we can perform.
The CMM community also has an opportunity to make a difference through the CMM Institute. The Institute exists to help create better patterns of communication and ways of being human. Cosmopolis 2045 is our attempt to help people envision what a community can look like when it treats, for example, speech acts, episodes, and patterns seriously and attempts to enact cosmopolitan patterns throughout the city. CosmoKidz is our attempt to help young children develop skills and abilities consistent with cosmopolitan and dialogic ways of being. Just this week kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade students in Hammond, Louisiana had their first conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of “talking things out” with your teacher if she is upset about something the class did. Many of the students said that they would feel better talking it out because the teacher will understand them better. They also said that the disadvantage of talking things out is that they are scared; they don’t know what the teacher will do. These kids are naming the fears that adults also have about “talking it out.” But dialogic forms of talking it out can help create the understanding that these young students say they want and need. And don’t we all want to be better understood?
We have seen firsthand from Harvey how a devastating hurricane can call forth the best in us and how quickly those in harm’s way understand that acting counter-intuitively can actually save your life. Let us take these lessons and apply them to the hurricanes currently raging in our social worlds. Let us draw inspiration from the countless ordinary men and women who have risked their lives to help save others. Let our tools be, among other things, love, curiosity, compassion—and CMM—to help make healing social worlds. And let us never forget, as President Trump reminded us in his speech “that we are on the same team.” We are swimming in the same pot and the water is close to boiling.
If you’d like to discuss these issues further please contact me at email@example.com