Plain Talk

plain talk

I often write about authenticity as an essential attribute for flourishing and hence, for sustainability. Although this quality has great import in the model of human being I associate with flourishing, it is difficult to observe in action, and virtually impossible to recognize in a single event. Only the actor really can tell if he or she is acting out of true caring, metaphorically responding to an inside voice; not following the voices of the surrounding world. But, in place of interpreting some physical action, is it possible to listen to the actor’s words and assess how well they are connected to the inside and outside world.

The absence of plain talk, that is, talk that reasonably represents the state of the world outside is an excellent indicator of authenticity. Plain talk reflects conditions in the real world, the one we actually inhabit and act within. Here’s what I mean. First, what we say and second, in italics, what we could mean. The statements in italics are plain talk.

  • The check is in the mail; I have stiffed you.
  • Climate change is a hoax; I don’t want to change anything about the way I live.
  • Cutting taxes will solve the deficit problem; Ditto (This answer fits a lot of the cases)
  • Gun’s don’t kill people; people do; I want to keep my Uzi’s in the closet.
  • The American Dream lives on; I do not want to share anything that is mine with others.

I have been reading the early pragmatists for a while. C. S. Pierce offers four ways in which we fix our beliefs, that is, embed them in our cognitive system such that that they become the rules by which we act. The actions are the true indicators of our beliefs; how we explain them may or may not correspond. The first way is simple. Pierce called it ‘tenacity,” and it means just exactly what the word means. We hold onto beliefs as if they were glued to our brains. Where they come from is not clear, but once the glue sets we know what they are.

The second way is by authority. In this case the firmness in our minds comes from the words of another person or institutional we respect as a legitimate source of some set of beliefs. (Minds, here is just the metaphor that Pierce and others use; it is more accurate to talk of the cognitive system. But mind will do as long as you remember that it is only a metaphor.) The Bible and the religious orders that rest on it is one example. A baseball umpire is another. When he calls you out, you better believe it and leave the field. If you don’t you’ll simply get tossed out anyway. Parents serve this authority role for young children.

The next group of fixed beliefs belong to those that have always been there and are pretty much generally accepted without question. Pierce’s example for this is the general belief that human beings act primarily out of selfishness. The legitimacy for these beliefs comes from their unquestioned presence out there in the culture. Pierce finds problems with all of these ways and holds a fourth way as the most important, His concerns are easily understood. Tenacity interferes with coordinated action. Authority becomes tyrannical. The third group of beliefs with no apparent sources squelches inquiry. All fall back on the opinions of someone or some body of rules.

Pierce and most of us naturally seek a way of forming and fixing our beliefs that doesn’t rely on the arbitrariness of human whims. For him, the approach was to inquire into the matter in the way that scientists come up with the facts about the world. Beliefs of this kind can be fixed in our minds without dependence of such whims. Their validity depends only on the methods and context of inquiry. We can base our actions on such beliefs with confidence that they conform somehow to the world out there, undistorted by the workings of our minds.

If you and I shared part of the world, as we must in reality, which kind of beliefs would you prefer we follow in solving our mutual problems? For me the answer is absolutely clear. The ones I can count on to address the differences in the world of the moment and the world we intend to form from our actions are the ones that result from our real experiences in the world. These are the ones that are true, pragmatically—that have come through observing what connections we can observe between our beliefs (fixed ideas) and their consequences out there. The others are different sorts of ideologies, fixed beliefs that cannot be grounded in experience, our own experience or that of others who we trust to have the same standard we do.

Guns absolutely do kill people. It is undeniable. On tonight’s national news, I listened to a continuing story about the horrendous violence in Chicago. More people killed this year there than the deaths of our troops in Afghanistan. Small children literally so frightened that they will not venture outdoors. How many multiple killings have we seen this year? Why must we listen to those whose beliefs defy reality? Believing that guns do enable violence doesn’t mean that they should be banned, but it does strongly suggest that we need to talk about the ways they should be controlled.

Climate change deniers are living in an alternate universe from most of us. Their numbers are falling according to Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

  • Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012. At the same time, the number of Americans who say global warming is not happening has declined nearly by half, from 20 percent in January 2010 to only 12 percent today.

  • For the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an increase of 8 points since March 2012. Americans who say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment have declined to 30 percent (from 37% in March).

But they are still around in important powerful places. There is no way to act on our common future on the Planet we share. It is possible (I personally doubt it) that the most expedient way to deal with climate change is to do nothing and wait until it becomes unavoidable that we do something to adapt to the changed world. But even if that is the right answer, we should/must arrive at it by an honest discussion using plain talk.

Plain talk is necessary to get through every day in the smallest sphere of individual activities. All of know this at some level of consciousness. None of us would ever be able to make it through the day without falling back on those beliefs that do the best job in reflecting the real world out there. No matter what we think, whatever we do happens in that world and depends on how that world works. As the sphere of action moves upwards in society to the highest levels of power, the urgency for plain talk grows because the results of the actions of the powerful rain down on us.

I am not talking about situations where facts are misused or abused in political (and other) conversations. These moments come and go; it is the persistent failures to utter plain talk in the deliberations that set the stage for significant changes in the rules and instruments that literally govern us. The absence of plain talk is at the heart of the stalemate and polarization that has stymied a concerted (acting together) inquiry about how to deal with the real issues of today. Politics has become a vacuum in which plain talk is immediately sucked up.

I suspect that the absence of plain talk is related to the scarcity of authentic behavior of all sorts in our consumerist, selfish, narcissistic polity. It may also be the result of a growing anxiety that comes from an honest understanding of what is happening in the world around us. And what we each are learning is threatening at some level. Retreat into a phony world will only enlarge that anxiety because facts have a strange propensity to show themselves in spite of attempts to avoid them.

A few years ago I read a little book by the philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, titled, On Bullshit. Frankfurt had lots of serious things to say about the subject:

When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities in hot air and excrement. …excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed …excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purpose of sustenance, any more than hot air can serve those of communication.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted … So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry…

As I read this, he is saying that bullshit is the exact opposite of plain talk, as I have used the term. In polite company we refrain from using the term to point to others’ failure to use plain talk, but maybe since so much vernacular speech has become acceptable, we now might use it to increase the prevalence of plain talk, and consequently an approach to our common problems with beliefs grounded, through experience, in the same world we wish to influence.

(Wouldn’t you know it. “Plain talk” has already been copyrighted for an app.)