Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

Looking for Listeners

                                Photo: Moira Clunie

The smartphone has a special role in our drift towards inner-direction. By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called or texted or mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my post been sufficiently “liked?” 

In any hierarchy of communication deficits, the availability of receptive and interested listeners must be near the top.  Good listeners are in relatively short supply while eager talkers are a dime a dozen.   What the composer Igor Stravinsky lamented about pipe organs applies to the overly loquacious: they can be “monsters” that never seem to take a breath. The challenge is finding those souls whose lives are sufficiently centered in their lives to be open to experiencing all that another has to say.

We pay to hear others perform music or theater pieces, maybe stand-up comedy or an occasional TED Talk. As Neil Postman famously noted, if our culture fails in some ways, we are at least ‘the best-entertained society on earth.’  If not to hear what is on Aunt Bertha’s mind, we will still make time for the biggest spectacles our media giants can produce. By contrast, we rarely expect to be enchanted by the everyday thoughts of others.

This means that the verbal and digital traffic that clutters our lives is mostly outbound. Many of us are on lifelong quests to find others who might want to consider our thoughts. By contrast the incoming lanes that can reach into our consciousness are mostly empty, or sometimes closed for lack of use.

Few teachers would perhaps acknowledge it, but one of the joys of having students is that they are a captive audience. Even if they are not exactly in the thrall of a teacher’s words, students will humor their instructors enough to allow them to believe it.

 

The ‘me decade’ never ended.  It’s becoming the ‘me century.’ 

 

This problem of a shortage of truly open ears extends to nearly every realm of human contact. Nearly all of us who write books receive modest returns as royalties. Theater and even motion picture producers usually know the dread of a nearly empty house. I’ve been the organizer of public meetings and town halls where a sense of doom sets in when the invited presenters show up to see a room of mostly empty chairs.  Most of us are simply too insistent that we be the recipient of our own attention. Figure in hours for digital grazing, and we hardly have time left to give ourselves over to others.

The heavies that contribute to a problem are represented in the self-mocking phrase, “Well, enough about you.” They include over-indulgent parents, work culture that easily robs employees of a sense of agency, dismissive judgments couched in mental health categories, and commercial messages that insist that we should treat ourselves as if we are ‘Number One.’

I’d reserve a special role in the shift away from other direction and toward inner-direction for the smartphone.  (If you know this blog, you knew this was coming.)  By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called/texted/mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my facebook post been sufficiently “liked?”

So if others like us are broadcasters more than receivers, we must arm ourselves to go into the world ready to absorb the self-referential barrages. It’s one reason that more of us sense the need to rebound from an evening spent listening to overactive talkers with enough solitude to help us rediscover the joys of the larger universe.

A Different Kind of Man?

                                  Rembrandt

The subject of masculine forms of discourse has never been more top-of-mind. 

In her book You Just Don’t Understand (1992) Deborah Tannen notes that men tend to be more assertive and less self-disclosive than women. Tannen was one of many scholars interested in mapping the different rhetorical styles of the sexes. That was the 90s. Now, nearly two decades later, gender has never been a more fluid idea. Moreover, early research on male behavior patterns tended to take myriad exceptions off the table.  Even so, she was surely right to note that there is a masculine style of assertion and opinion-giving that remains a relatively durable norm.  Sample any of the men hosting cable news shows these days and you will see the opinion-giving mode in full bloom.  True to his family’s tradition, CNN’s Chris Cuomo takes no prisoners. Ditto for MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. On the political right there seem to be even more assertion-giving machines unencumbered by the burdens of accuracy.

Even a lunch with my male colleagues can lead to a round of firm and forceful opinions laid out for others at the table to take or leave. We throw them around like players in the infield warming up before a game. The style is more or less the opposite of the listening and questioning that Tannen described as a norm for a feminine style.

These old formulations came to mind when I was recently watching Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You be My Neighbor (2018).  It features a lot of footage of Rogers with children, of course, but also with a number of parents and admirers as well.  In our current polarized climate it clearly shows a different kind of man.  The film which has just migrated to cable and public television outlets features the children’s television pioneer as a patient slow-talker with a natural curiosity.  Rogers was a good match for the kids that Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was intended to reach.

It was even more interesting to see Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969, trying to secure permanent funding for the shaky new medium of public television. In contrast to the crusty chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Communications, Rogers seemed like a totally different kind of advocate: patient, a bit tentative, and more indirect than assertive. The Presbyterian minister who turned to children’s television in order to save it seemed more pastoral than insistent.  Was he ahead of his time?

May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million.

Probably not.  Other-oriented men have always been around as role models in work and family life. These kinds of men have also been on display in a wide-range of films featuring characters like Clark Kent, Atticus Finch, or any number of figures played by Tom Hanks.

Even so, the subject of masculine ways of coping has never been more top-of-mind. The wider release of the Rogers documentary coincided with the high visibility of a set of ads sponsored by the Gillette brand of Procter and Gamble.  “We Believe: the Best Men Can Be” is a series of spots cut to different lengths, all showing a kind of macho-masculinity that is still easily recognized: matching threats with threats, groping women, and thoughtless fathers raising boys to be more tough than compassionate.

With the #MeToo Movement and “rape culture” as topic number one on most American university campuses there has perhaps never been a cultural moment when the idea of masculine bravado looked more out of place.  Of course how ‘out of place’ depends where one is.  But we are clearly at the beginning of a period when bluster and opinion-giving (“mansplaining” in one of the current feminist formulations) look like they’ve had their day.  Among other signs, never has the shameless mendaciousness of our President looked more tired and shopworn.