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Saturday, November 23, 2019

Thoughts on the Written and Spoken Word

A few times a year, I attend academic conferences related to my areas of "expertise." Central to these conferences is the presentation of "papers" on various topics with an eye toward eventually turning these papers into articles and/or books. Unsurprisingly, some people are better presenters than others. A primary reason is whether they "read" their paper or speak (somewhat) extemporaneously. This is not because extemporaneous speakers are naturally better presenters but rather because of the difference between written and oral discourse.

Put simply, we speak differently than we write. So, when we write a paper and then read directly from it, it typically comes across as stilted, which often makes it much harder for our listeners to follow and encourages their minds to drift. I'm not suggesting that extemporaneous speakers are better than those who follow a manuscript. In fact, many are not ("Preach Like TED?"). Rather, the trick appears to be translating the written word into the spoken word. Unfortunately, quite a few of us academics have yet to master that talent.

Note: To be clear, I make no claim to have mastered this talent.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

A Case for a Less-Polarizing Candidate

I've posted previously on social identity theory and political polarization ("Us vs. Them," "Uncivil Agreement"). Social identity theory holds that we derive our sense of self-worth through a combination of our personal achievements and the accomplishments of the groups to which we belong. The accomplishments of our groups mean little, however, apart from how they compare to the accomplishments of other groups. Thus, we have a tendency to root for our own "team" at the expense of other "teams." In fact, sometimes "winning" becomes so important that we'll pull for our team to win even if it means that personally we'll be worse off.

The political scientist, Lilliana Mason, draws on social identity theory to help explain the high level of political polarization found in America today (“Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization”) and argues that identifying as a Republican or Democrat has become something like a team sport, where winning has become more important than the common good. And she is quite clear that both Republicans and Democrats are "guilty" of being more interested in winning than necessarily doing what is best for the country. (Of course, all of us convince ourselves that having our team win IS what's best for the country.) We'll almost certainly see this play itself out in the ongoing impeachment proceedings. I think it's fair to say that both "teams" will be more interested in winning than dispassionately evaluating the evidence. And I get a sense that a similar dynamic is occurring in Britain over Brexit between the "Leave" and "Remain" teams.

Is there anything that can be done? Research suggests that polarization can be transcended when a greater goal or concern comes along. Wars can sometimes bring a country together (but not always), and it can help to have a common enemy such as the former Soviet Union. In fact, Nicholas Christakis has recently wondered ("Blueprint") whether the collapse of the Soviet Block contributed to the current increase in American polarization.

Personally, I think electing a less-polarizing President would be a positive step forward, and frankly I don't care if it's a Republican or a Democrat. However, since it's unlikely that this time around the Republicans will nominate anyone but Donald Trump, one of the most divisive president's in U.S. history, it's up to the Democrats to find the appropriate candidate. And at this time in our history, I think a candidate's "polarization quotient" is more important than his or her policy stances. What we need now is not more divisiveness.

What we need is a reconciling spirit. We need someone like Abraham Lincoln, who closed his 1st inaugural address as such:
We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Of course, Lincoln's plea failed to prevent the Civil War. Let us hope that we are more lucky.