Category Archives: Society

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

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Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)

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Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source: cbs.com)

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

Try the knish

It’s a typical New York weekday. The well-dressed businessman, passing a sidewalk lunch cart, says to himself:

Is today the day I'll break down and try a knish? No, not today.

Is today the day I’ll break down and try a knish? No….not today.

A sign of strength

I’m struck by the businessman’s choice of words: break down. Is it really breaking down — is it really an act of weakness — to try new things? Of course not. Changing, and welcoming change, can be a sign of strength.

Professionally, we have to be open to change. While I fully understand the impulse to play it safe, to avoid risk, I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t welcomed change during my career in technical communication. Well, I can try to imagine: I’d still be writing print manuals for large-systems software, using command-line authoring tools. And I’d be pretty much unemployable.

I knew a programmer who insisted he was a “mainframe guy” and steadfastly refused to learn new operating systems or programming languages. He stayed employed up through the Y2K scare — and I don’t think he’s worked in the field since.

For him, weakness was in not being willing to change.

A sign of even greater strength

If welcoming change is an act of strength, I’ve recently come to appreciate that resisting change, when the change would undermine your values or compromise your principles, is an act of even greater strength.

We now live in a world where people in authority can lie and not be held to account. Where falsehood is presented as truth and truth as falsehood. Where people unabashedly engage in bigoted behavior. In a remarkably short time, the world has changed. These changes, rather than being welcomed, need to be resisted.

Paradoxically, it’s often by refusing to welcome healthy change (a Muslim family moves in next door, for example) that people end up changing in much bigger ways — letting go of their core values, compromising their principles. They become liars, to protect what they believe is being threatened. They become complicit at hiding or distorting the truth. They become bigots, lashing out at anyone who’s different.

The strong person is the one whose moral compass holds steady, who sees change and doesn’t react in fear.

Keeping strong

You’ve probably heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

To help me navigate today’s world, I’ve updated it:

God, grant me the enthusiasm to accept  change that will enrich me,
Strength to resist change that will diminish me,
And self-awareness to know the difference.

knish

Go ahead. Try one.

Was it a matter of principle for my friend to insist he was a “mainframe guy”? It doesn’t look that way to me. It looks like fear, or stubbornness, or a combination of the two. I’ve tried to learn from his experience, because like most people I’m prone to staying with what’s comfortable.

Strong people don’t do that, though.

It boils down to knowing who you are — knowing your core values and your ethical principles.

Then, when you’re tempted to change in a way that compromises your values and your principles, you recognize the temptation and you summon the strength to resist.

And when you’re presented with something new, and you know that it doesn’t compromise your values and your principles, you can try the knish. And become better for having done so.

Postscript: One of the best changes in my life was moving from the Northeast to North Carolina in my mid-twenties. I have one lingering regret, though: it’s darned near impossible to find knishes here.
Cartoon: Warren Miller, The New Yorker

Photo: Mostly Foodstuffs

Ethel Payne: You should know her name

Ethel Payne. I didn’t recognize her name. But the cover of James McGrath Morris’s biography, Eye on the Struggle, called her “the First Lady of the Black Press” — a pioneering journalist of the civil rights era. I wanted to learn her story, so I picked up the book.

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Ethel Payne (Washington Post file photo)

I learned that Payne was indeed highly influential, reporting on and often playing a part in the big civil rights stories of the 1950s and ’60s.

I learned that Payne made several trips to Africa, believing there was a close connection between the American civil rights movement and the efforts of African nations to gain independence. Late in her life she fulfilled a dream by interviewing Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

I learned that Payne’s writing appeared primarily in the Chicago Defender and other newspapers targeted to the African-American community — the “black press.” I’d known that such papers existed, but I’d never read them. So it still didn’t faze me that, even though I knew about Montgomery and Little Rock and Selma, I didn’t recognize the name of a key participant.

Then I learned that in the 1970s Payne worked as a commentator for CBS. I learned that she wrote a syndicated column that was picked up by many of the “mainstream” newspapers. As a result, I realized that I’d probably heard her speak on TV and that there’s a good chance I’d read some of her columns.

Now it bothers me that I didn’t recognize Ethel Payne’s name. Why hadn’t I remembered her? Continue reading

I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?

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Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true. Continue reading

Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.

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Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The gaslighting of America

gaslight (v.): To manipulate someone into doubting their memories and their perceptions of what is true.

Amid all of the jaw-dropping news that’s been happening lately, here’s a doozy. During the presidential election campaign, teenagers in Macedonia made money by churning out fake news stories designed to be read by millions of people as they circulated on social media.

What’s going on? Well, the truth — as so often is the case — is complicated.

Outright lies and twisted reality

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In case you’re wondering where the term “gaslight” comes from….

Did the fake news stories (including, for example, a report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president) tip the election to Trump? I seriously doubt it. Even the most gullible American voters probably had already made up their minds to vote for one candidate or the other.

On the other hand, is Mark Zuckerberg kidding when he says that Facebook — which pushed the stories into users’ newsfeeds — has virtually “no influence” on the people who use it to get news? Maybe he’s kidding himself. But everyone else knows better.

You should care about this, no matter who you voted for. The fake stories slanted toward both the left and right wings (although the right-wing ones reportedly gained a lot more traction).

Presenting phony news side by side with legitimate news. The beginning of the gaslighting of America.

Now we’re seeing reports from the mainstream media — not from kids in Macedonia — that treat the preparations for Trump’s presidency as if they were a normal transition of power.

As if it were normal to install Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, an outspoken white supremacist who’s called for “tearing down” the political establishment, as the chief White House strategist.

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The look of someone who’s compromised every last one of his principles (source: Washington Post)

As if it were normal for the Speaker of the House, who over the summer denounced Trump’s words and actions as the “textbook definition of a racist comment” and a “joke gone bad,” to say that he’s enthusiastic about carrying out the “mandate” that Trump has received from the American people.

(Joshua Foust of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has compiled a much longer list of abnormal goings-on.)

These stories are being reported as business as usual, with barely a raised eyebrow.

Reporting the abnormal as if it were normal. The next stage in the gaslighting of America.

What are we to do?

Just in case you’re wavering: the crap you saw on Facebook was false. And the facade of respectability being applied to the Trump transition is false too.

So what can we do to stop the gaslighting, to overcome the lies and the distortion?

Continue reading

Where do we go from here?

 

Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live

Kate McKinnon’s opening this week was one of the best SNL moments ever. (Watch it to the end.)

In this week’s historic election upset, I was on the losing side. Where do I go from here? Where do we go from here?

This is the course I’ve mapped out. If your views are similar to mine, I encourage you to join me. If they’re different, I hope — in the interest of constructive dialog — that you’ll discover what’s important to me and what’s not important, like finding fault or throwing bricks.

Listen and learn

I want to understand the vast majority of Trump voters who aren’t racists, neo-Nazis, or anything like that. They’re people with legitimate grievances: they believe that our government is broken and that no one is protecting their interests. I might disagree with them, but I’ll never have a dialog with them — let alone change their minds — if I don’t first listen to them.

Give the president-elect a chance to succeed

When Barack Obama became president in 2009, some of his opponents made his failure their mission. Mitch McConnell said it in so many words. They were wrong, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, we can’t repeat their error. Donald Trump will be our president: we ought to want our president to bring about good.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about silent acquiescence. When President Trump proposes things that I disagree with, when he does things that diminish us as a nation, I’ll call him on it. And especially, I will…

Stand up for my fellow Americans

Let’s all pledge to stand in solidarity with women, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color whenever they’re threatened, whenever their worth and their basic dignity are attacked. Hateful, frightening things were said during the campaign: we can’t dismiss them as merely political rhetoric.

Defend the freedom of the press

Traditional journalism has been in retreat for a generation, because the marketplace for news is changing. Now it’s also coming under attack from from people who have no compunction about publishing lies and from government officials who feel free to threaten and disparage reporters.

Thomas Jefferson knew the importance of a free press. With him, I stand “for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”

Keep the faith

Just because my candidate lost, the things I believe in — progress, equality, inclusiveness — are no less valuable and no less worth fighting for. I won’t forget the words of Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Maybe the arc is longer than I thought, but the words are as true today as they’ve ever been.

What do you think? Whether you’re on the winning side or the losing side, where do you plan to go from here?