Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rules of Engagement

In military operations, the rules of engagement determine when, where, and how force shall be used. The rules, while they may be made public, are typically only fully known to the force that intends to use them. (Online definition)

For better or worse, the same ‘rules’ increasingly appear to apply to verbal communication – or what we used to call dialogue. A number of elements, most of which are not particularly new to this arena (that of conversing with each other), have begun to dominate it. Not only that, but have also become highly celebrated in the bargain. Lead story in the Arts section of the Globe this past Tuesday featured an interview with Kelly Oxford, ‘Calgary blogger and Twitter queen’. Her daily ‘tweets’ are reportedly followed on a regular basis by those bastions of compassion and right speech, Howard Stern and Jimmy Kimmel (together with 100,000 other lesser lights) and are infused with her ‘snarky sense of humour’ as she posts ‘straight-up’ observations on motherhood, pop culture, and the media. I was particularly struck by the working title of a memoir-in-progress: Whenever I feel intimidated by someone, I imagine them drinking out of a hamster water bottle. I expect Charlie Sheen can’t be too far behind in the growing legion of Kelly ‘followers’, as he spews his ‘Violent Torpedo of Truth. . .’ to anyone who’ll listen (and lots appear ready to do just that).

Dialogue: generally seen as a conversation with two or more participants, typically involving an open exchange of opinions, and often representing differing points of view. 100,000 would seem to qualify. Posting remarks on the internet would meet criteria as open expression. And I’m guessing that observations as “Julianne Moore probably took the role of Sarah Palin because actors win awards for playing handicapped people” likely represent a point of view that might differ both from that of Ms. Moore and Ms. Palin. So what’s the problem? Possibly none, if the throngs of disciples are taken as validation.

I suppose it comes down to intention. I intend to hold this person or that, this opinion or that up to public scrutiny, having determined that such is deserved and wanting. I intend to convey these comments in language that is sufficiently challenging and caustic to seize the attention of others – but, of course, just short of being libelous. I intend to persuade. I intend to correct. I intend to instruct. I intend to demonstrate how much I know -- and how little you know. I intend to remain sufficiently remote / inaccessible – so as to both have time to consider and craft my responses and to remain insulated from the face-to-face, the immediate. I intend to be witty, notorious, dominant, and popular. I intend to entertain at this person’s or that opinion’s expense. I intend to do the ‘right thing’ – for just possibly the wrong reasons.

A very few days before reading of Ms. Oxford’s rise in the realm of the social network, I had occasion and the great good fortune to hear Karen Armstrong interviewed on CBC’s Tapestry. Ms. Armstrong, is a widely published religious scholar (or typist, if wishing to avoid all the usual, unsolicited commentary reserved for ‘religious scholars’) who has most recently come to the fore with her newest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, chronicling the commissioning and writing of a ‘charter of compassion’ following her receipt of a TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) award in 2008. The core message of both interview and book is to explore alternatives in how we manage relationship; in particular how we communicate / dialogue in relationship. And by extension, how our highly entertained and entertaining, validated (if by no other measure than our attention paid to. . .), imitated, and promoted style of dialoguing just may be achieving little more than self-aggrandizement moving us away from the very ‘goals’ we seek (or at least put out that we are seeking) to achieve through witty repartee.

A number of abiding ‘ethics’ are raised and examined. Armstrong is invited to comment on the widely embraced practice of ‘hurting’ one’s partner in dialogue (unfortunately often one with whom we have significant differences of opinion), insulting, humiliating, denigrating to make one’s point – with the somewhat ironic expectation that this will move the ‘conversation’ forward. Seeking to dominate one’s ‘partner’, treating the engagement as a competition (to be won or lost – generally by ‘proving’ one’s opponent to be an idiot). Operating from ill-informed (but confident in our ‘complete knowledge of . . ‘), stereotypic postures – making the generalized verbal swipes ‘easier’. Seeking to convince, persuade.

Drawing on sources as far flung as the teachings of Confucius, Gandhi, Buddha, and Socrates, Armstrong provides a compelling alternative to the above, all rooted in the principles of compassion as she defines them; and all essentially built around a core principle that she views as common to all religions: Never do to others what you would not want them to do to you. As for methodology, she suggests a model based on Socratic dialogue – much simpler than it sounds at first blush: the goal of any discussion is to ‘learn how little we know’; entering conversation with gentleness and the intention, expectation of ourselves being changed; seeking a resolution versus a domination – and, if a win-lose, demonstrating compassion for the vanquished, seeking to improve not punish; demonstrating respect for the other.

Armstrong identifies Mindfulness as the 5th step in the charter’s 12-step process, incorporating many of the elements common to this practice: self-examination (holding up a mirror to one’s own opinions, behaviours, prejudices, stereotypes); cultivating a ‘first practice’ of self-compassion (forgiving oneself); metta (extending compassion to others); and letting go of one’s ego-investment (in dialogue) – detaching from oneself by becoming more an observer and less a participant. I suppose the approach won’t sell many tabloids or rack up a bunch of views on YouTube – but then I’m not sure that’s the goal.


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