Showing the way in a surprisingly different world

leadwolfThe recent surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has occasioned a lot of writing that I can sum up like this: Suddenly the world is very different than I thought it was. How do I (or we) deal with that?

One particularly poignant article came from technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas — TechCommGeekMom. Danielle pondered what the election results, and the conditions leading up to them, mean for technical communicators. Are we seeing the end of the trend toward globalization? How easy will it be to find work if you live in a rural area, away from a city?

Toward the end of her article, Danielle issued a call to action:

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it. We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

How can technical communicators show the way, or “set an example,” in the way Danielle describes? How can we use our “big hearts” to bring progress, and perhaps bring reconciliation, to the fractured world in which we live?

Here’s my stab at an answer. I hope all of you will chime in with your comments.

Two worldviews

Let’s start by recognizing who we are.

The presidential election, and the Brexit vote in the U.K. that preceded it, brought into the open a clash that’s been building for some time. It’s a clash between two worldviews:

  • A manufacturing-based economy, in which a man (almost always a man) has steady work and can provide a good life for his family. This view often focuses on tightly-knit, homogeneous communities like small towns or workers who do the same kind of job.
  • An economy in which technology, not manufacturing, dominates — in which people are connected in a worldwide community (and market) that reaches across boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, race, and nationality. This view is inclusive: we all thrive when (and only when) every one of us thrives.

In my interactions with fellow technical communicators I’ve observed that most of us (though not all of us) tend toward the second worldview. That’s not surprising, because:

  • As a profession we’ve benefited from globalization. It’s opened new markets and new audiences for the content we produce.
  • We’ve also benefited from the post-industrial, technology-driven economy. Many of us work in computing or in service-oriented industries. Even those who work in traditional manufacturing companies use technology to create content and present it to customers.
  • We’re a diverse group. For example, the last time I looked, STC was about 60 percent female — a remarkable figure for a technology-driven profession.

That, by and large, is who we are. Now let this sink in: whatever your worldview, there are a lot of people who don’t share it.

Showing the way

So, returning to the original question, how can technical communicators bring about progress? How can we do it in a way that bridges the gap between our worldview and the other worldview?

Here are some ideas.

We can listen. We’re good listeners. We listen to our customers so that we can give them information they can use. We listen to subject-matter experts and others so that the content we create is accurate and faithful to the company’s strategy. We can listen to people whose opinions are different from ours — for listening is the first step toward establishing useful dialog.

We can champion the truth. It’s alarming how much propaganda and “fake news” has been accepted as truth or at least has subtly influenced people’s opinions. As technical communicators we’re committed to accuracy. We know there is such a thing as absolute truth, and we resist attempts to distort or pervert that truth — whether it’s the Marketing department asking us to make a misleading claim, or whether it’s something far more insidious.

We can, as Danielle says, be decent human beings. We can conduct our professional lives with integrity, with common courtesy, and with respect toward all the people we work with. That kind of behavior brings people together. The other kind of behavior divides us.

What do you think? How can you bring about positive change in a world that might be very different from what you thought it was?

14 thoughts on “Showing the way in a surprisingly different world

  1. Ray

    A couple of purely personal reflections.

    First, The Internet means that whatever one’s world view, information will out – the truth will out, eventually, though it may be too late for some. I think of the 2004 attack on trains in Madrid’s Atocha Station. The Aznar government, facing re-election in just 2 days, was in a panic to blame the attack on ETA (Basque) terrorists, and not on Al Quaida reacting to Spain’s entry into the second Gulf War.

    As mounting evidence made it clear that the attack came, indeed, from Al Quaida, Aznar tried to control the media spin on the story, putting pressure on all media, left and right included, to keep the ETA thesis alive.

    But Spanish people, especially young people, were not limited to what the Spanish media told them, they learned the truth on the Internet. Numerous demonstrations were held around the country against the lies of the Aznar government, which tried to co-opt the demonstrations, asking for “silent demonstrations against terrorism.” It didn’t work. Two days later, the right-wing government, given as a shoo-in for re-election with a larger majority than it had had previously, went down to the socialists. Showing that the truth can topple governments.

    Second, I find that the older I get, the less open I am to “listening” to idiocies or to suffering fools gladly. Fools, of course, are defined by me. I do not see this as positive, I suppose I should be like the Dalai Lama, listening attentively to those whose world views I actually despise, trying to understand what makes them tick so that I can persuade them otherwise, or at least show them that I am a reasonable human being and not an ogre for having a different world view. But with age, my patience is going away. Very rapidly. Those of us who, while expecting a long and productive life, know we have already lived more years than those we have left to us, have a tendency to want to maximize that time to advantage. And that means we don’t have time or patience for foolery. Sorry – I should be better, but I’m not.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Ray, for sharing your insights. Like you, I believe that all attempts to deny people’s liberties will eventually fail. But eventually can mean a very long time, as the recent death of Fidel Castro reminds us.

      As I get older, I find that I’m less patient. Perhaps it’s because, like you, I realize how little time I have left. When I see people who try to manipulate the truth and infringe on our liberties — and I’m not talking here about all those who hold a different worldview from mine, just a tiny minority of them — I’m more apt to see them as evildoers, not as fools.

      1. Mark Baker

        When it comes to liberties, I think it is vital to remember that every liberty is also a constraint. Every barricade that opens my path is one that closes a road to someone else. Liberties are secured by laws, and laws are constraints on behavior. Liberties are not a means to make everybody free. Where everybody is free, the strong prosper and the weak die. Liberties are a means to secure the freedom of some by constraining the freedom of others. Liberties are, in other words, a way of redistributing power. When we value and defend our liberties, therefore, we are actually valuing and defending our power. But our power is held at the expense of someone else’s power. Someone else is made weaker that we may be stronger.

        We may defend this as a more equitable distribution of power. But it should not surprise us that those who have gained power are more likely to see the current balance as equitable than those who have lost it.

        If we grow impatient with those who we see as trying to constrain our liberties, we should at least reflect that they are simply trying to expand their own liberties. They might even have a claim that deserves listening to, if for no other reason than that they are human beings too.

      2. Ray

        Mark, I’m going to have to call you on this one. What you say can make sense in a democratic context, but as Naom Chomsky has pointed out, in a democracy, if the extremes of opinion swing too far out, democracy is lost. Hitler was democratically elected.

        My wife, who has lived under Franco’s dictatorship, would probably not share the notion that garroting people to death is somehow adding to someone’s “liberty.” It might add to their license, but that is not the same thing.

        Democracy functions under the notion of some sort of commonly shared set of ethical principles (I’m leaving “moral” out of it, as that is a charged word), and when we say “liberty” we usually mean it in a socially acceptable sense. When democratically elected leaders act unethically, democracy is betrayed. When leaders get elected on unethical platforms, democracy is in mortal danger.

        I’ve never been a great fan of Chomsky’s political analyses, but his analysis of the role of the media as a “mediating” and “moderating” force in democracy seems cogent to me. This role has been lost in most Western countries as the media become the property of large corporate groups and lose their editorial independence. Hence Fox News, to point out an extreme example.

        Chomsky also points out that in a dictatorship, you are free to think absolutely anything you want. Yes, you are free to think it……….

      3. Mark Baker

        My analysis made no mention of whether the liberties in question were morally licit. I currently live in a country where liberty of conscience is under assault. In Ontario, for instance, it is currently illegal of a doctor to refuse to give a patient a referral to someone who will perform an assisted suicide. There is a concerted attempt afoot to deny admission to the bar to graduates of a catholic law school. This is the creeping reintroduction of a religious test for admission to the professions, something that was abolished in Britain, at least, in the 19th century. (You used to have to swear an oath against transubstantiation to receive a commission in the British army.) There is already a religious test to be a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada.

        This is not to say that there have not been similar restrictions, and harsher, applied to people of other faiths, ethnicities, etc, throughout history, for of course there have been. But the idea that there is a state of ideal liberty to which all people should ascribe regardless of creed or culture, is not tenable, and can appear tenable only when our own particular viewpoint is in the ascendent. We live in a constant state of tension between competing claims for liberties which are inherently mutually incompatible, especially as they relate to the kind of society we want to live in: claims not merely about how we should be allowed to behave in private, but about how people should treat us in public and what kinds of communications and behaviors we have to witness in the public square.

        Indeed, the whole issue of what is to be deemed licit in public vs what is to be deemed licit only in private is at the heart of so many of these battles over liberty, and it is not a matter of a steady march of general liberty, but of the ebb and flow of battle lines over time.

        The fact that we can point to periods (many of them) in which the battle lines were distorted to such an extent that certain classes were completely triumphant and other classes were completely subjugated does not mean that we have now achieved, or can achieve, a peace satisfactory to all. The fact that, in most western countries, the battle lines are not currently that distorted is a blessing. But that does not mean that no violence is being done to anyone’s liberties or that a major swing in the lines would produce more net injustice or oppression than exists in the current situation.

  2. Mark Baker

    Larry, I think it goes much deeper than the difference between a manufacturing economy and a services economy. Those are, in many ways, incidentals. I think the deeper difference is between transience and permanence.

    There is a class of people, to which most tech writers belong, that is happy with living a transient existence. We may live in may places during our careers and we think nothing of moving for a better job. We are comfortable with virtual relationships and virtual conversations (of the sort that you and I have from time to time). We have friends we only meet at conferences held in cities neither of us live in. We are comfortable changing jobs and even careers on a regular basis. We would not blanch at spending parts of our careers in other countries. We fully expect that our children will move away when they graduate and that each of them will end up in a different city and quite possibly a different country.

    Then there are the people who live settled lives. The are happy to live, marry, work, grow old, and die in the place they were born. If they are forced to move by economic circumstances, it is hugely disruptive to their lives and some may never really feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Their relationships are local, not virtual. They know the names of the people who cut their hair, serve their coffee, and bring their mail. (For transients, we know the names of the companies who provide this service, not the people.)

    Transients see economic disruption as an opportunity to be exploited. They will happily exchange stability for money. Lovers of permanence see economic disruption as a disaster that threatens the permanence of their existence. They will happily exchange money for stability.

    Transients trust institutions more than people. Permanents trust people more than institutions. Permanents are thus conservative by nature. They don’t trust governments; they trust their neighbours. They prefer the company of people they know, and have long known, which does not in any way make them bigots or xenophobes. (Transients are just as selective about the company they keep; they simply have different preferences.)

    This tension between permanence and transience is at the heart of many dramas, notably the recent Gilmore Girls revival in which (spoiler alert) Rory Gilmore returns from the life of a vagabond journalist to run the Stars Hollow Gazette. But somehow, despite its prominent place in our literature, the transients who run our governments, media, and technology companies don’t seem to understand that the desire for permanence is real and pervasive.

    Is the economic program of Trump and the Brexiters sensible? Probably not. The economic disruptions that we have been experiencing for the last couple of centuries are irresistible. Free trade and open borders make sense for continued increase of human wealth. But they don’t do a thing for permanence. The economic opportunities they create greatly favor transients who can comfortably rip up their lives to follow them (which is why times of economic disruption tend to foster growing inequality).

    Politicians of the left don’t seem to understand why their appeals fall on deaf ears when they preach against economic inequality. They don’t understand that people value permanence far above equality, that for most people, it is about having enough to ensure the stability of your lifestyle, not about keeping up with the Zuckerbergs. The promise to address income inequality comes as part of a package of things that all favor transients.

    If forced to choose between a credible program offering things you don’t want and a dubious program promising things you do want, which do you choose?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I realize that I was oversimplifying when I laid out the two worldviews, and that someone would probably call me on it. The situation is much more complex than that, because people and societies are complex. But I think that the two worldviews I defined give us a good start toward understanding what’s going on. The transience/permanence dichotomy is very true — and, in my view, wholly compatible with the two worldviews. Different facets of the same thing, if you will.

      1. Mark Baker

        Hi Larry,

        Yes, and my dichotomy is a gross oversimplification as well. Limits of the medium. The manufacturing/technology dichotomy definitely maps to the permanence/transience dichotomy, if only because manufacturing seemed for many decades to offer the kind of steady employment that would support permanence of residence. (How often do we hear, when a plant closes, about the people who started in the plant right out of high school and have worked there for twenty, thirty, or forty years?) Technology, by contrast, has attracted those who are natural transients. If we see someone stay at a technology company more than five years we are inclined to worry that they are ruining their career prospects.

        There was a time, of course, when manufacturing was the engine of economic disturbance that wrecked the permanence of millions of lives. Permanence in agricultural societies was not merely for a lifetime but for multiple generations. (And the transients went to sea, or the army, or the mendicant orders.) The manufacturing boom forced millions to move and rapid progress in technology (including the relocation of industry from the riverside to the railhead) kept many of them on the move.

        Personally, I would have been very happy if I have been born in a small town (by the sea, ideally), been educated there, worked there, married there, raised a family there, and retired there. But there was no way for a writer (and I can’t do anything else) to make a living in a place like that. Not to mention that I had already moved four times before I was 12, the last of those being across the Atlantic, as my father moved from one university post to another. So I am a transient of necessity. But my sympathies lie with permanence.

        There was some hope that technology would allow us, through telecommuting, to lead less transient lives, but that does not seem to have emerged. Perhaps that is because the leaders of the industry seem to be more natural transients, and so don’t see it as a priority. Perhaps it is because you just can’t reconcile permanence with the long distance relationships of telecommuting. Permanence is about dealing face to face.

        Is there anything about the course of the current economic arc that promises permanency for the millions who crave it? There is a lot of talk about “well paying middle class jobs”, but I am not hearing anyone talk about “middle class jobs that last for forty years in the same town”. But I bet that is what a lot of people who voted for Trump were reading between the lines.

  3. Ray

    Mark, in your scheme of things, I’d definitely have to class myself as a transient. Yet I know the barber who cuts my hair by name. I know the local greengrocer, and the cashiers who check out my bags in the supermarket. I know the postman who delivers my mail and joke with him when he passes. If I move to another place, I will quickly learn the name of, and make friends with, the person who cuts my hair there. I’ll make friends in the neighborhood.

    In short, being a transient does not mean putting more faith in institutions – it means having the ability to befriend an enormous number of folks, some on line, some in person, and some both. I have a very dear friend whom I knew for 30 years only on line. When we met face to face some 8 years ago, that only deepened our friendship, and expanded my network to her son and grandson, and expanded her network to include my wife.

    It’s not just transience, it’s also connectivism. And you can be a connectivist and permanent, too. The notion of “Glocal” – Think global, act local – is an expression of that.

    1. Mark Baker

      Ray, clearly any binary scheme is going to be false to the experience of many individuals. Some people are gregarious and make these kinds of connections easily. All the same, such connections are not the same as those formed by living the the same place your entire life. They are more themselves more transient, more easily broken, and do less to define your place in the world.

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