Friday, April 15, 2011

Speaking Up

The first talk I went to was called ‘Evolutionary Leadership for a Just and Sustainable World

I wasn’t sure exactly why this talk thought it was describing “Evolutionary Leadership,” but it essentially described a sort of classic criticism of the way we live today, that we are not seeing the vast, overarching forces and narratives that in many ways constrain and change our lives. Manuel Manga, the speaker, said that there were impending crises, ecological and economic, and that to have our vision focused narrowly on our lives, for example, allowed us to miss these problems. He directed our attention to the importance of using our capacities to satisfying human needs and also acknowledging our interconnectedness, globally and with other species.

There were few concrete suggestions, but I generally appreciated the overall mood. I was worried about what “being connected with nature” might mean for his attitude towards transhumanism, which is rather important to me. Of course we’re connected with nature, sort of, and we should acknowledge it, especially insofar as we need the environment to work for us and to prevent needless suffering. Past that, though, I’m less sure.

The most important part of the talk for me was when someone asked a question regarding the way one might communicate these ideas to a larger audience. It started innocuously, but then quickly moved into dangerous territory when he ‘worried’ that perhaps it would be difficult to speak to groups where words like ‘paradigm’ for example, weren’t common. And then he used a phrase that has served condescending elitists well for many decades. He said, “What if we have to dumb it down for them?” And it was at this point that I became rather uncomfortable. I mentioned in my last post that I had been worried about the community and the culture that would exist at this conference, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps this population of middle-aged, wealthy, white, very liberal atheists didn’t have all that much in common with me, despite the apparent similarities, because they also seemed to think that they might be better than anyone who didn’t understand the word ‘paradigm.’ Then another woman picked up the phrase, because that’s often how language works, and added “They fall for the hype. That’s what they want to hear” referring probably to either poor populations or largely conservative ones, assuming that somehow they were more prone to cognitive biases than the people in the room. Which as anyone who’s done some rudimentary research into cognitive science knows, is ridiculous. In fact, a few were developing as she spoke: group polarization and conformity. I really didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I could; I spoke up.

Manuel had already begun to move on, but I raised my hand and said something like, “I’m disturbed by, during a presentation about being loving humans, an us vs them narrative being created. People respond to hype because we all do. We’re exquisitely sensitive to the context in which we’re brought up, that’s what this presentation is about [creating and educating better leaders]. If people don’t understand us, we’re not being good communicators; it doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent.”

I felt good about making the statement, changing the direction of the talk, and even more so when a couple sitting behind me, whose names I don’t remember [EDIT: I think the woman’s name was Carol Solomon] nodded approvingly. Later, when I went to introduce myself, she congratulated and complimented me, and her husband told me that they’d been fidgeting uncomfortably, thinking exactly the same thing, wanting to say something but that I’d said it better. Then he hugged me.

At some other point, a fellow named Bruce stopped me in the hallway and said I’d made the best comment during the talk, especially the emphasis on self-responsibility [in terms of our responsibility to communicate well]. I completely understood what he meant, and told him about how I’d chosen UChicago over a small liberal arts school like Amherst or Oberlin because I was worried that there would be too much agreement and not enough rigorous justification going around. That might be totally unfounded regarding the schools, but the principle of encouraging heterogeneity rather than homogeneity still stands. I also brought up a fantastic essay I read once about higher education and the opportunities it closes off, in particular the ability to talk to people who haven’t had a college education.

So that was a tremendous ego boost, and it also reassured me that the atheist/humanist community was a place I wanted to be. Nonetheless, that kind of readjustment is important sometimes, and it requires that somebody say something. Otherwise, as Asch’s conformity studies show, even smart people will say things that are very very wrong. It’s a constant vigilance kind of thing, making sure that your actions and speech are in line with your beliefs, and making sure that the world around you reflects the kind of world you want to see.

For a recap of the conference, go here.


  1. YAY Chana! Waita be the 7.5% in the Milgrim experiment!

  2. Why, thank you! It's hard sometimes, and even harder when you realize you aren't, and it didn't even occur to you. Something to cultivate every day.