Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

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The Eclipse of Character

Character measured by known virtues like honesty and doing good works was a huge concern for classical thinkers. Why do we now find the carnival barkers in our midst more worthy of our time? 

It seems like a paradox that, amidst sufficient information to draw conclusions about the quality of a public person’s character, vast segments of the American public are unable or unwilling to notice disqualifying flaws. To be sure, humans can be taken in by scoundrels in any era. From Professor Harold Hill to Bernard Madoff, the charlatan  “on the make” is a distinct American type. Among many others, historian Daniel Boorstin was especially vivid in chronicling American hustlers with a  gift for self-promotion but a tenuous grasp on the Truth. Even when serious flaws of character become known, many of us have an incapacity to see them. Indifference also seems to be the norm, even when we will pay a deep price for believing fraudulent claims. It was so for citizens of New York’s 3d congressional district, who trusted George Santos . Years ago folks in Wisconsin fell for the the same kind of destructive character in the person of Senator Joe McCarthy. And it many be worse now; Congress has an entire “chaos caucus” of loquacious but slow thinkers.

What thoughts are reflected in those enthusiastic faces we see planted behind felonious candidates at their political rallies? Why do persons with the cultural tools to sense the mendacity of others still fail to act react appropriately? Clearly many of the nation’s collective woes are due to widespread indifference to signs indicating that a person should not be trusted to lead.

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There is a useful thought-experiment here to puzzle out why traditional virtues of character have withered in the public sphere.

Our public reasoning has become inverted. Incredibly, every new formal accusation brought against former President Trump has produced a new levels of support, as if we were talking about parking tickets rather than civil convictions for a sexual assault and tax fraud. The ostensible ‘bad news’ that in more sober times would have disqualified a leader now seems to boomerang. It is not just the shabby spews of ad hominem attacks from Trump that have given our public life an Alice in Wonderland aspect. We can find similar lapses of judgment in other leaders in business and the arts.

The word itself now seems like an antique, but virtue actually has a long history in the classical world representing the general idea of a good person.

                             Aristotle

Giants in western philosophy such as Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.) and Cicero (b. 106 B.C.) have explored the subjects of the virtuous and the good. They are mentioned here because—among their many interests—both were rhetoricians interested in how audiences react in the presence of those who would influence them. For Aristotle, a good person had high ethos, meaning a person was known for virtues that included prudence, sense of justice, temperance, and courage. Their known strengths preceded them. Persons known to be burdened with the baggage of low credibility (meaning an indifference to the Truth, or ways to test it) were seen as lacking high ethos. Having the virtue of good character is reflected in Aristotle’s famous dictum that “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”

Cicero noted much the same regarding basic morality, arguing that virtue was “the habit of the mind which makes us consistent in doing good.” If this seems too wooly, think of the doctrines in most faith traditions that require engaging in acts of service to others. Or consider the exemplary lives of Americans such as Martin Luther King, Madeleine Albright or Fred Rogers.

Aristotle’s ethical standards for an able advocate included the capacity for reasoning accurately, awareness of what is appropriate to a situation, and the mastery of language. Add Cicero’s recommendations that people worthy of our support cultivate goodwill, kindness, and benevolence. These ideas aren’t alien to us, but we seem lost in the maw of popular media that can distract us from sorting the honorable from the self-promoters.

There’s another an important twist here. In our era we tend to plant false flags that affirm loyalty to certain individuals, mistaking an act of continuous devotion as its own kind of moral absolute.  Interestingly, both philosophers centered their discussions of communication ethics on the agent. Neither had much to say about loyalty as a core virtue: a revealing fact, given the high status we now give to a person who is—not infrequently—totally devoted to an ethically flawed person. Many seem to have developed a withered form of ethics based on a fixed allegiance. What remains is more transactional, and based more on the personal rewards of a settled mind set. Put another way, we make fewer demands that others be “virtuous,” settling instead on their believability. In this realm, public figures with social capital matter more rather than those with integrity. Indeed, a person’s notoriety may be their chief asset in dominating a cultural space.

Perhaps we no longer want to be put to the test of thoughtfully assessing a person’s character. Our awareness of others outside our immediate circle is often nominal and impressionistic. If Aristotle thought the high ethos of a person was set prior to their appearance, we  tend to construct our truncated version of it on the spot. Vetting by using the standards of logic and evidence requires more effort than we are willing to give.

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Darkness in the Sunshine State

Florida has a problem of preemptive censorship.

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“Students can no longer take sociology to fulfill their core course requirements,    Florida’s state university system ruled on Wednesday.” 

-New York Times, January 28, 2024

At first, I thought I misread the opening sentence of this news article, but unfortunately not. Can the leaders of an American state really be so shortsighted to ban an entire branch of the social sciences? It seems inconceivable that the vast discipline developed from the ideas of intellectual giants like Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Karl Mannheim, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Cooley could be taken out of a core curriculum in a modern university. Yet again, Florida has acted preemptively to muzzle ideas that are deemed too dangerous for students.

At its core, Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. And the irony here is obvious; Florida’s sad-sack governor is a good example of someone who might have received help from the study of how we connect with others. Even with his limited horizons, the simple-minded charge that the whole of sociology is “woke” is hopelessly shallow and misplaced.

For good reasons, most Americans take offense to the politicization of education. Ideas about human groups fire the imagination and renew the culture. The banning of an introductory course in sociology is especially pitiful because its key ideas are foundational for a number of fields. My own discipline of Communication Studies has shamelessly borrowed some of its best ideas from the fertile minds of 19th Century sociologists. Many of us are still evangelists for the imaginative work of Irving Goffman, Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Todd Gitlin, David Reisman, and others. The window of sociology lets us see how—not if—we are the products of our affiliations, through family, marriage, and the myriad groups and organizations that shape our world. Scores of professional applications are in debt to the sociological perspective, among them: social work, ministerial training, urban planning, social services, prisons and policing, education, and the training of mental health professionals.

Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. 

Losing the option of an Introduction to Sociology course deprives students of an eye-opening glimpse of its intriguing interconnections. And first courses are often key in helping new students decide on their majors. Given this tight weave of related subjects, I hope that higher education agencies will rethink accrediting schools who have removed sociology from the core curriculum.

                         New College Protests

Florida clearly has a problem with preemptive censorship. We already know that climate change curricula are mostly off the table in the grade school curriculum, as are fair-minded and contemporary approaches to gender, identity, and sex. Books are being locked down for promoting “unhealthy” choices. An original and modest AP course in African American Studies for high schoolers was axed as inappropriate. And diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been banned in state universities. In addition, there was also a very public decapitation of a state liberal arts institution in Sarasota. The Governor and his people controlling the University system thought that New College was “too liberal,” setting off terminations, resignations, and a wave of uncertainty for its students.

At this rate Donald Duck will soon have to be fully clothed if he shows up in the Magic Kingdom. Geologists at the Kennedy Space Center will have to pretend that the solar system is just six thousand years old. And we can imagine a false need to stow away official art considered too degenerate for public display.

Florida is not alone in attempts to purge universities of their academic independence. But it has a penchant for censorship that keeps compounding. Coastal states like Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have begun units on climate change in the schools. By contrast, Florida allows the use of classroom videos dismissing climate concerns. Somehow the state’s public utilities will have to prevaricate even faster to keep up the official delusion that water in the streets of Dade County is coming from broken pipes. Whatever political leaders in Tallahassee may wish, most homes in Florida are eventually going to have more of an ocean view than they bargained for.

Not being prepared to live in this world has consequences. Florida and its students are paying the price for a government that is not prepared to deal with the complex world around them. Parents may need to take a second look at whether they want to have their children left in the dark on issues vital to their interests.

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