The All Purpose Advocate

                           Speaker John Bercow

All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and the other smaller factions in the Mother of Parliaments.  The stunner is how well the Speaker has managed the chaos.  

Anyone spending time listening to the President and others in the current American stalemate might wonder what has happened to fluent advocacy.  The President’s impoverished lexicon leaves him ill-prepared to make coherent arguments for policies.  He clings to one comfortable idea that he understands: a wall. It has the virtue of being a thing rather than an idea. In his one-note campaign he seems to have missed the irony of arguing in favor of one of the crudest tools in any government’s arsenal: a symbol of political failure that even Ronald Reagan understood when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of Berlin’s concrete barrier. A wall was perhaps a more appropriate military weapon in the 14th Century than it is now.

Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.

Because I teach advocacy, my courses these days come with a caution to my students to aim higher than the rhetoric coming from the White House and other corners of Washington.  Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.  When “bye bye” is the President’s way of ending negotiations with other political leaders, we hear yet again a rhetoric of petulance that is more appropriate to a child than a leader of a great nation.

A far better model is on view almost daily in the form of the current Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons.  I’ve been on a busman’s holiday recently following the often dismal Brexit debate unfolding in the London. The tense standoff involving elected members to the Mother of Parliaments has been managed by John Bercow, whose job it is to bring order to a body that is always rowdy. The 55-year old former Conservative, the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, has been a formidable and sometimes controversial Speaker, lecturing members on their behavior and keeping the House more or less on schedule.  He is also a marvel of fluency.

In the current climate of U.K. politics there are even more daily eruptions than usual in the compact chamber, mostly motivated by opposition to the Prime Minister’s plans for carrying out a divorce from the European Union. All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and other smaller factions in the body.  Yet, the stunner is how well Bercow has managed the chaos.

Bercow has created some additional fury from the Tories in power, who claim that he is playing favorites in the ways he has adjudicated various amendments and procedures. Even so, if I were asked to give a student an immersion experience in hearing eloquent advocacy, I’d give them at least several hours of material showing Bercow presiding over debates in the Commons. He listens with precision and grace. And his answers and explanations to doubting members show a number of attributes of effective advocacy.  He’s responsive, courteous, patient, forceful, and rarely at a loss in finding exactly the right words.  He also seems to know the names and biographies of most of the body’s 650 members.

Here’s a sample of Bercow in the thick of it.

Recently he declined a member’s “point of order” asking the Leader of the Opposition to apologize for allegedly muttering the phrase “stupid woman” made after comments from Theresa May. The rules of most deliberative bodies do not allow personal attacks on members.  But Bercow said that neither he nor his deputies heard the comment. His unpopular decision left him with the difficult task of making a case for not ruling on a possible verbal slight against May, even in the midst of the #MeToo era. If this is not Bercow’s finest hour, his efforts still illustrate how a master advocate articulates a position in the face of fierce resistance.

MPs call on Bercow to discipline Corbyn after ‘mouthing stupid woman’

Today marks only a hundred days to go before Britain finally pulls the trigger and exits the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in parliament. SCHEDULE: 0930GMT – Exiting the European Union Committee 1200GMT – Prime Minister’s Questions begins Read more…

Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid

The solitary self is becoming an unfamiliar place we would rather not visit.

We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse is costing us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness.

A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over a hundred in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even to the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

The new year is a good time to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.