Monday, June 15, 2009

Simple Analysis for Everyday Life

There is a fundamental, primary skill that I believe every human being should possess, if he or she is to avoid as much suffering and anguish as possible.

It is a skill based in intellect, and I observe that it has never been taught to most of my fellow humans.

The fancy term for this skill is rhetorical analysis. Though I've taught a rhetorical analysis unit at the University of Arizona, I'm hardly an expert. But I did see the effect that learning this skill had on my students, which I'll get to in a minute. For now, I'll summarize what this skill does.

Essentially, when you hear a speech, or an opinion, or see an advertisement or look at almost anything containing text, symbols or a "message," you do not accept it uncritically. What I mean by this is that before you metaphorically consume something, you evaluate it--a "sniff" test, if you will.

With this skill in practice, you should be able to determine what someone is *really* saying, what they are trying to convince you to do, whether they are telling the truth or using bad logic or an appeal to your emotions, and whether you want to accept the premise and argument as sound.

In school, you ask these questions, but they are good for life, too. My students, whom I mentioned earlier, entered my class largely willing to believe what they heard or saw. They accepted speeches as factual, arguments as persuasive, and advertisements as effective. While this makes life seem smooth and easy, it results in a person being deceived, and worse, acting according to the deception much of the time.

Poor rhetorical analysis in a targeted audience is the dream of every marketer, politician, scam artist and intellectual fraud.

The good news is that you don't have to be a victim of these hucksters. The good news is that you can ask them questions, and work to uncover facts and realities and motivations, all of which allow you to live a more conscious, intentional life. And this is what I saw in my students. Once they could penetrate the smoke and the veils, they were awakened to how often they were being lied to, defrauded, convinced to behave contrary to their true principles. Indeed, this kind of analysis often helps reveal to you what your true principles are.

Like my students, I used to be far more willing to uncritically accept what was hurled my way. And life was easier, in that I didn't feel as though I had to think as much about what people told me. I trusted.

But that trust was given to the undeserving, and while you might consider me naive and blameless, I might argue that my ignorance and participation in the charade had no good excuse and in fact caused harm.

So, what I recommend to you all is to ask the questions. Chances are your emotions have already been telling you things seem off, but can't tell you the full story. Adding this kind of analysis to the messages around you will bestow on you a clarity of thought that cannot be bought or even valued. This is priceless, and essential.

For me, there is a transparency to the world and its actors, and it is a burden lifted. Someone is lying to me or using bad logic? Why trouble myself over her efforts? Someone wants me to buy something, but now I can ask myself if I want it or if they want me to want it. I can protect myself from a lot of negative actions--both others' and my own--just by taking a few moments to penetrate the rhetoric.

So what are the basic questions? This is my list for getting started:
  1. Who is the messenger, and what is his credibility or authority?
  2. Who is the message intended to reach? In other words, who is the targeted audience?
  3. What does the message hope to achieve? To inform, persuade, motivate, enrage, etc.?
  4. How is the message constructed? In other words, does it use facts, emotional appeals, logic, comparison, etc.?
  5. What is the message? In other words, what is the argument or thesis?
There can be more to it, of course, and one can go deeper into a message, but if you feel like you need clarity in your thinking, these five questions are a fine place to begin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"The Joy of Less" by Pico Iyer

Something I found in the New York Times that I think readers of this blog would enjoy.

Pico Iyer, a travel writer, posted his thoughts on what he has found makes him happiest:

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
And later, he says:

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Read the entirety of his post here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Against Franticness

There is something that's been bothering me. I've noticed it in recent years, but especially in the last year, and I have finally been able to put my finger on it. Perhaps this will not seem like a revelation to you, perhaps it will. Whatever it is, I think it's unhealthy, unproductive and causes needless suffering.

This thing that's been bothering me can best be described as a collective hyperventilation, a national franticness. (I know that's not a word, but I think it's clear what I mean.)

It's epitomized by the way people talk to each other: Not really listening, paying continuous partial attention, only hearing the words that will give them the jumping off point to say what they already know.

It's a literal rapidity of breathing and speech, a kind of anti-calm pervading conversation. It's the tenor of the television talking heads, constantly screaming.

It's the parents worrying that their kid is going to fall behind if he's not enrolled in preschool math tutoring, or the daughter who won't get into college if she doesn't excel at volleyball and academics and community service, and...the list goes on.

It's the colleagues who have heard of this Twitter thing, and worry that if they don't instantly jump on board, regardless of the value, they will lose their jobs, their employability--their very souls, it would seem, given some of the strident proclamations I've heard on the subject.

We're told, of course, that these things are necessary, that they make us more productive, more connected, more intelligent, more successful. But all I see is that the opposite is happening. I am no Luddite--I'm blogging, after all--and I don't blame technology for all of this. Technology is merely allowing our neuroses and fears to grow and be transmitted faster than ever, adding to the cacophony.

If everyone with an iPhone or Twitter account was calm and centered and at peace, those tools would serve some amazing thoughts, I'm sure. However, the majority of people I encounter are barely breathing, certainly afraid, and in a near-constant manic state.

If a body's health is measured by its ability to breathe deeply and maintain a calm heartbeat and a steady blood pressure, then our national body is profoundly sick.

Lately, for many reasons which I won't go into here, I find that I'm disengaging from this mass panic. I just don't buy it. I don't feel a part of it. I went running with my dog the other day, and enjoyed the cool morning air, still full of dew, enjoyed the wind rustling the pecan trees, loved watching my dog's pink tongue flop around as she ran. The world, despite its troubles, is still a profoundly beautiful place, if we only make up our minds to notice it.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if people stopped trying to fix everything, stopped focusing on the drama and the pain of other people, and worked on creating peace and calm and focus within themselves. Then, when others truly did need you, you'd be able to help, you'd know what to do, how to listen, what you should do. You'd have inner resources upon which to draw.

None of these frantic people have any inner resources. All energies are being discharged outward, but in an undirected way. The energy and reserves are misapplied, wasted, lost.

My point, if I have one, and I'm not sure I do, is that I'm coming to the conclusion that the best thing I can do for myself, others, the world, is to be a person who is at root calm and peaceful. Someone whose mind is unclouded by the turbidity of rapid, fearful, undirected thoughts. The second best thing I can do is to help others figure out how to do this, when they ask.

I am ever more certain that being frantic is the worst possible course of action, in any circumstance.

The next time you find yourself noticing a rising sense of franticness, please stop and breathe, deeply. For as long as you need to, until that feeling of terror leaves your body and is replaced by a quiet calm. Then proceed with what you have to do. Then you will do what is right.