Inhibition in the Air, Creativity in our Hands

Don’t miss Peggy Noonan’s Jan. 3 commentary in The Wall Street Journal. She gives thought-provoking reasons why political correctness should not be allowed to stifle conversations, focusing on folks who lean left and progressive, especially artists and entertainers. This argument deserves to be heard by people on all parts of the political spectrum and by news generators and news consumers alike.

“The producers and network chiefs, the comics, writers and directors—so many of them hate the air of inhibition under which they operate,” Noonan writes. “They’ve all been stopped from at least one artistic act by the forces of censorship, in the same way that there is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.”

Based on the perspectives I wrote about in When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, I salute Noonan for remarks which I believe arise from a genuine respect for people, their potential for creativity, their hunger for truth, and their appreciation for beauty. This includes the kind of beauty–an epiphany or a fresh perspective that inspires a sense of wonder–which arises from probing, from listening and responding, and interacting with realities, even ugly or uncomfortable realities. As John Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” beauty is truth and truth is beauty.

But Noonan’s commentary sparks a few additional thoughts. It is true that beauty and truth are inseparable in some sense. In today’s culture, entertainment and news are too often deemed inseparable, as well, and what becomes popular in the entertainment world is too easily deemed acceptable or laudable or, in some sense, true. So it behooves us to be prudent and balanced when we make our latest contributions to the expanding universe of entertainment and information.

In communities on both the right and left of the political spectrum, undesirable censorship is rising partly because there is some need for what might be called self-censorship, or inhibition, or at least a desire to serve the good–the common good. Undesirable shaming is rising partly because there is some need for what might be called shame, or a personal sense of accountability to ideals of the true and the good. Calls for political correctness are rising partly because their is some need for what might be called compassion or sensitivity or a personal sense of wonder that draws us closer to the other. Unique persons are so darn interesting, important, and inseparable from our pursuit of the beautiful and true.

When we sense our conversations and contributions (related to news, entertainment, and thought) being stifled, perhaps the first step to combat that stifling is an inward review of the goals and methods underlying our creativity. People from all walks of life and all parts of the political spectrum need to fight censorship on various fronts, but one of those fronts is the personal exercise of accountability for the common good, of self-restraint according to the golden rule.

Yes, we need to be concerned when we’re stopped from an artistic act.  But we also need to be concerned about the artistic act itself, or the contribution we’re about to make to that universe of entertainment and information. Whether we think such an act is too edgy or not edgy enough, we’re gifted when we learn that there is an edge–an edge implicit in our respect for the common good and for all the individuals whose good is held collectively in our creative little hands. Is our act really going to contribute to authentic conversation and productive engagement? As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Beauty without grace is like a hook without the bait.”

 

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3 Resolutions for Journalists: Salutes to Truth as We Enter 2019

Thought-leaders in the journalism community are starting to talk more openly and urgently about the need for practitioners of the craft to recognize their need to stand tall for truth. Since so many people today are journalists or other purveyors of facts and interpretations, it’s a good New Year’s resolution to consider at least three rallying cries we all should recall from 2018.

Alan Rusbridger, author of a new book titled Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, warns that “the traditional role of journalists has been weakened in all kinds of ways” at a time when “we need journalism more than ever.” Interviewed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, Rusbridger, a distinguished former editor-in-chief of Britain’s Guardian news organization, said his country’s “Brexit” vote and the issue of climate change are examples where too many professionals have failed. Some media have shouted and oversimplified, giving news consumers less than comprehensive, fair, reasonable information to sufficiently allow democratic institutions to confront those complex areas of policy well.

“I wanted to make some kind of case for journalism and for journalistic institutions,” Rusbridger added at the December 7 National Press Club event, because he senses “some kind of precipice ahead”–a turning point where the quality of news and the public’s diminished trust in news might no longer enable societies to tackle their urgent crises in a collaborative, effective way. See his prediction early in this video provided by C-Span.

Speaking at a different National Press Club event on November 29, Baron warned of an even more severe problem–a challenge he said has grown outside the media and has been promoted even at the highest levels of the U.S. government. “The goal is evident and it is cynical,” he commented: “Obliterate the very idea of objective truth,” sewing the seeds of distrust, aiming to “disquality the press as an independent arbiter of fact.” See his declaration that “there is such a thing as truth” starting around the 1:40:00 mark in this video posted by the Press Club.

Also consider reading the 2018 World Communications Day message in which Pope Francis assessed disinformation and “fake news” as crucial moral issues of our time. A book containing my reflections on this message is described in my OnWord.net blog, including this post. The pope reminds us that “the truth shall set you free,” and he warns that a society embracing untruth slips into arrogance and hatred–the polarization that has continued to divide many institutions and individuals.

These three predictions are galvanizing enough to keep us all on our toes for the whole of 2019–because they apply not only to news media employees but to countless communicators who read and spread content on social media. But any journey begins with a few steps, and the sobering messages are suitable for New Year’s Eve, when we’re still looking back at lessons learned. Should old acquaintance be forgot?

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“I Don’t Know”–That’s Music to my Ears

 

A television commentator recently made a remark that has caused me to ponder once again some trends in our culture and in the way we communicate. With tongue in cheek, he predicted that, in the not too distant future, the phrase, “I don’t know”—as a natural, casual response to factual questions in conversations—might become obsolete. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

The commentator explained that nowadays more and more people, when a gap in their knowledge is revealed, simply go to their mobile phones and search for the answer, or they ask Siri or Alexa to play the role of encyclopedic sage. Siri, how old is Paul McCartney? Often, an answer materializes quickly: He’s 76! Perhaps the searcher gets both a jolt of serotonin and an ego boost from dodging a potential stumper. This segment of cocktail party chatter is enhanced and efficiently concluded. Everybody comes away satisfied, feeling smarter.

I shouldn’t get too nervous about this. After all, robust curiosity and the search for truth and the encouragement of fruitful conversations are all things I believe in. Certainly, no harm has been done by an iPhone or Siri reflex that discovers Paul McCartney’s age.

But I don’t want that reflex to spread too widely, especially when the questions become more complicated. Or when they become more akin to the inquiries that used to send me to a book or library, or to a friend or family member. Or to an acquaintance with particular expertise (as with the “lifelines” Regis Philbin offered on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”).

Sometimes there’s a healthy sense of humility and responsibility, or an impulse for engagement, that comes from saying “I don’t know.” Not always. Siri or the human truth-seeker might make the same mistake we’ve all committed—settling for the instant answer or the easy answer or the first answer that pops up from a search engine. Or an answer without context, or one that quashes our instinct to find out more or seek alternative answers. Sometimes there are no alternative answers. Paul is 76.

I merely suggest that a conversation might bear the most fruit when a question triggers a cascade of answer, follow-up question, follow-up answer, plus an extra jolt of adrenalin from curiosity, surprise, and the entertainment of learning. It’s fun to wonder, “When is Paul’s birthday?” It’s fun to learn he’ll be 77 tomorrow!

Siri, is there a God? I tried that one for kicks. She answered correctly: “I’m really not equipped to answer such questions.” We still must tackle these explorations ourselves. However, there’s a part of me that wonders if, someday, the algorithms informing some of our technology might be tweaked to generate bolder, less humble answers, based on empirical evidence from selected journals or from crowd-sourcing among selected crowds, or from the determinations of future search-meisters. Even worse, might users of the technology tend to assume that, well, if Siri doesn’t know the answer despite her access to all the world’s databases, is it inefficient or unproductive to search elsewhere—or even to ask?

Some of history’s best conversations, communities and collaborations must have been started when someone asked a question, someone else said, “I don’t know,” and multiple people jumped in and said things like: “That’s a good question.” Or “I’ve wondered that myself.” Or even better, “Let’s look into that together.”

The book I’ve written, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, is largely about our society’s need to rediscover the joy of looking for answers together. We open the door to that pleasure when we admit to not knowing all the answers, to seeing the complexity of human beings and the influences we face, internally and externally. The adventure is shortcircuited when we think we know all the answers or we exclude whole groups of people deemed to offer nothing that deepens our understanding. We certainly shortcircuit our seeking of new insights and our solving of pressing problems if we settle for a Siri one-liner or a label popularized by our favorite media or our own, handy pre-conceived notions.

In fairness, there’s one more danger that must be mentioned. While I’m singing the praises of the phrase, “I don’t know,” I insist we must make it the beginning, not the end, of our interactive explorations. Ignorance is not bliss, and neither is indifference. By all means, we should reach out and ask Siri for her input if the alternative is simply to draw inward. We might say, “Paul Is definitely 52 in my reality,” or “Paul is timeless and that’s enough for me.” We might take shortcuts like, “I’m agnostic on that God thing, so let’s leave it at that,” or even “God is a concept, just like John Lennon said.”

Of course, most of the questions we encounter are somewhere between theology and Paul McCartney trivia; we do ourselves an injustice if we evade them by retreating into our separate bubbles of relativism and confirmation bias. We miss the great fun of a multi-faceted discussion or the exploration of an enduring mystery or the acknowledgment of paradox in human experiences of truth.

We can break through our know-it-all bubbles in various ways, sometimes driven by the need to solve urgent problems or by the discovery that “different” people have some compelling similarities and useful insights and multiple backgrounds which defy our application of simplistic labels to them. The all-in, complex experience of day-to-day life in community, in local organizations, in careers of service, in grass-roots expressions of policy concerns or faith-based values, and in the challenging togetherness of family activities, can also break through. Humor, if we can preserve it, is a great cure for the know-it-all syndrome.

I’ve also rediscovered that music is one way to promote authentic, productive human connections. Singing builds community. Songs stick in our minds and often come out of our mouths when we hum at the office, making them contagious. This doesn’t make us smarter, but it’s one of the things we use to break the ice when creative conversations have been frozen or made uncomfortably chilly.

So there’s the solution to my own immediate conundrum! How was I going to bring this blog post to an end while still celebrating the ongoing flow of questions and answers? I didn’t know. I let that TV commentator’s remark linger with me.

Then I Googled the phrase “I don’t know” and discovered a kindred spirit on YouTube.  I learned Paul McCartney didn’t know either. Of course, he came at it from a different perspective, and he expressed it in a more creative, evocative, ice-breaking way. I enjoyed listening to his approach to the situation, which did not involve asking Siri anything. Now I can share his gifts with you.

Did you know Paul’s 76 years old? Anyway, I hope you’ll want to learn more than that. Click on the video above, which is only a start. We’ve all got so many lessons to learn, he points out, but it’s alright! That message of more challenges, conversations, and creativity still awaiting us is music to my ears.

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A Little Child Shall Lead Them (and Tell the Story, too)

Enjoy this! I received it from my friend Kyle Heimann, whose morning radio program can be heard here. You can spread the word about his daily Advent emails, which were the source for this video. Happy Advent!

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We Have Met the Candidates, and They Are Us

the-full-story baloocredit

Let’s make this Election Day a kind of “Feast of All Saint-Candidates,” following up on the Catholic Church’s recent “Feast of All Saints.” I’ll explain this modest proposal, but first I’ll acknowledge its flaws. They’re found in the candidates we’re voting for—and, of course, in us voters too.

Indeed, there’s some wordsmithing, or “spin,” going on with my invitation to a feast. No liturgist or other common-sense person would declare Election Day to be a “feast” per se; for one thing, it seems our ballot options don’t often give us much to celebrate.

And my use of the term “Saint-Candidates” carries a touch of disinformation. I’m not suggesting that many, or any, political candidates of any party are saints. Alas, we’re still summoned to vote and to set high standards for the people we select, regardless of their creeds or backgrounds or character flaws.

I use the term in quotes to remind us that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says we are a “communion of saints” (CCC 946) insofar as we are a communion “in holy things” and “among holy persons.” (CCC 948) The book says we are “pilgrims on earth,” very much in need of God’s mercy to work through our imperfections. (CCC 962) “All are called to holiness,” (CCC 2013), although we’re not knocking on heaven’s door quite yet. d

I’m not speaking of “saintly candidates” but of “candidates for sainthood,” who need to tap into the graces shared by the entire communion of saints, including those we honored on the Nov. 1 feast. Today, Nov. 6, is a day for the rest of us, called to make the best of earthly systems of politics and governance that are tainted by the Seven Capital Sins. Those sins are clearly named for our state capitals, as well as Washington, DC!

Even with this watered-down definition, I think it’s worthwhile to ponder on Election Day that there is a dignity in being a candidate for sainthood despite one’s flaws. This is a candidacy we share. It’s important not to lose hope on this day, or in its aftermath on Nov. 7, though we have been subjected to a panoply of campaign commercials in which political opponents have condemned each other as liars, and far worse.

Our collective woundedness is on display in a big way these days. We need to remember, for ourselves and for those on the ballot, that God works through our flaws and mistakes even as he works through the moments of grace that raise us higher, so long as we’re receptive and responsive in prayer and action and good will. While the lead-up to elections may be filled with rallies and noise, persuasion and persecution, the moment of voting can be a time of quiet, solitary humility.

The lack of “saintly candidates” shouldn’t deter us from voting for “candidates for sainthood.” Even if it’s hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for a particular politician, it’s worthwhile to discern how we pilgrims (fellow candidates) can accompany each other through an election. We listen and then exercise our voting power wisely, even as we share hopeful prayers that God will help us keep our respective “campaign promises.” Marching amid the disinformation, distractions, and distrust we’re supposed to shed along the roadside, we journey in search of communion with our higher natures—our faith, hope, and love. We’re seeking holiness that can’t be found in political allegiances, but in trusting the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

If candidates look like they will accompany us, we might want simply to try accompanying them. They are not products to love or hate, and we must not consume them with resentment or rage. We and they are under construction, sure to face challenges that will change us, and we’ll have to get through those messes together. These are powerful calls to solidarity.

As the Catechism puts it apolitically, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him … For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (CCC 2012)

Now that sounds like a reason for a feast—a feast fit for non-kings. Enjoy the moment of casting a ballot. It’s our grace before the meal, the humble time we realize we’re hungry. We’re being fed, but the best saint-candidates won’t be satisfied until we all can say, along with St. Paul, we’ve run the race that really matters.

 

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It’s Saint Francis’ Feast Day! Any Implications?

the-full-story baloocredit

These are days for recognizing fragility. How vulnerable we are to destructive temptations–and to others’ accusations that we are sinful. We tend to let our recognition of sinfulness drive us apart, but it actually should draw us together. We share a desperate need for mercy but too seldom find it among human beings. We too seldom grant mercy to others because we resist seeing our own flaws mirrored in the heartbreaking news of everyday life among institutions and individuals.

October 4 is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. In establishing an order of laypeople, today called the Secular Franciscan Order, he instructed them to be “brothers and sisters of penance” as they follow a Gospel path toward humility, peacemaking, and a love affair with the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Kevin Rhoades has called for October 5 to be a day of prayer and penitence among all Catholics, recognizing that only a shared understanding of everybody’s need for conversion–for what business consultants would call “continuous quality improvement”–will keep us journeying together.

Otherwise, as seen in current news from the worlds of politics and religion, our fears and resentments threaten to create a “search and destroy” world. Who will defend us? The center will not hold unless we place top priority on seeking God’s wisdom and sharing God’s love, with help from both faith and reason, both mercy and justice.

We need to wake up each morning to two headlines: First, remember the Good News (aka the Gospels) that God is our savior and vindicator, bringing good out of our suffering if we follow him and align with his purposes. Second, as veteran editorial cartoonist Rex F. May (known as Baloo) depicted so well in the drawing above, “everybody is implicated” by dint of our all-too-common flaws. I’m thankful to Mr. May (reachable today) for his permission to use this copyrighted drawing from decades ago because it reminds me of St. Francis’ summons to a life of ongoing conversion.

The beloved saint urges that we keep on walking, humbly but uprightly, once our blithe assumption that “seldom is heard a discouraging word” has been revealed as fake news. When we take a hit in the headlines of life, we must turn to the Peace Prayer: Grant that I might not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand.

Pope Francis has called for a “journalism of peace” that helps us grasp the full story of our lifetime journeys together. Information media should prompt us to pursue truth, not weaponize it. The Pope wrote about this in his 2018 World Communications Day message, officially presented in May, and I wrote some reflections on that message in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? 

Pope Francis had something else to say in 2018 about recognizing our mutual need for better information alongside personal formation. According to the online publication Crux and its editor John L. Allen Jr., the pontiff had this to say in January at his first General Audience of the year:

“To measure ourselves by the fragility of the clay with which we’re made is an experience that strengthens us. While making us deal with our weakness, it also opens our hearts to invoke the divine mercy that transforms and converts.”

If we read between the lines in the headlines this year, or any year, we’ll be confronted with the “Everybody Implicated” message constantly. That’s a good thing, but let’s face it: these headlines will hurt. Fortunately, we can find an element of humor and hope in Baloo’s cartoon if our values and relationships teach us that the quality of mercy is not strained and healing our woundedness is something we can all work on together.

“Everybody Implicated” could be click-bait for a scorched-earth, apocalyptic drama of mutual defamation. May it lead us instead into a full story that is not pathetic, but empathetic. Like any good headline in any good news medium, it can jar us on our way toward deeper truth. At the risk of hyperbolic misinterpretation, three cheers for a gift of succinct prophecy well-suited to St. Francis’ feast day. Baloo foreshadows a “journalism of peace” that puts humility on the front page where it belongs.

 

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“Farsighted” Decisions and Nearsighted News

You’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Steven Johnson has produced a book that serves as a valuable response to that celebration of spontaneity. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most makes more sense to me as someone who has written about our need for conversations in the American “public square,” our use of information to solve problems and reduce polarization, and our responsibilities as producers and consumers of journalism in service to society’s pursuit of wisdom. I plan to ponder Johnson’s book. I Didn’t Read It, But I Did Respect the Author on Book-TV (#DRIBDRAB) when I watched him in mid-September.

Johnson said he sees the irony in the eight-year gestation period this book required after he first started taking notes on the subject. The result is a connection-making resource whose assessment of how we think—and how we should think—incorporates insights from neuroscience, psychology, probability theory, philosophy, and even literature. He suggests every high school student should take a similarly interdisciplinary course covering our thought processes at their best; it’s crucial preparation for what he calls the occasional “full-spectrum decisions” in our lives. We need to know these decisions will take some time and will benefit from a substantial mental toolkit.

This is a secular book. I don’t know whether Johnson would mind this additional suggestion: A Catholic or other faith-based school could expand this course into an exploration of “discernment,” a promotion of one’s spiritual toolkit alongside one’s mental abilities, and a revelation that the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities all belong in our high-stakes syllabus. Students and their families need this reminder today as the tendency in planning one’s college career is to emphasize particular, narrow fields of study rather than the full spectrum of learning that prepares us for those full-spectrum decisions.

Those decisions include such questions as whom one should marry, where one should live, and which job one should take. There are many variables to be considered in each of these judgments whose consequences are profound for oneself and others.

Yet, in many people’s minds, “the science of complex decision-making has been stagnant for 250 years,” Johnson points out. Most people use one form or another of the standard “pros and cons” table of two lists—an approach that is seen explicitly described in writings from more than two centuries ago.

This is where Johnson’s book starts making a world of difference. He notes that decision-making theory actually has become much more advanced in recent decades. Instead of focusing on a “whether or not” choice about one single option, today’s updated scholarship urges us to make “which one?” choices after we have expanded the number of options and made prudent predictions about the directions in which each of them will point.

Importantly, echoing the recommendations in Pope Francis’s message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, this expansion of choices and insights requires welcoming a diversity of inputs from people with different perspectives. It demands a consciousness of future consequences, not merely a snap judgment about what solves the immediate problem immediately. It requires us to think imaginatively and purposefully, perceiving where bad decisions might lead and generating alternatives that can create more freedom and clearly better outcomes. The reading of great novels, Johnson points out, boosts our imagination by helping us see how a variety of characters in different situations handled their life choices in distinctive ways, with a range of results.

We often trap ourselves inside one story, our own self-centered and pre-shaped narrative, he warns, when actually we need to spin many stories that incorporate the possibility of good or bad or even “weird” outcomes. (For a related exploration of maximizing our freedom to choose wisely, sometimes by thinking outside the box, check out the “Ted Radio Hour” program on “Decisions.” That recent NPR show, especially its discussion of “choice architecture,” reveals how careful we should be in managing our decisions and our contexts for making them.)

Saint Francis of Assisi was all about generating alternatives so as to nurture good decisions. He accepted God’s call to “rebuild my church.” At first, he expressed his acceptance in a personal, material-centered, arguably narrow way—namely, by repairing a broken-down church building. But God set him free to view his mission more imaginatively, allowing both constructive sacrifice and contrarian joy, and even a willingness to look “weird” in the eyes of others so as to offer them truly “alternative” information and formation. Embracing the Gospel, with its wealth of stories about good choices and bad choices, and especially about the overriding choice to pursue Christ’s peace and human wholeness, he cultivated “full-spectrum decisions” based on a full-spectrum toolkit.

His litany of remedies is expressed in the much-loved Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is very Franciscan even though it was not written by the saint. That source of connections between the City of Man and the City of God, with its ability to transcend the instinctive, self-centered “pros and cons” way of thinking, must have influenced Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message on journalism. As I say in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the Pope concluded his message with a paraphrase of the Peace Prayer focused on news as an aid, not an obstacle, in society’s pursuit of healing and peace.

The flow of news, when it is prudently managed and shared generously, with a love for people and their diverse stories as well as an accountability to past, present, future, and the timeless, with the goal of seeing connections and starting conversations, can be an excellent tool for society’s decision-making. It might even help us realize that more of our decisions are more important to more people than Johnson assumes in his book. Whereas the “Blink” approach is well-suited to the mind frame of breaking news, speed, and excitement, the “Farsighted” approach is the better one for discerning about things that matter—and, more basically, respecting communication because things do matter.

 

 

 

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