Monday, January 21, 2013

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Apathy is easy.  Going with the flow is simple.  Accepting the systems and structures and institutions as they stand feels so uncomplicated.  And each of these things will kill us all.

Today, we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent, passionate work for civil rights and for justice.  Even as he insisted on nonviolent tactics, he insisted that we must act. 

Nonviolence is not the same as passivity.  Nonviolence can cause great tension and great conflict.  Any action against those in authority, against the status quo, is going to be difficult, but committing to nonviolent action is even more difficult. But it is absolutely necessary.  A mere gesture is never enough to cause real change.  Action must be taken, and it must be taken sooner rather than later.

It is because of the brave that we are all freer now than we were sixty years ago.  And it is through continued bravery that freedom and justice will continue to advance.

People give all sorts of reason for inaction.  “You’re just causing trouble!” “You’re just launching hateful attacks for no reason!”  “We have to just trust God and everything will turn out all right!”

For shame. 

Those who engage in nonviolent action, in protest, are not the ones causing trouble.  They are pointing out the trouble that is already there, and mobilizing to end it.  Bringing problems to the forefront is a very uncomfortable, painful process but it is absolutely necessary.  A community that sweeps everything under the rug will eventually be eaten from the inside by corruption, or taken over by those who don’t have its best interests at heart, or it will simply wither and die from so much rottenness.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

 “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

As to allegations of baseless attacks, listen to the evidence first.  Is the protestors’ argument reasonable?  Do their grievances have logic and evidence to back them up?  Maybe you don’t agree with their reasoning but is it at least sound?  I ask you to respectfully consider their claims; do not write them off immediately.  And how many people are involved?  I’m not saying that force of numbers makes everything okay, but I am saying that an organized group of individuals articulating real concerns commands some level of respect, even if you don’t agree with them.

Finally, to those who simply trust God to fix everything: God’s work is done through human agents.  We cannot build a better future without picking up a hammer.  Justice doesn’t just happen.  It is caused, catalyzed, by people acting.  By people working hard.  By people handing out fliers, distributing petitions, asking questions, creatively using common materials like duct tape or clothing or spray paint to bring issues to the forefront and force something to be done.  And when unjustice or underhanded dealings are the order of the day among those in authority, those who hold little authority need to speak up.

In the end, if you have never done anything at all against the way the world is now, you’re saying you’re totally okay with everything that's going on.  It doesn’t take much to contribute to the fight against evil.  Donations, signatures on petitions, raising awareness through social media or through wearing a particular color, is all a little contribution.  Of course it’s better to do more.  Take today to think about how you can take specific action for justice and truth and freedom in the coming year.  Maybe there’s something this week, even, that can be done.  Now, remembering that people going before you have given their lives, go out there and do it.  (& I have been working on an opportunity to fight injustice as well, so I'm not just saying this while sitting back on my couch with my feet up.  More on that in the future).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Leadership & PR

In our complex world today, the ability to communicate well with people is essential.  No one can expect to be an effective leader without some type of communication skills.  But real communication skill is not the same thing as being good at public relations.  And when the two are confused, what results is extremely poor leadership.

PR and brand-building is a recent development of a capitalist society, in which everyone is trying to sell something.  I suppose there’s a time and place for that.  But when important and troubling events are going on in a community, it’s no time for PR.  It’s no time to pull out well-worn marketing phrases.  And if your “brand” is built around integrity, honesty, and truth-seeking, that brand will only be destroyed by over-use of PR.

Leaders are not in their positions just to serve people platitudes and clich├ęs.

Leaders are honest.  Leaders take responsibility for the decisions they’ve made, and are not afraid to defend those decisions.  Leaders don’t hide behind canned statements written for them by their marketing departments.  Real leaders don’t do things they’re ashamed of, or if they do, they freely confess their mistake and ask for forgiveness.  Leaders of integrity will communicate openly, honestly, and respectfully with those they’re supposed to be leading.

PR is about presenting an image.  PR is about spinning events to make yourself and your organization look good, sometimes claiming credit for initiatives that you weren’t even a part of.  PR is entirely about perception.  PR is not about what is true, it’s about manipulating what others think.

A real leader understands that it’s better to embrace the consequences of an unpopular decision than to lie & evade those consequences.  A real leader understands that those he or she is leading are adults who deserve to know what’s going on the organization they’ve dedicated so much time, effort, and money to.  A real leader will speak his or her own words, looking those they’re leading square in the eye, and will answer a direct, honest question directly and honestly.

And that’s why a real leader should at times be a nightmare for his or her PR department.  Instead of just sounding like another person selling a product, a leader actually performs important actions, with vision and integrity, and knows how to communicate effectively and truthfully about those actions.

With all of this in mind, think about the leaders of your organization.  Are they just PR people calling themselves leaders, or do they actually have what it takes?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Philosophy and Faith

Cedarville University, a Christian (or as they like to say “Christ-centered”, as institutions cannot technically be Christian) university, is considering the termination of their philosophy program.  I graduated from Cedarville with a philosophy minor (I actually considered being a philosophy major), and I oppose the termination of the philosophy program.

A philosophy program is a program designed specifically to deal with thinking.  With the mind.  With how we as human beings make sense of the world around us.  You might think that a Christ-centered university would be excited to have the opportunity to think about thinking in a uniquely Christian way.  You might think that Christian parents would want their children to have the advantage of engaging with some of the world’s deepest thinkers from a solidly Biblical perspective, taught by professors who are passionately committed to Christ and to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.  You might think that Christian students would want the opportunity to pursue an ever-broadening spectrum of knowledge guided by mature, committed, intelligent Christians, to enhance their learning through a philosophy minor, as I did, or to pursue the full-fledged major, without having to fear that their faith will be torn down along the way.   You might think all of these things, but it appears that some people in positions of authority at Cedarville do not.

The very existence of a Christian university is a declaration that Christianity is fully compatible with critical thinking, with the acquisition of knowledge.  Why back down from that bold declaration, Cedarville?  Why say, “thus far will God’s power take us, into theology, into psychology, into literature, into engineering and nursing and pharmacy, but in the region of philosophy we can no longer trust His Spirit to guide and protect us”?  Is not all truth God’s truth?  Why then should we not pursue this particular field of study that is obsessed with truth?  Is there someone out there who has thought deeper thoughts than God?  Who knows more than God does?  Who can legitimately disprove God?

If there’s a deep, dark part of you that thinks all this God stuff is nonsense, that thinks Christ never rose from the dead, that thinks Christianity isn’t actually true, then you do have a reason to fear people who dare to think.  If your faith is a blind acceptance of what you’ve been told, then you definitely do want to keep other people from opening their eyes and deciding things for themselves.  So if that’s true, Cedarville, if you don’t really believe any of the things you’ve been teaching and proclaiming so proudly for so many years, then go ahead.  Get rid of the philosophers.  But let me tell you this: faith is not lost by the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and truth.  More often, faith is lost when people see hypocrisy, deceit, and dishonesty in the Christian community.

Are you trying to bolster peoples’ faith, to help them grow in Christ as they acquire a good education?  Then be transparent.  Be honest.  Be open about your failings, be open about your journey, be open about where you’ve been and where you’re headed.  Do everything you can to encourage genuine intellectual inquiry.
I had one class with Dave Mills, and I took basically every class in my philosophy minor from Shawn Graves.  If you want to learn philosophy from Christians, these are the men you want to be learning from.  They are committed to truth, and they are committed to Christ.  And they are committed to academic excellence.  The most challenging classes I took at Cedarville were in the philosophy minor (to be honest, I think I got in over my head when I decided to take metaphysics).  And although I never knew Dr. Mills very well, I got to know Dr. Graves and his wife Marlena and they are the sort of Christian role models every Christian young person hopes to find.  The philosophy professors at Cedarville University have proven that critical thought and faith can not only coexist, they can thrive together and feed off one another.  These aren’t just fancy words to Dr. Mills and Dr. Graves, they are a lived reality which is evident in every class, every interaction with a student, throughout their lives.

If Cedarville University can look at their philosophy program, professors, and students, and say, “You’re just not part of who we want to be anymore,” I am sincerely frightened for Cedarville’s future.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Do What Scares You

Or: I Do Battle With Public Speaking And Make It My Friend

I am standing in front of my freshman speech class.  My breath is short.  My head feels compressed, like the terror of peeking through my tight-shut eyelids and looking down as the roller coaster crawls to the top of that first hill.  My voice is pitched lower than usual, my knees are shaking uncontrollably.  I think only one sentence ahead, I remember nothing I have said.  Afterward, I will only remember the speech in tiny bits and pieces.

So, if I’m that scared of public speaking, why do I, a few months later, decide to major in communications with an emphasis on public speaking and rhetoric?  Okay, so the idea has to do with the fact that some of my friends have chosen majors in the same department.  But as I choose the courses that will make up my degree, I’m intentionally taking classes that will require me to make speeches. Why?

Because it terrifies me.  And because I’m awkward.  And because I’m not shy but yet I still find it impossible to navigate even the simplest social situations.  Good communication is learned and if a kindergartener can learn it, so can I.

There are comfort zones that you don’t need to leave or to stretch.  If something simply does not appeal to you on any level, don’t do it unless you have to.  But if there’s something you want to be good at, don’t worry about the pain it will take to get there.  Get through whatever it is that scares you if it stands in the way of becoming the person you want to be.

Does that sound like inspirational crap?  The sophomore-year speech class, with the same nerves, the same shaking, the same voice that I had to keep firmly in check lest it betray all my terror.  The same high standards set by a professor which I feel are so easy in front of the mirror and so impossible in front of the class.  I get through it.  I get through it because I never allow myself to drop a class, but I also get through it by watching the people who are good at it.  They take possession of the front of the room.  They speak about topics as though they are the most fascinating thing in the world.  They move easily, their voices pitch up and down to emphasize their points.  Every time I manage to shift my leaden limbs, or break my monotone, is one baby step in the direction of making it look that easy.

I can remember my speeches afterward, not fully, but they aren’t as disjointed as traumatic events tend to be.  I do not sit down with a feeling of victory, but neither do I sit down with a feeling of utter humiliation and failure.  Will I ever be as good as those others?  Maybe not, but at least I will finish this major I’ve set my mind to.  I will at least be able to say, I faced my fear over and over and I survived.

So no, it’s not inspirational crap.  It’s a process.  It’s failure again and again until you make that first bit of progress.  It’s thinking, “I can’t do this” and going on anyway.  It’s getting kicked in the face by your lack of skill every day until you muster up the resources and the courage to kick back.  It’s no exaggeration to call this sort of thing a battle.

Junior year, a few presentations, a debate class.  The different formats of speaking make it easier and more fun.  Switch things up a bit.

Senior year, more of the same.  A few presentations.  And I realize something astonishing: when I am teaching people something interesting, I actually enjoy speaking.  I forget that I am standing in front of a room full of people, I get more relaxed and as I get more relaxed, I stress out less about my voice and posture and I can give more of my attention to the material.  And moving around a bit, changing my pitch, starts to seem a little bit more natural.

My senior presentation is high-stress, but for the first time, I spend a half-hour presenting incredibly complex information to people mostly unfamiliar with the work I’ve been doing.  I answer questions coherently.  And I am able to walk away from that speech, given in front of friends, family, and a board of speech professors, with a sense of a job well done.  I am crippled for the rest of the night by a migraine, but I finished the presentation.  And I had not been anxious about the mechanics of the speech at all.

But the final hurdle yet remains: Senior speech class.  “Advanced Public Speaking,” with the most demanding professor in the entire department.  I’d had her as my freshman speech professor, which helps a bit as I already know the sorts of things she looks for.  But my first two speeches are only mediocre.  I am fairly interested in the subject material.  But I simply do not feel in control of the situation.  I spend the entire speech with half of my brain focused on the speech and half on self-doubt.  “This is a stupid topic, nobody’s listening to you, you’re talking weird again, you’re not moving around, well that was just pathetic, you’re going to forget your next point.”

I know I have to make the last speech count.  We are supposed to present an argument most of the audience would be hostile to.  This is a tricky assignment in a place as homogenous as Cedarville, and people often end up arguing for viewpoints they don’t believe in themselves, just to meet the assignment requirements.  That’s a great exercise for the more advanced speaker, but I need something I believe in if I want to really nail this speech.  Thankfully, one of my viewpoints is one that I know nearly every person in the class will be hostile to.  I can argue it effectively.  And I am even fairly passionate on the topic.  I am going to argue that the United States should legalize gay marriage.

Even as I construct my argument, I feel a thrill of excitement.  I knew I have them all exactly where I want them.  My argument is airtight.  The audience will be forced to concede that my viewpoint is right.  Or so I tell myself, as I work on fleshing out my argument, writing up a powerpoint, and practicing in front of the mirror, obsessively.

I start out that morning a little slow, as I always do.  But I feel my excitement building, as I look at their skeptical faces.  What a surprise I have in store for them.  I build from the introduction into the body of my argument.  I establish the importance of the issue.  I draw on my constitutional law knowledge and overwhelm them with legal precedent. Then I move on to my ideological appeal, the equality leg of the argument.  Are some of them actually paying attention now?  I surge forward, my fear left behind, my nerves with me rather than against me.  I feel as though I have every eye in the room as I deliver my carefully-crafted rhetorical finish.  And then, just after I finish, the professor turns and says to the class, “now that was an argument!”  I sit down with the most triumphant sense of victory I’ve ever felt.  I have conquered my fear (and though it may rear its head again, it knows it has lost).  I feel like I could have the whole world for the asking.

Was my speech perfect?  The content may have been but the delivery certainly wasn’t.  I didn’t turn into one of those live-wire performers whose bodies deliver half the speech for them.  I am a little disappointed, reviewing the video later: I’d felt so much excitement, how had so little of it been obvious?  But the important thing is, my whole perspective has changed.  A speech is no longer a frightening, traumatic event.  It’s a bit of a challenge, still, but it’s fun.  It’s something I would look forward to, prepare for without all the anxiety.

Confidence is the game-changer.  And you only truly get it when you do what scares you.  Put something that scares you on your New Years’ Resolution list, and make it stand out from the other items on that list by actually accomplishing it.  Maybe you won’t win against your fear this year, but make a start.  It took four years for my first real victory, but it was worth every bit of panic, terror, hyperventilation, and migraine along the way.