November 19, 2002
CLARIFICATION: The Role of “Rolls”
Last month’s Chanticleer Calls introduced a new ‘award’ program in which I recognized outstanding achievements in generating, or perpetuating, crap. (This initiative was initiated after I came across an anecdote in which Ernest Hemingway reportedly stated that the one essential ingredient for someone to become a “great writer” is to have a “built-in, shockproof crap detector.”) Therefore I ‘awarded’ Rolls to individuals on a scale of 1 to 5, depending on my own personal evaluation of the degree of detectable crap that the awardee’s actions or statements yielded.
Now, it was brought to my attention by more than one reader that the role of “Rolls” as a manifestation of crap detection and recognition was unclear … “rolls of what?“
Flushed with potential embarrassment that hundreds of readers might be walking around in wonder, I want to wipe away whatever confusion might remain. I did not intend to bowl anyone over with the reference, other than to offer a fresh, clean, if not charmin’ approach to critical, dissenting commentary.
(Recall Woody Allen’s line from Annie Hall, that “dissent and commentary had merged, resulting in ‘diss-entary’.”) So much of what passes as “public debate” these days seems to me as cold as porcelain, geared toward either constipating or disemboweling intelligent discourse, rather than stimulating regular cerebral relief.
Hence, the Rolls referenced last month would refer to rolls … of toilet paper. Two-ply, with the added comfort of aloe.
COLLOQUIUM REPORT: The Role of Roles (Dr. Albert Ellis and the Levinson’s)
I attended the day-long program sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics at the Yale Club in New York City on November 9th. Two of the four presenters discussed matters related to “roles.”
Well-known therapist and author Dr. Albert Ellis (www.rebt.org) spoke about the approach to therapy he pioneered, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He mentioned his familiarity with Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics and how he incorporated many of Korzybski’s formulations with others, and his own, in creating REBT. In particular, he talked about the relevance of Korzybski’s emphasis on our proclivity to inappropriately “over-generalize”. As examples, Dr. Ellis talked about how a person might fail at one particular effort, then enlarge that one failure into a self-defeating attitude, “I am a failure.” Or, to flip it around, a person might experience tremendous success in one particular endeavor, then mistakenly over-generalize that one experience to assume, “I am a success!” as though future ‘successes’ were guaranteed due to past accomplishments.
In other words, to my understanding, we need to exercise care to not label ourselves, or allow others to label us, with over-generalized, false-to-facts labels. Once allowed, these judgmental labels define ‘roles’ that we inevitably “grow into” and fulfill, such as failure, loser, screw-up (my term, not that which Dr. Ellis so colorfully and forcefully articulated), bad boy, loose woman, incompetent employee, etc.
The husband-and-wife team of Martin H. Levinson and Katherine Liepe-Levinson, both Ph.D.s, offered an abbreviated look into a student alienation workshop they had just offered at a conference in San Diego. Martin directs a drug prevention program in the New York City public schools, has served the cause of students through both PROJECT SHARE and the Queens Borough President’s Advisory Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, and authored the just-published book, The Drug Problem: A New View Using the General Semantics Approach. Katherine, who has a background in the theater as a professional actor, is currently working to promote “New Perspectives for Arts in Education, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Business.”
Katherine injected audience participation into the proceedings through a variety of role-playing exercises. She advised us that the primary shortcoming of beginning actors is the tendency to play a character too narrowly, too much to type, too close to a stereotype, too one-dimensionally. What makes actors make interesting characters on the stage are the shadings, the complexities, the evolving development, the nuances, and the conflicts that – coincidentally – make for interesting ‘characters’ off the stage.
So from these two presentations, I got a sense of the importance and of the possibilities of recognizing that we each ‘play’ a multitude of different ‘roles’ each day – some of which serve us well, some less so. A point to reflect on is that, just as the actors on the stage, we can choose and we can change how, and when, we ‘play’ our various ‘roles.’
LITTLE ROCK, LITTLE MINDS
I happened to drive back from New York through Little Rock, Arkansas, the other day during the noon hour. While scanning the low-end of the FM radio spectrum in search of the local NPR station for the news, I picked up a religious talk show instead. Three men were discussing homosexuals, business and the Bible. One of the men reported that what was going on in the business (“bid-ness”) world was that big amoral companies were buying up little companies whose employees were good, Bible-abiding Christians. The big companies (“cump-knees”) were then coming into these small local offices and inflicting their amorality on the good Christian employees. This “amorality” at its worst included forcing the good Christian folk to sit through hours and hours of indoctrination from “northern liberals” who were there to train them, whether they wanted to or not, to “tolerate and accept” homosexuals.
After the other panel members were given an opportunity to mutter their disgust at this corruption of the workplace, one of them unwittingly (ahem) asked, “Can you give us any examples of where this type of thing has occurred, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?”
To which the speaker responded to the effect that, “Well, I don’t know of any specific cases where this has happened, but it’s certainly something that I believe is possible and is probably going on more than they want us to know.”
Mr. Whipple, please whip a 5-pack of Charmin to Little Rock right away, somewhere near the 91.5 button on the FM dial.
A WORD ABOUT GENERAL SEMANTICS: Identification
You knew there would be a raft of post-election Letters to the Editors that were sure to prove the adage that, “Nothing is ever so worthless that it can’t productively serve as a bad example.”
Sure enough, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reader from Rendon (Texas) took issue with an editorial that pointed to election injustices which were clearly the result of straight party ticket voting.
Thus sprach the Rendon-er:
Does [the editorial writer] really believe that many voters were informed when they went to vote Nov. 5? I don’t, myself included. But I do know what the Republican Party stands for and I agree with it, so I voted straight Republican. Did I help elect a candidate not as qualified as one of the Democrats?
However, my question for that Democratic candidate would be: If you believe in the same things I do, how can you still be a Democrat? And if you don’t believe in the same things, then no matter how qualified you were I wouldn’t have voted for you anyway.
In general semantics, we talk about identification in situations in which individuals fail to make appropriate discriminations. The easy-to-trivialize ‘slogans’ such as “the map is not the territory” and “the word is not the thing” point to the differences between symbols and their referents – the ‘things’ the symbols stand for.
We can also talk about identification in terms of equating individuals within a type or a class they might be associated with, then failing to account for the inevitable differences that exist between individuals even though they can be classified under a common label, category, type, etc. This tendency to identify individuals with their associated class or type provides the mechanism which results in the perpetuation of stereotypes, biases, prejudices, feuds, rivalries, etc.
“All gays do … all women hate … every black man expects … no Longhorn fan would … all Republicans … no Democrats … all big northern liberal companies indoctrinate … “
This letter-writing Rendon-er identifies herself with the label “Republican” and proceeds to presume that all “Republicans” share her same beliefs, values, attitudes, etc. She doesn’t allow for the fact that some “Republicans” might believe, and behave, differently than she does, and may indeed advocate future legislation that she might object to. On the other hand, the fact that a candidate labels him/herself as a “Democrat” by definition, to the letter writer, means the candidate believes differently than the writer … on all matters of consequence … and thereby deserves no consideration in the least.
In other words, to this letter writer – and in my opinion, anyone else who chooses to vote a straight party ticket – the specific positions, policies, values, and agendas of the individual candidates don’t matter; what matters is simply the label they affix to their candidacy, either “Democrat” or “Republican.”
She apparently is unaware of the dangers of such indiscriminately identifying with labels. Not only does she become highly vulnerable to manipulation, but she encourages unscrupulous politicians to take advantage of her in innumerable ways. (Witness the case Chanticleer reported two years ago, “What’s in an un nombre, Hombre?” in which a Mr. Thomas Edwin Wesson, after three unsuccessful campaigns to represent a predominantly Hispanic precinct on the Dallas city council, made a run for justice of the peace in 2000 … filing under the name, “Tomas Eduardo Wesson.”)
Irving J. Lee said in 1952, “We discriminate against people to the degree we fail to distinguish between them.” Perhaps it’s time we at least make an attempt to grow into that wisdom.
A POLITICAL PARADOX
Straight party voting enables indiscriminate voting, encourages voters to not discriminate between candidates, and it promotes mindless identification with a party label. Other than that, it sure keeps the lines moving.
Of course, this is exactly what the political machinery of both major parties want.
It seems to me that our American political system presents a perplexing paradox. From a global, “big picture” perspective, the one attribute of our democratic system that represents a world-class benchmark for other countries, that really shines with the polished reflections of our unique American character and governing values, is our long tradition of holding free, democratic elections that result in regular, peaceful transitions of elected governments. At the global, or macro, level, I think it’s undeniable that we ought to proudly recognize that, among many other admirable national traits, this is what we do best.
But … way below the global level, way down at the grassroots level, amidst the residual crap and manure of the individual candidates, their callous campaigns, and their despicable demagoguery … is this any way to run a country?
PERSONAL UPDATE … Regarding those voting machine creatures
Chanticleer is pleased to crow that he successfully manipulated the new electronic voting machine used in Tarrant County for early voting in the November election. This is the same machine mentioned in this space last month, which my U.S. Representative, Martin Frost, described as “intimidating” and likely to cause “mass confusion”, and about which his campaign manager said, “The concern is that it’s a machine you’ve never seen. It is its own creature.”
P.S.: How I love reporting ironies such as the fact that unlike the smooth-as-silk operations of the “intimidating creatures” used for early voting, the Tarrant County votes had to be manually counted because of a programming glitch in the ‘real’ machines used on Election Day.
The programming glitch involved … (drum roll, please) … not properly counting straight party ballots.
SELF-CONFESSIONAL: My Roll of Roles
Among the ‘roles’ I acknowledge with a loud and thunderous, “Here!” when the appropriate roll is called … father, driver, listener, neighbor, coach, acquaintance, son, brother, questioner, critic, reporter, opiner, bachelor (sigh), friend, advisor, spectator, ex-husband, planner, cook, bottlewasher, webmaster, decision-maker, evaluator, Trustee, Director, procrastinator, teacher, archivist, reluctant shopper, vacuumer, ironer, …
How about you – what roles do you play? Have you ever tried to conscientiously change roles and play ‘against type’ in a particular situation or relationship?
With that, we’ll give the Rolls and Roles a rest.
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES – Allen Walker Read and Chris Sheldon
Since last issue, the general semantics community has lost two significant leaders – Allen Walker Read (age 96) and Chris Sheldon (age 76). Allen survived his wife, Charlotte, by less than three months following her death in late July. An online obituary for Allen is located at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-472767,00.html .
Chris Sheldon’s name may not be immediately recognized, but in addition to serving the Institute of General Semantics for over 50 years, his tragic story as the captain of the ill-fated Albatross in 1961 was recounted in the 1996 movie “White Squall.” Jeff Bridges played Chris in the movie. His complete obituary is online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/obituaries/29SHEL.html?ex=1036942371.