Friday, October 30, 2015

Who Can Refute a Sneer?

A number of episodes of several crime-drama TV series include either criminal Christians (pastors, vicars, murderous self-righteous fanatics, tyrannical and abusive Scripture-quoting fathers) or Christians as murder victims—men of the cloth often spectacularly murdered in their church. It is said that we adopt many beliefs through anecdote and few beliefs through reason or evidence. I wonder whether these character roles from TV serve either as unbelief inducers or as food for confirmation bias. In other words, for those who are nominally Christian or those who are unsettled about religion and spiritual life in general, are they influenced against faith by these propagandistic ploys?
It’s an old technique—associate something you want to make loathsome with something already thought to be loathsome. Are people so na├»ve that they fall for this?
“Fred is a lowdown snake.”
“He is? Hey, Harry! Have you heard? Fred is a lowdown snake.”
“Who knew? Tom, did you know that Fred is a snake?”
“Yeah, that’s what everybody says.”

By the way, the title of this posting comes from William Paley, who advanced what might be called an early theory of intelligent design in the biological world by pointing out that plants and animals sure do appear to have been designed and made for a purpose. Palely was referring to the anti-Christian sneering tone of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which Gibbon blamed on Christianity). So, to end, we quote the proverb, "Those who can only sneer have no facts." Just like those who have no stones to throw can only scream four-letter words at those they hate.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Media Studies 101: Shaping Readers' Attitudes

When the news media want to slant someone's words, there are several ways. First, the person can be quoted out of context. Second, the quotation can be partial, leaving out (from the front, middle, or end) qualifying language or other words that change the meaning. But a powerful technique is to quote the person exactly and then use the quotation verb to shape the reader's understanding.

Consider your thoughts about the speaker depending on the quotation verb chosen by the journalist:

1. "Yes, I went to that seedy neighborhood," he said.
2. he acknowledged
3. he admitted
4. he conceded
5. he confessed

1. "I didn't go to that neighborhood to buy drugs. I was searching for my son," he explained.
2. he said
3. he claimed
4. he alleged
5. he maintained

Watch for slant-free verbs, such as said and replied. Be cautious when you encounter others.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Secrets to Being a Great Conversationalist

Want to become known as someone who is great to talk to? Someone who is never at a loss for words? Want to be admired for your interpersonal skills? Here are the secrets to becoming known as an excellent conversationalist.

1. Listen. Most people a hungry, if not aching, to have someone to talk to, to listen to their problems, experiences, and opinions. If you play the role of listener, helping the other person or persons to do much of the talking, even venting, that will be much appreciated. The proverb says, "Listen to seven words for every word you speak." That's good advice not only to make the talker happy, but it provides you as listener with a context and details you can use to formulate your reply.

2. Ask questions. Asking a question of your conversational partner shows that you are interested in and curious about that person's life and ideas. Sometimes (often, for shy people) others don't know what to say next. If you ask a question, they have a topic to fill out. Be sure to ask a question that the  other person will likely find interesting and have something to say about. It's better to ask, "What have you found most valuable about your education?" than to ask, "Do you think string theory will resolve the issues in quantum mechanics?" Always be ready with a question, so that if the conversation drags or stops, you can resuscitate it.

3. Remember that conversations are not all about you. I once had a friend who, no matter what I or anyone else said, would connect the statement to herself. If someone said, "There was an accident on the freeway that made me late for class," she might say, "I saw an accident once where three cars were wrecked. I got really nervous." If you said, "Let's go watch paint dry," she would likely say, "My bedroom at home is painted pink." So, resist the temptation to turn the conversation on yourself.

4. Pause. When you talk, don't engage in a fire hose of words where there are no periods in your sentences. Nonstop talkers are an irritant and they are simply impolite. A good rule of thumb to follow is to pause after every two sentences or so (unless you are in the middle of a detailed explanation) to allow someone else to inject a comment or reply. When a nonstop talker rambles on and on and changes the subject six times, the listeners forget the insightful comments they wanted to make about one of the topics now long gone, and that frustrates them, taking the enjoyment out of the experience. Besides, listening to a nonstop talker is very tiring because the listeners' brains grow weary of trying to process all those words.

5. Remember that when you are face to face, gestures, body language, and facial expressions are significant sources of communication.

6. Tone of voice is very important, and should convey interest, respect, and warmth.

7. It's best not to disagree over minor details--how to pronounce tomato is the classic example. If you must disagree, try doing it in the form of a question. For example, instead of saying, "That's wrong. It was 1989, not 1986," ask, "Wasn't it 1989 rather than 1986?" or even, "I thought is was 1989. Is that right?"

8. Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm with those close to you who can appreciate it is okay, but in a general social setting, sarcasm is "crude, rude, and unrefined" as my junior high school teacher once said. It's insulting, disrespectful, and can be a conversation stopper.

Try these ideas out, whether you are naturally shy or naturally talkative.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

God's Grace Arriving Unexpectedly

Grace is often defined as unmerited favor or an undeserved gift. We receive God's grace when he answers our prayers. But God goes beyond answering our prayers and gives us his grace even when we don't ask. Have you ever experienced a blessing that made you praise God and say, "I would have prayed for that if I'd thought of it"? That happens to me all the time. And sometimes--well, let me tell you what happened recently.

I've been installing laminate flooring and needed some transition pieces to bridge the laminate-to-tile juxtapositions. So, I went to a flooring store. They were out of the official color. However, there was a nearly identical color--on sale for 50% off. That is an example of God's grace. And I don't  even remember praying for his help with getting those pieces.

But then, I noticed a tool sale at the laminate store. The sign said, "Tools: 30% to 90% off." Well, if you know me, a combination of tools and a sale got my attention. I picked up an extension cord and some saw blades. Then I noticed a set of hole saws, regular price about $10 or $12, on sale for $2.95. I thought, at that price I should get a set to keep in the truck. You never know when it might come in handy. Then, when I was checking out, the hole saw set rang up at 95 cents. Yes, 95 cents.

So I get back to the house and start working on changing the locks on three of the doors. The first two go fine, everything fits and it all works. But then, the lock on the workshop door is so old (the house is over 50 years old) that the latch will not fit. What was needed was to drill out the existing, narrow hole to a one inch hole. Hmm. What I needed was a one-inch hole saw. Like the one in the set I had just bought an hour earlier for 95 cents.

This is an example of grace unasked and unforeseen--an unmerited blessing given by God before we ask, before we (supposedly) need, anticipating a need. It reminds me of Ephesians 3:20, where Paul says that God "is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think" (HCSB).

God keeps reminding me of his care through blessings like this, reminding me to turn to him--to pay attention to him. He certainly made an impression with this loving gift.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Thoughtless Downward Spiral

When I taught writing (mostly freshman composition) long ago, I always crossed out the student's "I feel" and wrote in the margin, "I think." I wanted them to pass their ideas through a few neuronal pathways before putting them to paper. I was, of course, utterly unsuccessful, not any more than I was curing vague pronoun references or the misuse of apostrophes.

But there's something about the use of "I feel" that reveals what a sorry state our culture is in.

1. You can't disagree with feelings. If I say, "I think the issue is so and so," you can point out my errors of logic, adduce contrary reasons or evidence, and so forth. You might even prove me wrong. But if I say simply, "I feel that the issue is so and so," what can you say? (If I say, "I feel happy," you can't very well respond, "No, you don't.") So feelings are the safe, lazy, thoughtless way to present your ideas, however unreasonable or poorly supported they are. Score one point for not needing to think.

2. Feelings are based on personal experience. No need for research or even taking a poll. All you need to support your opinion is your own example. External statistics, research, evidence, reasons, arguments, and the like are simply not necessary, not applicable.

3. It makes you think it's about you. What this feelings-based philosophy amounts to is narcissism, worshiping your own (bigoted?) opinions. If you thought the  conquest of objectivity by subjectivity was horrible, we're now faced with pure solipsism as king of the world. (The only question is who has the power to impose his solipsistic view of the world on everyone else?)

It seems that in the public schools the perfect storm that combined the self-esteem movement with the postmodernist view that any given text was subject to an infinite number of interpretations, resulted in celebrating the use of "I feel."

In class:
Teacher: "Why did Hamlet fail to act?"
Jane: "I feel he was too busy lusting after Ophelia."
Teacher: "Good, Jane."
Tom: "I feel it's because he was gay."
Teacher: "Good Tom."
Sally: "I feel he secretly wished he had killed his father so he could marry his mother. You know, Oedipus."
Teacher: "Good, Sally."
Bill: "I feel that he was busy researching ways to kill his uncle."
Teacher: "Good, Bill. My, I feel what a great and thoughtful class you are."

Why We Fear Change

Stuck in a lousy job, neighborhood, relationship (you're not really going to marry that person you're dating, are you?) or other unpleasant situation you just can't seem to leave? Still hoping that sports team is going to start winning? That the buggy software package you have invested in will be  fixed "real soon now"?

Even when we're stuck in a rut, and making a change seems an obvious move, we often don't like change. Here are some reasons why change is often rejected.

The Status Quo is Comfortable. The familiar, even when  substantially negative, gives us a feeling of security. We are used to this way of life. We can predict what Aunt Wilma will say. We know the dimensions of our current life and have learned to cope with our life situation as it is. Comfortable and familiar misery, it might be, but comfortable and familiar it is.

Fear of the Unknown. All changes are uncertain in their benefits and outcome. For example, leaving an awful job for another job includes the possibility that the new job will be even more awful. Those who find change difficult or impossible are afraid of  what the new situation might be. They are quite aware of "unintended consequences," "unexpected costs," and "unimagined downsides."

Fear of the Change Cascade. Making one change almost always involves changing a number of related things. Move to a new city and you've got to change friends, favorite stores, churches, schools. If  you change climates, you might also have to change your entire wardrobe. To live a mature, coherent life, you must adjust  your ideas to harmonize with the change you've just made or are planning to make.

Fear of Loss. We humans tend to be risk averse, and whenever we contemplate making a change, we look at whatever good we are giving up as well as the bad. This cognitive bias makes  us favor the known positives (however little that may be) over the risk of not gaining  a suitable positive replacement. We sometimes look at the choice of change as a guaranteed loss (giving up the current situation) trading for an uncertain gain (the unknown).

Habits are Easy. Do you ever drive down the street from your house only to wonder suddenly if you have closed the garage door? And when you drive back to check, you see that you did remember to close it? Habits, once established, allow us to run on automatic and not have to think about every movement. If it's Tuesday,  it's time to read, watch, go bowling, or whatever. Habits take a load off our minds and allow us to think about something else while performing ordinary tasks. But if you change, your habits might cease to be relevant or even workable. New habits will need to be formed.

And yet, to live is to change, and to change is to live. Many changes are forced upon us and we must make new choices--choices that alter our lives significantly. Recognizing these reasons we often see change in a negative way will help us revise our outlook.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

How to be Happy

Yes, the secret of happiness is not complicated. In fact, I can reveal the secret to you in two words. The problem is that, while the secret is not complicated, there are two problems. First, it is very difficult to implement because it conflicts with our feelings and assumptions. Second, most people are unwilling to attempt implementing the secret because it runs counter to their beliefs and habits.

So, yes, I am going to tell you how to be happy, how to have a successful marriage, how to develop and maintain solid friendships, how to succeed in business--whatever  your current status in life. I'll tell you the secret, but you won't like it. In fact, you'll probably reject it out of hand and go on living your life as you have been, with perhaps less  happiness and success you might otherwise have had.

In two words, then, the secret of happiness is: Humble yourself.

You see, pride is the source of most of the misery we cause each other. More than that, it is an inhibitor, a preventer, even destroyer of every kind of human progress.

Perhaps you know someone who has to answer every comment, criticize every action, disagree with every suggested idea, always have the last word, and, of course, always be right. People who do these things, and who take offense easily, who always seem to be angry, are letting pride destroy their own and others' happiness. (And, yes, this sort of proud behavior can be the result of low self esteem as well as genuine belief in superiority.)

But pride goes further than one person acting out a negative life. Pride hurts us all.

Today's illustrative anecdote comes from the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, an obstetrician in 19th Century Vienna. He discovered, well before the germ theory of disease had been accepted, that his medical students were somehow transferring disease from the autopsy room to the women in the hospital. So he began the practice of hand washing before patient examination. The death rate among the women in the hospital dropped 90%, from about one in every five or six women to one or two in a hundred.

Did the medical establishment welcome this news, implement hand washing universally, and praise Semmelweis as a hero? Of course not. Many doctors were  offended that anyone could suggest that persons of their exalted social status would have dirty hands. Hmmph. Pride sinks another good idea.

Oh, and besides, Semmelweis' solution ran counter to the "settled science" of the time. So instead of   taking the humble road to hand washing, the disease problem was turned back on the women, where it was suggested that what the women needed was not a doctor's clean hands but a good laxative.

Arrogance, egotism, pride--these are enormously damaging to all of us and our social world. If you want to stop damaging others and bring yourself peace and joy, humble yourself.

Why Read Fiction?

In my book, Glimmerings II, I mentioned this anecdote in #1737. But I have another response I'd like to share.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I chose, from among the available requirements, a course in Introduction to the Theater. A major part of the course was to read and discuss various plays. One day early in the quarter, we were to discuss a Shakespeare play. The graduate student teaching the course put on his bright-eyed face and his hopeful tone, and asked, "Well, what do you think?"

After a bit of nonspecific interchange, ("I liked it," and "I couldn't understand it," etc.), a young woman, who had clearly already taken a course in race, class, and gender, announced in a deathly tone, "I can't relate to this. It's not about my people or about my experience." Now, since this was about 1970, it was probably the first time the teaching assistant had been confronted with this basis for rejection. He didn't  have much  of a response. But I have one.

I would tell her t his. Fictional stories, including plays, novels, short stories, and even some poems, are read for two reasons. The first reason is, "We read because we find ourselves there." That is, we relate to a character or situation or problem or crisis that is handled by the work of fiction, and as a result we feel a sense of belonging, being human, since our problems are encountered by others. We lose a sense of aloneness and alienation. Now, you have specifically rejected this reason, because you say that you cannot relate to the plot, character, or any other part of the play. We can let that go for now, with just the reminder that we sometimes must use our imaginations to translate a character's circumstances, words, and actions into something we feel as relevant to our own lives.

But there is another reason to read fiction. It is also said, "We read because we do not find ourselves there." Now, taken with the first statement above, that might seem like a paradox, but it conveys another truth. We read about characters and circumstances that are very different from our lives because we gain insights into ourselves and into the possibilities for additional life choices that we might make. Like travel, reading broadens our outlook and gives us a better, more circumspect view of life. We find options, possibilities, choices we never might have thought about otherwise. And with a little imagination, we can translate even very different circumstances into some idea relevant to us. We might not have a personal taylor who presses us to wear larger epaulets, but we can use the incident to reflect on dress and how clothing symbolizes something about ourselves, our attitudes, our values, and who we are. We might not see 18th century fops anymore, but we do know that some clothing styles send negative messages.

Suppose you read about a character who lives in a mansion and employs forty servants, Not your life experience, eh? But can you put yourself imaginatively in his shoes and ask yourself how you would live? How would you treat your servants? How would you run the household? What can these answers tell you about your own character?

If you don't yet have my book, Glimmerings II, get it from Amazon:

Friday, October 02, 2015

Why Do We Save Extra Parts?

If  you're like me, whenever you install a new system--an ice maker, garbage disposer, stereo system, or other item--you always have some parts left over. For example, perhaps you installed a new garbage disposer, but you didn't use the new sink flange because the old one was still in excellent condition. Or perhaps you tore out an old fountain and kept the water pump.You kept these items because, first, they would cost a lot of money if  you had to buy one for yourself, and second, you never know when you or others might need just this part.

But in reality, no one (and no one's brother) ever needs that part. So it just sits on the shelf and makes you feel as if your storage space is too limited.

I save screws, among the other items. I have five or six or ten jars each at least half full of assorted hardware items--screws, nuts, bolts, custom brackets, sockets, stuff  I'll never use because it's proprietary and fits only the one item I bought.

My excuse is that, "If you ever need one of these, you won't have to pay for a new one." And there is some rationale to that line of thought. A friend of mine needed a new capacitor for his home air conditioning unit. Now, I used to save old capacitors, so I took a look and discovered that my home collection was no more. However, I looked up the part he needed, a 35/5 microfarad capacitor, and Amazon had it for about $10. That is substantially cheaper than the air conditioner repairer's price of $105 plus his labor of $100 to $200.

Experiences like that make me wish I'd saved more parts. An so they mount. Of course, they are almost never needed, because either the part doesn't fit or it is no longer required, or it wears out too fast. Or the person doesn't want a used part.

So, over to the Salvation Army will go boxes of perfectly good items of all kinds.

Just for reference, here is an example of the type of capacitor I mentioned: