Teaching When Mr. T Is In The Room: Questioning The World Of False Facts And Quick Intolerance

Trump is reaching from the White House and news media to classes throughout the US, and the world, so teachers are fighting him everyday. They’re fighting the way he is influencing individual children as well as the collective psyche of the nation. Many teachers have spoken about the difficulties they have faced in their classes since the election. They value open discussion, but too many students seem poised to verbally leap onto the metaphorical backs of fellow students. Many students do not feel safe to voice their views.

 

But to have a successful class means creating not only a safe environment, but a sense of community, of working together to learn. How do you do that? And how do you respond when students verbally attack one another, or you?

 

Ruben Brosbe recently wrote an article about this subject. The country has become more divided and partisan, he said, and teachers are supposed to be neutral. “But schools and teachers must resist the urge to remain ‘neutral,’ because doing so only reinforces the dominant political ideology of their communities.” The community, the media are certainly not neutral, nor are most teachers, no matter what they do or try to do. 82% of teachers in the US are white, despite a student population that is more than 50% made of minorities. This can make it less likely that teachers will engage with controversial issues related to race and other forms of identity.

 

Brosbe provides resources from the Morningside Center that can be extremely useful to teachers, like finding out what students already know about a controversy, making connections to student’s lives and allowing them to opt out of uncomfortable discussions.

 

The Center also recommends setting a tone of responsiveness and openness. To begin the school year, make group agreements about ground rules and processes to facilitate positive and respectful interactions. There can be no delay or hesitation in your doing this. And Social Emotional Learning has never been more relevant and important.

 

In my experience, to create openness in a classroom, you must be open. When students feel seen and heard, they come alive, so make sure to greet students as they enter the classroom. From the very first day, let students know you see them and they are important. Come to class as engaged and present as you can, so students see you as a person first, and then as a teacher.

 

The job of a teacher is not just to increase knowledge in a particular subject, but help students learn to think clearly and work with others—and learn that discussing issues with others is a vital component of thinking and learning. Brosbe quotes Dr. Paula McAvoy as saying that schools are one of the few places students can learn to go beyond campaign rhetoric to really examine evidence. I agree. Students who can’t speak to others respectfully or who don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, or a truth versus propaganda, do not meet those criteria. Trump might imagine that whatever pops into his mind is the only truth. He might believe that anyone who disagrees with him should be punished. But it is the job of teachers to challenge that way of behaving and thinking when it arises in the classroom.

 

To create the sense that logic and reason, as well as compassion, are equally the core of an education, always make clear your own reasoning, sources of information, and willingness (if the facts warrant it) to change your position on most anything—except how you will treat students and other people.

 

Too many people think of discussions as a competition for who gets to speak or dominate. They think of a viewpoint as their identity, which they must hold on to as tightly as they can so they don’t disappear. The competitive, warlike atmosphere that many politicians and bureaucrats mistake for a constructive educational environment undermines education. Fear is not a good teacher. When you teach with fear, not only are you limiting the quantity of information you can integrate, but you learn that learning is fearful.

 

People easily imagine that when you speak, you are simply expressing yourself. But to speak, you must create an idea in your mind of your audience. You can’t utter a word without an idea of who is listening. You speak differently to a one year old than an English professor, differently to your peers than your parents.

 

When some people speak, they speak to the crowd in their mind, not the breathing people in the classroom with them. They do not see others or try to learn from them, and thus feel isolated. Ask students what being isolated feels like. You must look at and listen to the people you speak to if you want a good conversation.

 

Make the class discussions themselves the teaching. Ask students: How can the way you speak to others influence how well you learn? Did anyone ever cut you off or shut you up by the way they spoke? If someone doesn’t hear you, will they learn from you? If you don’t listen, will you hear?

 

Occasionally, in a class discussion, especially if the level of tension is rising, stop the discussion. Ask students to close their eyes, partially or fully, and take two calm breaths. With the third breath, ask them to notice how they feel. Or with the third breath, ask them to bring to mind a person with whom they were having a disagreement. Have them picture the person and imagine that they have feelings, just like they do. They hurt, just like they do. They want to be accepted, just like they do.

 

Teach students three aspects of a learning dialogue:

  1. The quality of your listening: What exactly did you hear? Be ready to check if what you heard was what was said.
  2. The quality of your understanding. What was your evidence? Was the evidence factual, reliable, and well supported? Make sure students recognize the need for accuracy and truthfulness in their speech. Talk about what a fact is, and how it is different from a theory or opinion. How do you verify or support a fact versus an opinion?
  3. The quality of metacognition and reasoning. In order to think clearly and discover bias and points of confusion, you need to be mindful of your thinking process. For what reasons did you say that? What was your intent? And: How did you figure that out? Did you jump to a conclusion too quickly? Did your conclusion clearly follow from the evidence?

 

Help students be more observant of others by playing theatre improvisation games. Pair up students to mirror each other. The pairs stand, facing each other, hands up with palms facing their partner as if there was a glass surface between them that they never break. Ask them to decide who will first lead, who will mirror. As the leader moves her right hand back, away from the mirror, the follower moves his left hand away. They continue moving together until you call out switch—and they change roles without stopping. Or: show students an ambiguous photo of people in a group and let them create a story of who the people are and what they are doing.

 

Critical thinking is a process, not an immediate taking of a position. It requires that you question and test your understanding and ideas, as well as feelings, and recognize discussing with others is a crucial component of that process. When you consider a diversity of viewpoints and listen to those who disagree with your original position, this is not a threat to who you are but an expansion—if it is done respectfully. Viewpoints must be seen as evolving, not final. The process of arriving at a conclusion is as important as the answer or solution you derive. The process influences the quality, depth and breadth of that solution.

 

Students come to school partly to test reality and discover if what they heard at home reflects what happens in the larger world. Teachers know this. Intellectually opposing a teacher or other students might be the only way some children can rebel or learn to assert themselves.

 

This can be painful for teachers to deal with. It is so easy to feel you have failed if your students treat you or each other badly. But if you can keep in mind the depth and importance of the struggle you are engaged in, it might help you be kinder to yourself. We have a bully in the White House. We have to do what we can so a caring, clear thinking person, not a bully, presides in the classroom.

 

**The increase in anxiety and fear in the classroom and society also interferes with learning and reasoning. Here is a link to a blog on helping relieve student/teacher anxiety. And the New Yorker published an article in September of this year, by Clint Smith, called “James Baldwin’s Lesson For Teachers In A Time Of Turmoil.” It is about a talk given by Baldwin in 1963.

Is Social Media Promoting Or Undermining Democracy—Or Both?

Just two days ago, on October 25th, Mr. T once again treated the facts of a situation as clay he could shape any way he pleased. He accused Hillary Clinton of giving Russia “20% of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune.” This, he claimed, is the real Russia scandal. Of course, this is another in a long line of lies and distortions. According to Politifact and the Washington Post, a one time owner of a uranium company that was sold to the Russians did give money to the Clinton Foundation, but this was before she was Secretary of State and before the uranium company was owned by Russians—plus, she had no hand in approving the sale to Russians.

 

Is this simply another example of a President who either has no care for the truth or who believes in the big lie, a lie so outrageous that people who hear it will think there must be some truth to it? Is he being so outrageous because he understands that social media, the internet, and news outlets that are more like organs of propaganda supports such behavior? Does social media promote or undermine democracy in this or any country? These questions are asked directly or indirectly almost every day lately, with Trump on Twitter and Russians on FB.

 

It wasn’t long ago that many people were proclaiming that social media would be a democratizing force in the world. In late 2010, early 2011, during the Arab Spring, we heard how social media led to powerful demonstrations that brought down established oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. According to an article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, it enabled a “twitter revolution” to build extensive networks of protest as well as to gain information beyond the borders the government controls.

 

But as the authors of the article state, using the example of the failure of student-led protests to further democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, a very tech-savvy city, “the power of social media is mischaracterized, its potency exaggerated.”

 

It is so easy to get lost in the advantages of social media and ignore the dangers. One danger is an increase in oppression. The “Great Firewall of China” is “a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance” that prevents information that opposes the Chinese Communist Party from reaching its citizens.

 

In a discussion at the Aspen Institute on the role of social media in diplomacy, Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation adviser, described how Vladimir Putin built a digital information system in his country that has become a “truly effective propaganda machine.” He said the success of Putin’s efforts are illustrated by the fact that just a few years ago people throughout Europe believed that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014, not the Russians.

 

In the US, the last election has led to an epidemic of “fake news,” much of it seemingly supplied by Russia to support Mr. T and increase divisiveness and anger in our country. It has intensified racial and religious divides, for example, as well as political, such as between Bernie vs. Clinton supporters. It has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true. According to an article by Hunt Alcott and Mathew Gentzkow, in the Stanford University Journal of Economic Perspectives, during the election 62% of US adults got their news from social media and “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on FB than popular mainstream news stories”—and they were believed. Fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Mr. T. “Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” The authors conclude that fake news most likely helped elect Mr. T president.

 

Madeline Albright also took part in the Aspen Institute discussion. As reported by Catherine Lutz in her article on the subject, Albright said, “We’re operating in a rudderless world.” Social media technology is helping create a “dangerous force” of nationalism. People are “grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups.” [Italics are my own.] This was in August, 2014, and Albright’s words are proving even more true today.

 

Ross said, at the Aspen Institute discussion, that the media is value-neutral, but I question that. I can’t forget Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s talking about “the media is the message.” We have to look more at the effects of the media itself, not just its content.

 

One effect of social media and related technologies is an increase in the hold on us of a consumer-driven capitalist society. They enshrine ever more deeply the values of immediate gratification, distraction, us-them thinking and an over-simplification of how we view issues in our society. Ease of pleasure replaces depth of experience. Many of us recognize that usage of media has become a habit we feel we cannot do without. We worry if we are away for any length of time from our phones or social media platforms, “what have I missed?” We want the latest cell phones or other devices, despite the fact that this technology can be costly. Some studies claim American teens spend on average 9 hours a day on their cell phones and other media, more time than most of them sleep. According to the World Bank, Americans in general spend 1.7 hours a day on social media.

 

Parents and educators especially are seeing an increase in anxiety and difficulty concentrating in their children. This can partly be attributed to the “Trump Effect” and the fear engendered by this administration, but social media shares some of the blame. (I’d argue an increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us is also to blame, but that’s for another time.) Psychologist and educator Larry Rosen, in his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, argues that social media has contributed to an increase in disorders like narcissism and anxiety in both children and adults. He goes further and argues that when hidden behind our media screens, our thinking is more easily distorted, and we display thoughts and actions that characterize different psychological disorders. For example, Rosen cites studies showing many people, on FB or other social media, display the “me first” grandiosity, lack of empathy, envy of others, sense of self-importance and entitlement that characterizes a narcissistic personality disorder.

 

According to Mark Matousek in his book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, words are never more than a small part of any face-to-face communication—one study showed as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message. The rest is expressed through facial expression, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. But on social media, we only have words, names, or photos to respond to. We can lose the feeling that the people we meet on FB have an inner life similar to our own. We have to fill in so much with our imagination and prior understandings that it is easy to misunderstand or not care. Matousek argues we suffer a virtual blindness that can undermine our sense of shared humanity and morality.

 

Truth has a difficult time competing against the pressures to fit in a group and believe what your friends believe. We understand only in a context, and one of the most important elements of any context is who we are with. This leads to a cognitive bias to believe what other people, especially those in our group, believe (bandwagon effect and herd instinct), and we are more likely to notice information that supports our pre-existing views than what doesn’t (confirmation bias).

 

Never before, thanks to the internet, have facts been easier to find. Yet, lies and distortions by politicians have increasingly filled the headlines. We have to take time to check sources of any information we read in order not to be deceived by a fake news story. Democracy is a complex, time consuming political system demanding more education on issues and involvement from its citizens. Yet, the internet itself fosters the expectation of immediate answers, undermines tolerance of complexity, and thus makes it easier for corrupt politicians to deceive and manipulate.

 

So, does social media promote or undermine democracy? Maybe both. I am disturbed by how easy it is to spread propaganda and fake news on social media. But besides the obvious (check sources, not rely on social media for news, take frequent tech/social media holidays and walk in the woods, replace the current administration with one that truly cares about the well-being of its citizens and one that cares about fighting, not supporting, Russian interference in our democracy), I have few answers. I do know that in order to think clearly we need to know how to create a mental silence when we need it, so we can mindfully hear our own thoughts and feelings. And we need to learn how to listen for the reality of others, both for all that we share and all that makes us different, even when we know little about them except a name in the headlines or a few words on FB. Mindfulness and compassion can be revolutionary.

Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

An Analysis of the News, Thoughts On A Gloomy Administration, and A Review of My Book

Three different pieces for you:

The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.

 

*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.

However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?

An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.

Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.

Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.

The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)

You might want to read the whole article.

 

*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…

This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.

 

*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris

**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.

 

 

Snippets of A Gloomy Day: Hoping to Hear He’s Been Impeached

In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real.

 

This is one legacy of all the fake news we’ve been witnessing. And it is truly frightening. If all facts are opinions, mere statements of likes and dislikes, or arbitrary, with no basis in truth, then how can I trust in anything people say? How do I know even what words mean to you? A word’s meaning is a fact of language.

 

While some people can’t stand to watch the news, others fear turning it off. They are afraid of what they might miss. Watching the news has become like guarding your home from attack, or guarding your prized possession, your sanity, so it won’t be stolen.

 

I notice a little of both in me. The President is in the news so frequently that it is difficult to hear about anything else. Part of me likes this, because I’m waiting to hear the latest stupidity, the latest revelation of possibly treasonous acts, of obstruction of justice, of him using his position to make money for the family businesses, etc.—What I am waiting to hear is that he has been kicked out of office.

 

But his possible crimes and misdemeanors blind us to other equally disturbing actions, like on health care for women, the environment, undermining the separation of state and religion, undermining voting rightsfree speech and controls on Wall Street and bankers. Trump might be the first President to use his own impeachment to distract voters from even worse actions he is party too, if there are such.

 

His narcissism is so deep it is contagious. It is like he is subconsciously trying to give all of America the anxiety and disordered thinking that lies at the root of his psyche. What a generous man.

 

One of his biggest gifts is to comedians. He has revived the profession. President Obama was, by comparison, so boringly dependable and literate, so normal. Now, comedians are swamped with material, helping us laugh at what we would otherwise cry about. They have become heroes. They are able to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said on a public stage.

 

Life before Trump felt relatively predictable to many people. No more. He has awakened us to the fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable nature of reality.

 

The Republicans are re-shaping America’s expectations. Before Trump, people wanted health care that was reasonably priced and comprehensive. Now, many will settle for insurance that is cheap but covers almost nothing, or costs less than double their rent or mortgage. Republicans are trying to pit men against women, the young and healthy against the old or those burdened with pre-existing conditions. Make America Great Again seems to mean make health care another vehicle of redistributing wealth—or of making life so expensive that only the wealthy will have the energy or resources to participate meaningfully in politics.

 

Republican politicians and their supporters have been saying for years that they want to reduce the size of government. Is it possible that all along, their strategy was to make government so intractable and toxic, so lacking in compassion that even Democrats would come to hate it and let whatever controls there are left on the wolves of greed be dismantled?

 

And in all of this, FB and other social media have become the place to share information on petitions, letter-writing campaigns, Town Hall meetings and other demonstrations. But it can be shocking to see information on government crimes and lies, on a possible loss of health care coverage for millions, alongside cute cats and our best friend’s latest vacation. The extent of his destruction alone makes it difficult enough to accept; the camouflage of “fake news,” lies, and distractions, of saying one thing one minute and another in the next, makes speech seem meaningless and facts difficult to discern. Hoping for the best and “liking” posts on FB is just a beginning.

 

I think we are re-creating what it means to participate in governing, despite the administration trying to stop us. We are learning not to ignore the difficult, and how to muster in ourselves the strength, compassion and persistence needed to resist Mr. Trump and create a new political reality.

To Write Well, Write Truthfully

**This blog was also published by the Swenson Book Development website.

 

How do you write well? Probably thousands have written about this. On the surface, it seems writing is about language, which to a large extent it is. It seems it is about which words to use, or how to find a unique story or approach. But from my point of view, it really is about the mind and body that writes. It is about being truthful and real. If you fake it, your readers will know it. You will know it. The plot or argument won’t hold together. When it’s truthful to you, it will engage others.

 

And you don’t merely know a truth intellectually—you feel it. A word of beauty is really a path for feeling to follow, or it reveals the path feeling took to get to meaning. Without feeling, words are empty code. Dead. When a sentence feels off or incomplete or like it’s struggling for breath, it is wrong, no matter how attractive it looks. Don’t get distracted by good looks. It is the heart that counts.

 

Feelings arise before words and memories do. They arise with the first hint of awareness. You probably have experienced not knowing what you want to write until you put something down on paper, or in your computer. The act of writing opens up the conscious to the depths normally unconscious. It is creating and thinking. It is revelation.

 

So the first step in writing and creating is being aware of feeling. I do that by meditating, exercising and reading. Meditation clears my mind and increases awareness and focus. Exercise energizes me and clears away blocks and obsessions. Reading provides imagery, insights, and intellectual challenges.

 

The philosopher, psychologist, and writer Dr. Jean Huston said in a workshop I attended, that immersing yourself in poetry makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. The same with reading stories, psychology, philosophy, history and such. Reading reveals doors which meditation unlocks.

 

One meditation is to focus attention on the tip of the nose and count breaths. This develops a focused attention which is also peripherally aware of what is going on inside you. All you have to do is count to ten. Listen to the count. The directions for meditation or mindfulness might sound simple. It is the mind which adds the complexities.

 

In school, on hard plastic chairs, we sit near the edge of the chair so we’re neither slouched nor rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully, rest your hands on your lap, and put your attention, continuously, at the tip of the nose and feel the sensations of breathing. Feel the moving air, its temperature, consistency as you breathe in—and out. Inhale. Then exhale and say “onnnnne” to yourself. Continue to be aware throughout the breath. When the exhalation completes itself, allow the in-breath to happen on its own. Then exhale with “twoooo.” Just count. Gently maintain your awareness without trying to change the rhythm of the breath. Continue in this fashion, counting the exhalations until you get to ten. Then, instead of saying eleven, go back to one. Do this sequence once more until you get to ten, and again.

 

If any feelings arise, be kind to yourself. Notice what’s there and then return to the breath. No internal commenting is necessary. The same if any thoughts arise. Just notice the arising or the whisper of thought. Then let it dissipate as you return your attention to the counting and the feel of air passing in and out. That’s how you start. Two minutes for the first time is good. Your body will ask for more if you don’t force it.

 

If, or when, you get lost, and you lose the count or awareness of the breath, just focus on the fact that you noticed you were lost. This is the prime lesson. Everyone gets lost sometimes. It is the fact that now you are found, and how you respond to it that is important. Enjoy being found.

 

The meditation develops a sense of presence that is inherently creative and curious. Understanding will come more quickly to you. If you look at your ideas or writing in this state, you will readily notice what feels off or incomplete.

 

Another wonderful practice is proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It is a “method for finding your authentic voice,” and hearing your personal truth. It asks you to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to feel and hear what you write. It is especially appropriate for the brainstorm or first draft. Put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you. Maybe you have a question or topic in mind you want to explore—respond to that. If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. “Write what you hear. Hear what you write.” Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic.

 

Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, you need to begin with the confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay or story itself by voicing your confusion. By going directly into it, it unravels.

 

Study yourself. When are you most clear and awake? In college, my best time was late at night, when the world was quiet and my school day complete. Now, it is the morning, when I’m fully awake but still close to dreaming. The morning sun—the freshness of the light—gets to me.

 

Think of writing as a process. To prepare, you immerse yourself in a topic until you are clear on what drives you. Then you brainstorm or do proprioceptive writing, recording initial ideas without care about spelling or craft—with honesty and feeling. Then later you craft. You plot. And then you test it, share it, think about how others will hear it, and re-write it. Actually, you constantly repeat the steps of the creative process. You prepare through immersion. You propose sentences, plot lines, arguments and counterarguments and question them. You then allow yourself to be aware of frustration and feelings. Then you incubate; you step back, take a walk in the woods or meditate or sleep on it. And in the morning, or after the meditation, the answer will be there, or you will have a new perspective. The material will be integrated. Illumination will follow.

 

When you get lost or don’t know what to write, return to the source. Go quiet. Work with your mind and body, not against it. But be diligent and commit. Commit to your work and to the process of writing itself. If you focus on the result, you will force it. Instead of valuing the ends over the means—the celebration, acclaim, the satisfaction of completing a project—love the process itself. To love the process is to turn your whole life into a creative act. It is to value each moment you live.

 

What a beautiful way to live.

 

 

Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Do You Agree “There Are No Such Things As Facts?”

A week ago, on the NPR Diane Rehms Show, I heard a beautiful example of a self-refuting statement spoken live on the radio. I didn’t realize what I was hearing right away, although the quote certainly caught my attention. The show was a panel discussion answering the question, “How are journalists rethinking their role under a Trump presidency?” The guests included 5 professional news editors, columnists, and reporters including James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Scottie Nell Hughes (RightAlerts.com & former D. Trump surrogate).

 

During the program, James Fallows said a lie was when you knew the truth, yet repeated a falsehood for a personal motive. He said there was clear evidence the apparent President-elect lied on several occasions. Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump “booster,” was asked for her response to this. Her reply was “There are no such things as facts.” She used Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election to explain her viewpoint. She says, [I edited the text to make it more comprehensible] “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet [about illegal voters, was taken] … [by] a certain crowd, a large part of the population, …[as the] truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, …his supporters, … believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say [his statements] are lies, and there’s no facts to back …up his claims.”

 

Think about this statement. And ask everyone you know, your students and friends, to think about this statement. Discuss it in your classroom or place of work. What could she possibly mean by this? It is of immense importance. Is she saying that because a large part of the population believes what Mr. Trump says and supports him, therefore his statements are true? And, therefore, there are no lies for him to be called to account for?

 

I think it is true those who believe in Mr. Trump take his words as truth. But is a truth or a fact decided by a popularity contest or vote count? Certainly popularity will influence whether or how well a truth will be perceived, and there is a social dimension to any truth. But how does her way of speaking of ‘facts’ make any sense—and how would a fact differ from an opinion? Or is everything somehow an opinion?

 

Mr. Fallows’ point that a truth is opposite a lie provides one way to answer these questions. If Scottie Hughes thinks there are no facts, she must think there are no truths and no lies. How do you know what’s a lie if there is no truth? A fact is by definition something known to be true, something based on evidence that you could demonstrate repeatedly. Likewise, ‘truth’ is from a root meaning ‘faithfulness’ (treowth), as in faithful to reality. It is real. If there are no truths, there are also no accurate or faithful definitions of words. You would never know if the sound you heard in your mind or uttered by another person is a word, nor what it meant. Nor would you know what you wanted to say. Therefore, you could never speak. When you opened your mouth, just noise would emerge.

 

To say “there are no facts” is equivalent to saying, “it is a fact that there are no facts.” By speaking these words you nullify the “fact” that you spoke. Therefore, can anything you say be other than meaningless gibberish? Or is Scottie Nell Hughes really saying that only what is in opposition to her statements is meaningless gibberish?

 

*P. S. Scottie Hughes’ viewpoint did not arise out of a vacuum and is not entirely new, only new in the blatant way it has been applied to the electoral process. It is part of a battle over the nature of the human mind, or what it means to be human, that has been waged for over a hundred years and maybe forever. A few years ago, students in one of my classes argued, “there is no such thing as truth.” When asked what they meant by truth, they responded with: “A truth is permanent, unchanging, absolute, like ‘God’s truth.’“ And: “Since I can know truth only through my own experience, and we all have different experiences, how can there be one truth?” This and other discussions on the topic showed me how important it is to discuss with students the meanings of words like truth, fact, and opinion, not just to voice diverse viewpoints but to analyze and question them.

 

It is easy for people to think that truth should exist in isolation from the minds of all those who perceive and understand it, like they might think the objects of the world exist in isolation from other objects. But isn’t a truth, like a fact, like a word, interdependent with the situation, context and mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears? To borrow an example from the philosopher Ken Wilber, the word ‘bark’ depends on the the context of the sentence and the ability of the speaker and listener to speak the language. (“The dog barks every morning,” versus “the bark of the tree.”) Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception itself a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we… experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” He thinks the world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two, and never separate. If he is correct, meaning his reasoning is logical, comprehensive, and based on demonstrably accurate information, then each mind influences the way a world is perceived, yet there are still truthful and not truthful statements, and facts.

 

**Terry Gross recorded a Fresh Air episode relevant to this topic on 12/7, interviewing Dean Baquet, executive editor of the NY Times. You might find it interesting.

When the News Feels Too Upsetting, Try Mindful Logic With Your Coffee

When you awake each morning dreading the news, it’s time to add mindful logic to your coffee. And its time for schools to teach how to think more empathically, clearly, and critically, with more understanding of one’s own mental and emotional state. Current events and election coverage classes are not a new idea. But what might be new is to do more than just listening to news media and testing students on superficial knowledge. Students can learn to analyze the news, discern lies, distortions and logical fallacies, as well as become more aware of how they respond to and are emotionally affected by a news item. They need to go beyond the mere memorization often pushed by standardized testing and actually imagine what the real people in a news item might be experiencing. By intellectually taking hold of the world they can feel a sense of power and will be more capable of acting meaningfully in it.

 

Of course, many might think this blasphemy. Supposedly, assigning students the task of analyzing and fact-checking the statements of politicians, for example, can lead to indoctrination. But how is the questioning of real people and events indoctrination? And what is the alternative? A politician running for office who, by most criteria and a simple use of Google, lies or distorts the truth about 90% of the time? To counteract indoctrination, teachers need to understand and reveal their own positions with care and humility, understanding that they might be wrong or missing something. ( I, for example, deplore the lies, misogynist statements and actions, and racist insinuations made by Donald Trump, e. g. about Judge Ganzalo Curiel.) They must teach the necessity of doubting any theory until it is questioned in some detail and shown to be well reasoned and supported, even a teacher’s position.

 

Students need to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions like: “Does the corporate media report more extensively on one candidate for office over another? What is the evidence for this?” And ask what happens to public discourse, what happens to the power of the public, when the truth is made to seem unimportant? What is the cost to the level of public discourse when politicians constantly lie and many Americans believe it?

 

Teachers need to appreciate, understand and explain the necessity for examining a diversity of viewpoints in forming an understanding of an issue. To get out of the way of a car speeding toward you on a street, you need to see it from the perspective of where your body is standing. But you must also understand the car and you must know what it can do. You must know it from its own perspective. To understand, you need this relationship of multiple perspectives. Once you leave behind exclusively taking the perspective with you at the center, you perceive and can think more clearly and with less bias.

 

Students can greatly benefit from learning how to recognize persuasion techniques and formal or informal fallacies, which can enable them to recognize how salespeople and political leaders try to sway their thinking. For example, there is the bandwagon technique in advertising or ad populum fallacy, which creates internal pressure to do something because everyone is doing it—or everyone you identify with. It is a version of peer pressure. Or ad hominem—which means, you attack the person and ignore what she says. Or you appeal to emotion, like fear or jealousy to distort thinking. If a statement is repeated frequently enough in a context you trust, you tend to believe it, even if there is little supportive evidence. There is overgeneralization, which is at the heart of prejudiced statements. The mere semblance of logic can be persuasive, as when someone adds “because” to a request (as in “can I please budge in line ahead of you because I get so nervous waiting on lines”) you are more likely to accede to what is being asked.

 

But you must be able to distinguish the mere semblance of logic from sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is both true, meaning it is based on evidence that is reliably verified. And the argument is valid, which means the position taken by the speaker follows logically or naturally from the statements offered as supportive evidence. Ask: What was actually said? What is your proof? Verify statements offered as supportive evidence through online and other resources, and not just with fact-check sites. You could discuss what is a fact and how it is different from an opinion or theory. Are the supposed facts really facts? You could teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.

 

Teach the following questions:

What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?

  1. Intent: What did she actually say? What did she mean by that? What might he have been feeling or what was his line of reasoning? What is the statement trying to convince you of? Is the statement consistent with other, previous statements? Is there evidence, for example, that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
  2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

Researchers have argued that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates, as well as themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

Students can be taught to mindfully recognize the speeded up heartbeat and breathing, the shakiness and sense of being pressured, as well as other sensations and thoughts which arise when they feel a threat or unconsciously distort what they hear, so they can let it go. When you listen to the news, hear what your mind and body say in response.

 

It is important both for your mental health and for acting as a responsible citizen to analyze the news with an understanding of your own mental-emotional state, your inclinations, desires, theories about the world, and how others influence you. This part of the curriculum needs to be expanded in our schools, or added if it is missing.

 

*For more assistance in teaching about the election, I recommend the article in Teaching Tolerance: Teach 2016. For more assistance in teaching critical thinking, see my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.