I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
Henry David Thoreau
September 4, 2002
“Chanticleer Calls”, an aperiodic newsletter for discriminating readers, thinkers, feelers, speakers, listeners, and cogitators.
GENERAL SEMANTICS IN THE FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
The “chance encounter” recounted in last month’s CCalls did indeed bear fruit in the form of a nice, 500-word article about the DFW Center for General Semantics in the August 13th Fort Worth Star-Telegram. If you somehow escaped or dodged the avalanche of emails issued forth from this IP address subsequent to the 13th about the article, you can still (as of this writing) read the article online at:
Three items of errata ought to be mentioned:
- Buckminster Fuller did not study with Korzybski, as the article says but he did lecture at Institute seminars in the 1950s.
- The Institute’s archives that moved here to Fort Worth in May had not been “in storage” in New Jersey for twenty years.
- As much as I hate to admit this, the ‘map’ of “Texas-born” does not accurately represent the ‘territory’ of … me. I was actually born in Clovis, NM. However, my parents soon scurried across the border to Olton where my dad began his teaching career. How about, “Texas-bred”?
HOW DO YOU USE LANGUAGE?
How we use language determines the way we evaluate our relationship with ourselves, others, and our world. Many human problems can be traced to our ignorance of the ways we use language and the ways language influences us. – Alfred Korzybski
- We use language to speak, write, read, and listen.
- We use language to think and express our feelings.
- We use language to analyze and solve problems.
- We use language to establish rules, regulations, laws, policies, procedures, ordinances, and standards.
- We use language to reach compromises, agreements, settlements, resolutions and contracts.
- We use language to understand, to be understood, and to pass on our understandings to others.
- We use language to dream, imagine, contemplate, cogitate, deliberate, create, innovate and ponder.
- We use language to mislead, misinform, and misunderstand.
- We use language to deny, suppress, inhibit, prohibit and limit what others do and say.
- We use language to rule, dictate, terrorize, intimidate, indoctrinate and alienate.
- We use language to generalize, categorize, stereotype, pigeonhole and profile.
- We use language to lie, cheat, steal, quibble, libel, slander, sue and defraud.
- We use language to perpetuate myths, superstitions, prejudices, feuds, and atavistic traditions.
- We use language to create and exacerbate fear, anxiety, regret, guilt, jealousy, paranoia, suspicion, and hate.
If your language is confused, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
I was speaking with a tutoring client last week about an unpleasant and unexpected conversation she had with a friend of hers. We talked about the many factors and circumstances that affected the exchange, including what had occurred even *before* the conversation started. Borrowing a term from scriptwriting, I referred to the “Back Story” of each of the two ‘characters’ in terms of their experiences, understandings, expectations, motivations, intentions, etc., that formed the context of the contentious conversation.
I rather like that analogy of the “Back Story” applied to our language habits; the “Back Story” is always lingering there in the wings, “off stage,” but it serves to integrally move and shape the action “on stage.” It’s like a ‘shadow language’ that lies behind the language that we use.
Here’s a confessional example. With my high-speed Internet connection at the DFWCGS office (provided by www.SoHoPros.com, thank you very much), I’ve subscribed to a service that, for $4/month, delivers CD-quality, continuous, commercial-free music right to my desk.
After three weeks, my only complaint was the volume control on my relatively-new computer. Even with my Windows XP volume control set down to the lowest, least significant bit, the audio level was uncomfortably loud; if I tried to turn it down, it was “Off” …. if I increased the volume by even one small increment, it blasted me out.
I figured this was either a Compaq or a Microsoft ‘problem,’ so I searched their websites looking for some kind of a software fix or patch or workaround.
Only this past weekend did I finally figure out that the music service itself had a volume control on its control panel, which in my case was turned up to the max.
In other words, there was another Volume Control(2) that was ‘controlling’ the Volume Control(1) that I thought *I* had been controlling. Only when I realized that I had to adjust these two controls in combination was I able to get the degree of volume control I wanted.
I want to suggest that in a similar way, the language that we’re usually aware of – that which goes out of our mouths and comes into our ears – isn’t the only languaging that’s going on. We have these “Back Stories” also going on – the experiences, motivations, expectations, intentions, beliefs, and assumptions that act as the ‘shadow language’ that lies behind the language we use. The degree to which we’re aware of these “Back Stories” can affect the degree to which our language (and our associated behavior) appropriately, or inappropriately, responds to what goes on around us.
So, how aware are you of your … B.S.?
A WORD ABOUT GENERAL SEMANTICS: LIMITS
I gave a short presentation to a working group of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago. With about five hours of material, but only twenty minutes of allotted time, I decided to tell three stories, each of which reflected some aspect of general semantics.
The first story was one that Alfred Korzybski repeated at his seminars in the ’30s and ’40s, which he attributed to the industrial engineer, Walter Polakov.
While making his rounds around the barnyard one day, a rooster came upon an ostrich egg. With great effort and determination, he managed to roll the large egg up to the door of the hen house. He called a meeting of all the hens in the house, gathering them ’round the door.
“Ladies,” he began, “I don’t mean to make any personal criticisms. But,” gesturing to the huge egg at his side, “I just want to show you what can be done!”
Now, some might hear that story as an exhortation at motivation by the rooster. “Think big! … If you believe it, you can achieve it …. Dream it, do it! … Expect a miracle!”
However, there’s also a different lesson here having to do with unrealistic expectations. There are limits to what chickens can do, and, so far as I know, those limits stop short of laying eggs to compete in size with those laid by ostriches.
I mentioned to the Chamber of Commerce group that we used to have a rather irreverent, yet relevant, aphorism at the Air Force Academy: “If the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum.”
Now, some people hear that and immediately associate it with a slacker, a loafer, someone just trying to ‘get by’. “What? The minimum is NEVER good enough! I don’t want to associate with ANYONE who’s willing to get by with just the MINIMUM!”
And yet, consider this … if you’re taking 21 academic credit hours, and you’re on the varsity football team, and you have military obligations as well as academic and athletic, and you really need about 28 hours every day to do what needs to get done … wouldn’t prudent prioritization dictate that the smart thing *might* be to shoot for the minimum in this area or that?
And if you look at this statement from the perspective of the commander, or the leader, or the manager, or the supervisor, or the parent who’s responsible for *setting* the minimum standards and expectations – “If the minimum isn’t good enough, should it BE the minimum?”
To paraphrase a saying of Milton Dawes’ … those who set standards, requirements, and expectations for others ought to remember that the people who will be subjected to those standards, requirements and expectations have many other standards and expectations to meet. It is inevitable that some of these expectations and standards might conflict; some compromises might be necessary. And in many cases, the people who are expected to meet the standards have ideas that differ from the manager or leader or parent about what those standards legitimately ought to be.
So I think it behooves those in authority to carefully consider the potential stresses and conflicts that may result when standards and expectations are articulated and dictated.
And it behooves us as individuals to be careful in the expectations we place on ourselves.
That’s not to say that standards and expectations are not necessary or can be avoided. However, they ought to be established deliberately, not arbitrarily, and purposefully, not cosmetically. And those that set them ought to take the lead in reassessing them as appropriate, according to the circumstances and ‘facts’ at the time.
Wendell Johnson, in People In Quandaries, talks about the spiraling cycle of “IFD Disease” that results from unrealistic expectations, unachievable dreams, and out-of-reach stretch goals:
IDEALIZATION … then FRUSTRATION … leading to DEMORALIZATION.
Let’s let our chickens be chickens and keep the cock-eyed optimists off center stage.
CHARLOTTE READ’S NY TIMES OBITUARY: IN SYNCH WITH SAFIRE
A colleague forwarded to me the obituary for Charlotte Read that appeared in the August 24th New York Times.
We wondered who wrote the obit, and speculated that William Safire might have had a hand in it, given his interest in language, his knowledge of Korzybski, Hayakawa and general semantics, and acquaintance with lexicographer Allen Walker Read, 96, Charlotte’s surviving husband.
Since she suspected Safire might have had some involvement, I forwarded the message to my old drinking buddy, KB, who works on Safire’s staff. (Those of you familiar with my ThisIsNotThat.com site and remember Safire’s mention of it in his April 9, 2000, column [http://thisisnotthat.com/safire.htm] – KB had a hand in that.) She and I keep in touch, and we exchanged emails during the summer regarding Allen and Charlotte.
KB immediately responded to my inquiry regarding the obit with the following: Laurence Urdang, former Oxford editor, wrote me on August 22, asking me why there was never an obit. He had notified The Times as I’m sure did many others – but we never ran anything. Directly after I got the email from Urdang I sent this to the obituary department:
“Simply out of curiosity — those of us in the language dodge are wondering why Charlotte Schuchardt Read, wife of Allen Walker Read, executrix of the estate of Alfred Korzybski, and a director of the Institute for General Semantics — wasn’t covered when she died?”
Within three hours – the obit department was calling Mr. Safire, asking him about general semantics.
Guess it was my note (coming from Safire’s office) that finally spurred them to write it up. – KB
Thanks again, KB – from all of us.
Here’s what Charlotte’s obituary said:
Charlotte Read, 92, Semanticist and Editor, Dies
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Charlotte Schuchardt Read, the former director of the Institute of General Semantics, an educational center and publisher in Brooklyn, died on July 25 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She was 92.
General semantics, a branch of linguistics founded by Alfred Korzybski in the 1930’s and popularized by S.I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Action (1941), theorizes that words are abstractions that draw attention away from the particularity of the things they represent. It advocates a critical awareness of language, a process that can lead to a rejection of stereotypes and a deeper experience of reality, and has been adopted as a technique by a number of psychological movements.
Ms. Read joined the institute in 1939 when it was based in Chicago, and was executive secretary to Mr. Korzybski before his death in 1950. In 1953, she married Allen Walker Read, a linguist who is now professor emeritus of English at Columbia University, and moved the institute to New York.
In addition to her duties as director, she was editor of and a contributor to the General Semantics Bulletin. She was also a director and president of the Sensory Awareness Foundation of Mill Valley, Calif.
Ms. Read was born on Dec. 7, 1909, in Belleville, Ill. She studied biology at the University of Wisconsin and received a master’s degree in modern dance from the University of Illinois. As requested by Charlotte, a ‘celebration of life’ remembrance in her honor will be held at noon, September 15th, at Columbia University in New York City. If you’re interested in attending, please contact the Institute of General Semantics for details.
In late July, Gerard Lawlor, a 19-year old Roman Catholic was shot and killed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, “because he was walking through a predominantly Catholic area wearing the green-and-white shirt of Glasgow Celtic, a Scottish soccer club supported exclusively by Catholics in Northern Ireland.” The murderers were reported to be “Protestant extremists … from the outlawed Ulster Defense Association.”
I suppose this means the best “Defense” is a murderous offense.
Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press reported on August 10 that some Broadway shows will close in observance of 9-11 (02), but others will remain open. Barry Weissler, producer of Chicago, declared, “I don’t think we could face performing that day when you remember back to what occurred last year. It’s just too difficult and too emotional.”
Roy Gabay, producer of Metamorphoses, disagreed, saying, “If people don’t go to work, what are they going to do? I think there is a whole group of people that feel, ‘I am going to go to an event to show that this did not hurt my enthusiasm to be a participant in the world.'”
Who’s right and who’s wrong here? Which evaluation is appropriate, and which is flawed? Can both be right? Can both be wrong? By what standard could anyone judge these judgments to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – other than personal opinion?
Sometimes, perhaps it’s okay that we just have disagreements, or differences of opinion, and everybody agrees to live with the difference; nobody raises a voice, nobody calls a name, nobody calls in to talk radio, nobody threatens a boycott, nobody adds a plank to a political platform, nobody exchanges Crossfire … and nobody gets killed for wearing the wrong color shirt.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization is catching flak from some conservative Christian groups due to their (the BBBSA) policy of allowing openly gay men and women to serve as mentors for children who don’t have a father or mother figure at home. The BBBSA conducts extensive interviews with mentor applicants, which include straightforward (oops, sorry about that) questions that address sexual orientation head on. They also give the parent the option to reject any potential mentor for any reason, including sexual orientation. The article does not indicate that there has ever been any widespread abuse or scandal involving gay mentors throughout the 25 years that the 98-year old organization has allowed gay mentoring.
Nevertheless, Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association, predicts “this dangerous and troubling policy … will become a magnet for homosexuals who exploit opportunities to engage young, impressionable children with their unhealthy lifestyle.”
Focus on the Family’s “psychologist-in-residence” Bill Maier says that “matching fatherless boys, starving for attention, with homosexual men is reckless and irresponsible, not to mention a recipe for disaster.”
I once heard consultant Gifford Pinchot say, “If you aren’t catching flak, you aren’t over the target.”
Hanna Rosin from the Washington Post on August 16 reports of a survey of 1,200 priests for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in which 19 percent of those surveyed said that a “homosexual subculture” ‘clearly’ existed in their diocese or religious institute, and 36 percent said it ‘probably’ existed. So, doing the math … over half of the priests in this survey of 1,200 believed that such a “subculture” probably exists – within the church.
Is there anything left to say here?
Commentator Matt Miller quotes Harold Levy, out-going chancellor of the New York City schools on the importance of classroom attendance: “If you don’t come, you don’t learn. It is something we ignore routinely.” Miller noted Woody Allen’s observation that “80 percent of success is just ‘showing up’.”
The conviction of Eddie Joe Lloyd for the rape and murder of 16-year old Michelle Jackson in Detroit was overturned on August 26th after DNA tests ‘proved’ Lloyd didn’t commit the crime. He had spent 17 years in prison. According to Alexandra R. Moses’ Associated Press report, Lloyd is the 110th person in the United States who has been exonerated of convicted crimes based on DNA evidence.
If DNA evidence had been available (and admissible) prior to 1990 … do you reckon Lloyd would still have been #110? Or might he have been #1,110 …. or #100,110? How many of his predecessors do you suppose might have been executed … ‘prematurely’?
Cassius J. Keyser offered this sobering, yet indispensable, reminder: “The present is no more exempt from the sneer of the future than the past has been.”
Other than the death penalty, what laws and behaviors and attitudes will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren sneer upon with the same sense of moral superiority we affect when we sneer upon those medieval morons who denied Rosa Parks a bus seat in 1955 and spat upon and cursed the nine black students who were just trying to “show up” at Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957?
Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins offers this pertinent quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
A report on August 29th declared that the Saudi government had embarked on a “long-term strategy” to “burnish” its image in the United States since 9-11-01. Adel al-Jubeir, a government adviser, explained, “In the past, we never tried to explain ourselves to the American public. We’ve not been very good at communicating because we’re not a very communicative culture.”
A report on September 3rd from Houston declares that the Saudi government, in accordance with Saudi divorce law, is refusing 19-year old Amjad Radwan’s request to visit the United States. Amjad was born in Houston, her mother is American, her father is Saudi. Her parents have been involved in a bitter divorce battle. The father, supported by divorce law in Saudi Arabia, has forbidden his daughter to even temporarily visit the U.S. because he “reportedly thinks that American culture is harmful to young women.”
I don’t know … I think the Saudi culture probably communicates more than it’s aware of. Even so, Lucy … wouldn’t you say they still have a lot of ‘splaining to do?