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How to Master a Second Language

 

A practical guide using the example of English 

“The bear gives birth to a duck”; “The engineer is in the refrigerator”. Or how about: “The onion eats the girl.” All these are real examples of sentences for translation exercises from “Duolingo”, one of the world’s most popular platforms for language learning. It’s striking that under the sleek, gamified surface it relies on the most old school of methods: the Grammar-Translation method. This approach, useful for training translators, was already popular in the Middle Ages.

We know that language acquisition doesn’t work well this way. Language acquisition is a subconscious process. It happens when we understand messages. The traditional approach, still the method of choice for most schools and platforms, is ineffective because the focus is on form rather than content. The emphasis is on “how”, not on “what”, on structure and grammar rather than on meaning, interesting ideas and valuable information.

That’s how you end up with “The onion eats a girl” and all the other bizarre examples. This is not to say that a form-based approach doesn’t work at all. For beginners, almost every approach works to a certain extent. This includes the Grammar-Translation method, which is frowned upon in the language classroom these days, but has seen a renaissance in the digital sphere.

To Duolingo’s credit, it can be said that linking them to bizarre images actually helps to memorize words. The bear gives birth to a duck. In Spanish this would read: „El oso esta pariendo un pato.“ Read the sentence out loud. Now close your eyes visualize how a bear gives birth to a duck.  Repeat the sentence. The probability that you will at least remember the Spanish words for bear, „oso“ and duck, „pato“, for a while is now much higher than if you had simply translated the sentence.

Don’t learn, acquire

Before I talk about how to apply this knowledge to master a language, let’s clarify the distinction between language learning and language acquisition.

Language learning is the conscious effort associated with the language classroom: translation tasks like the ones on “Duolingo”, grammar exercises and vocabulary practice but also role plays and fluency practice of all kinds. The underlying similarity is that the language is the topic to be learned, it’s not used as a tool to communicate messages.

Language acquisition is what happens when we get the message in the target language, when we focus on the “what” rather than the “how”. It is the subconscious process of acquiring vocabulary and structure. It’s the way children learn their native language and it’s also the way the grown-ups master a foreign language.

The distinction is crucial for a variety of reasons.  It’s possible to learn a bit of a language in many different ways, but it’s only possible to master a language through the subconscious process of acquisition. The process of language acquisition never stops. We are always learning new words and phrases in our second language as well as in our mother tongue.

It is not about an „either/or“ between explicit language learning and implicit language acquisition. Without a foundation in the target language, laid through explicit language learning, the step to implicit language acquisition is impossible for adult learners.  Without the subsequent process of language acquisition, mastery of the target language at a high level is equally impossible.

It is crucial not to be fixated on one approach. Under certain circumstances, even beginners can learn implicitly and more advanced learners can benefit from explicit language learning, through focused grammar explanations and exercises, as well as from looking up words that cannot be deduced from the context.

It is important to place less emphasis on the „how“ and more on the „what“ as you progress towards higher levels of language competence. If the content is interesting and encourages further engagement with the topic, if the communication is meaningful and the target language is used as a tool of communication you’ll remember it more easily. It will stick. The more form-based, diluted and boring the content, the less you’ll achieve this goal.  To master a language at a high level, you need to store a lot of information, not only a large number of words, but also nuances of meaning and use in different situations.

To provide some perspective, let’s look at the word count of the English language. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary includes some 470,000 entries. This number is on the conservative side, there are other estimates that include regional dialects, slang and professional jargon which come up to a million words.

Too much to learn

Nobody knows or uses all of these words, of course. Tests show that native speakers know and use between 20 000 and 35 000 thousand words. Let’s set a conservative goal for a second language speaker who wants to master English: 20 000 words. Memorizing the 20 000 items would be just one goal the language learner has to reach. She would also have to master the appropriate use of the words, understand the differences in register, formal or informal, for example.

When is it appropriate to say “I concur” rather than “I agree”? What is the right word to use if you would like to use the expression ironically? Not to mention accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation, the differences between British and American English, the cultural references, so on and so forth. It is simply impossible for the average person to consciously learn all of this. And nobody ever does.

If people do master a language to a high level of proficiency, it is because they have successfully acquired it over an extended period of time. They heard and read plenty of stuff that in the target language that they understood, that they were able to make sense of. Or, to use the technical jargon: they were exposed to a high volume of “comprehensible input” over an extended period of time.

Recognizing pornography

What then, is comprehensible input? There is a long standing debate in applied linguistics what exactly constitutes comprehensible input which need not concern us here. We’ll stick with the famous definition Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward provided for pornography: you’ll know it when you see it. To give an example: if you are at the B 2 level, a scientific paper about psychology that you will have a hard time understanding in your native language does not qualify as comprehensible input. A well written, clear popular science book about the same topic does.

But don’t you learn a language by speaking it? No, you don’t. What you learn by speaking the target language is making the right sounds.  You get used to producing the language, you solidify what you have already learned and you get the chance experiment with newly acquired words and expressions.

The most important benefit of speaking practice is: you get used to the feeling of expressing yourself in a foreign language. For most people, that feeling is uncomfortable and produces the unpleasant sensation of self-consciousness. The degree of intensity of this feeling differs greatly between individuals and ironically, it is especially challenging for the most ambitious types, for the strivers and the perfectionists.

Drinking to talk

Don’t believe me? Try speaking foreign language after consuming what constitutes a moderate amount of alcohol for you. Again, definitions will vary greatly between individuals. You will find that your performance will improve after a few drinks. Why? Because alcohol lowers inhibitions, it lowers the inhibiting sense of self-consciousness. That’s why it’s popular and why it’s called a social lubricant. It should go without saying that large amount of alcohol will have the opposite effect.

What is the point? The point is that the main problem with actually using a foreign language has more to do with psychology than linguistics. The more perfectionistic you are, the more you are invested in getting it right and avoiding mistakes, the harder it will be for you to actually to become fluent in a foreign language.

This is where learning another language can render an additional benefit of personal growth, beyond the obvious one of broadening your circle of communication. It can help you to face the fear of rejection that lies at the bottom of perfectionism. It can help you to come to terms with your simple human fallibility. Psychologists call this “imperfection tolerance”, a truly valuable trait to acquire. At „L&S“, we use communication training, like our „Training for TED“, to help our trainees get used to difficult situations and remain capable to act under pressure.

So, what should you be doing to master a language?

 Three Steps

1) Leave the beginner stage behind you as quickly as possible. If you actually want or have to master a foreign language, try to make the time for intensive courses. It would be ideal if you could attend the courses over a longer period of time. Beginners have a steep learning curve and your goal is to leave pure language learning behind as quickly as possible. As a rule of thumb, the more similar the target language is to the mother tongue, the faster the step from language learning to language acquisition.

Three to six months should do the trick for most learners and most languages. When you choose a language school, ask to participate in a trial day. If the lessons are very grammar heavy and the teacher does most of the talking, go elsewhere. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this pain will pay off in the end. It won’t. You need to get used to making the sounds as soon as possible.

Likewise, if the teacher refuses to give straightforward explanations, wants to elicit everything from the students and obsessively puts the group into pairs, go elsewhere. The “communicative method” is the current dogma of language teaching. It is useful and should be part of every language course, but many teachers have had too much of the Kool-Aid and overdo it. If you only have the choice between communicative dogma and silent suffering under grammar torture, choose the communicative dogma.

Ideally, there should be a balance between interaction, pair work, practice and straight forward explanation and structural overview. Make sure that the school has arrived in the 21st century and uses authentic video and audio material, not just CD players, textbooks and photocopies.

If you can’t attend an intensive course, use the ubiquitous once a week, 90 minutes format. Make sure you have the grammar basics down. The web is your friend, there are plenty of useful grammar training sites online. www.ego4u.com  is a good site for learners of English, for example. Supplement it with plenty of simple video, audio and reading that you can understand. Pictures are very helpful and you’ll find that you’ll remember the meaning of a word much better when you can connect it with an image.

Deal with this kind of material often and regularly. Use going to the gym as an analogy: you will only see results if do it regularly and when you stick with it. The analogy to the gym has its limits. It won’t hurt if you do a language work out of some kind every day, especially at the beginning. Vary your activities and get into the habit of using material aimed at native speakers. Don’t be a snob. Watch children stories, cartoons, read books and comics for children.

2) Once you have reached the B1 level, seek out all kinds of comprehensible input. At the B1 level, short TED presentations, comic books, graphic novels, graded readers, simple explanatory videos and stories on YouTube are the way to go. Try movies and shows on Netflix, too, just make sure that you have subtitles in the target language. Don’t use subtitles in your native language.

If you understand everything, the material is too easy. Find a ratio of known and unknown vocab that you feel comfortable with. This will differ between individuals, generally, you need to train your ability to figure out words from context and be less teacher and dictionary dependent.

You can and should look up words, but not reflexively, as soon as you do not know a word. Highlight the word and try to deduce it from the context. If it is a shorter text, read to the end before looking it up. For longer text or books, you can proceed page by page or chapter by chapter. The best way to look it up is to use this online dictionary: www.linguee.com. It doesn’t cover as many languages as “Google Translate”, but the quality is better.

The great advantage of “Linguee” is that it will show you a variety of example sentences in addition to the pure translation. Sometimes it can be useful to look up a literal translation of sentences or entire passages. To do so, use this tool:  www.deepl.com/en/translator

Seek out every-day interactions with native speakers or tandems, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is the most important part of your language acquisition. It will help you to become more comfortable in the language and it will build imperfection tolerance. At the B1 level, however, interactions with native speakers can easily feel overwhelming and frustrating.

Don’t get discouraged. You are acquiring the language, by yourself, at your own pace, away from the stress of having to perform in the situation. Trust the process. Assuming they are available for your target language, take one of the assessment tests language schools provide online to check your progress. Here’s a link to our assessment test: https://www.language-and-skills.com/home/placement/

3) Once you have reached the B 2 level, turn to more interesting and challenging material. As a general rule, stay away from dedicated language learning material. Most of it is watered down, boring and hides the focus on form behind impressive sounding brand names like “Financial Times” or the “Economist”. Don’t be fooled. It’s the same old gap fill, grammar tidbit and comprehension question approach with a fancy label. There is a lot more you can do beyond the obvious Netflix and movie watching.

By all means do that, but know that in order to retain vocab well, you need what cognitive scientists call “depth of processing”. The more alert you are, the more the material makes you think and challenges what you thought you knew, the better you will remember it.

If your target language is English, you certainly live in the best of times. There are thousands of hours of free or cheaply available high- quality material to be found online. Start with the TED presentations, www.ted.com, find a topic that you are interested in and research it in the target language. If you are already at the C 1 level, do the same thing; but with presentations given by authors at Google: https://talksat.withgoogle.com/.

Another good place to find long, in depth interviews is Joe Rogan’s podcast, the “Joe Rogan Experience”: https://www.youtube.com/user/PowerfulJRE Rogan is a controversial figure in the United States, but his views are safe enough for people not deeply involved in the American culture wars. Rogan’s podcast is extremely successful, probably because he embodies the average American guy better than anybody else. You won’t get sharp, critical journalism from him, but a sincere interest in learning and time for the guests to fully explain their views.

If a speaker or podcast guest tries to sell you his book and you like the topic, order the book and read it. If that seems a little too extreme, see if you can find a summary online, for example at www.blinkist.com. Or look for a review in an English language newspaper. The British Guardian,  www.theguardian.com, is a good choice, as it has so far dispensed with a paywall.

 The Power of MOOCs

Platforms which aren’t used enough for language acquisition are the MOOCs. MOOCs, short for „Massive Open Online Courses“, are online courses at an academic level. The MOOCs offer an extremely wide range of topics, from Buddhism to securities trading and artificial intelligence. Some of the courses are elaborately produced for the video format; others are simple recordings from seminar rooms. Many of the courses are permanently available and can be used free of charge.

Some have to be completed within a certain period of time and offer the possibility to get in contact with the teachers, to hand in coursework and get it corrected.  A number of MOOCs offer the possibility to obtain a certificate from high profile American and English universities for a moderate fee, normally between $40 and 80. Check out „Coursera“: www.coursera.org   „edX“ : www.edx.org and „Future Learn“ www.futurelearn.com.

Many MOOC videos have also made it onto YouTube. The MOOCs haven’t lived up to the hype of revolutionizing academic education, but they are a fantastic way of killing two birds with one stone: mastering a language while learning something new.

Many language teachers recommend novels, but novels for language acquisition will only work well for literature buffs. Novels are linguistic works of art; they are not written to be easily understood. For many adults, popular science books work better. In the American scientific community, writing successful popular science books is considered a distinction and there are plenty of works worth reading.

Many of our clients like “Behavioural Economics“. Behind this unwieldy term lies an exciting synthesis of economics and experimental psychology, which attempts to get to the bottom of fascinating questions about human nature. Good introductions to the topic are the books and videos of academic superstar Dan Ariely: www.danariely.com

By all means look for contact with native speakers, ideally in situations where there is a topic to be discussed and the language serves as a tool. This is often the problem with tandems, they quickly become boring and peter out. As an alternative to tandems, „Inter Nations“ is a good choice: www.internations.org Inter Nations is a successful German start-up based in Munich and has established a globally active platform for expats. The „Activity Groups“ are particularly suitable for language acquisition.

Theoretically, you can master a language by yourself, just like you can get into shape without a gym and a personal trainer. The main problem, both with getting in shape and mastering a language is compliance.  Working with a good language school helps, because the regular sessions and the relationship with the trainer will boost compliance.

Acquisition works. The best language schools base their method on this insight and good trainers do more than just have a pleasant chat and correct your grammar once a week.  Good trainers will point you toward interesting material and discuss it with you.  They will broaden your horizon and be just as eager to learn from you. If you are looking for a good trainer, visit us under www.language-and-skills.eu

 

Links

https://www.linguee.com/

https://www.deepl.com/

https://www.ego4u.de/

https://www.language-andskills.eu/de/start/placement/

https://www.ted.com/

https://talksat.withgoogle.com/

https://www.blinkist.com/de/

https://www.theguardian.com/uk

https://www.coursera.org/

https://www.edx.org/

https://www.futurelearn.com/

https://danariely.com 

https://www.internations.org/start/

https://www.language andskills.eu/de/start/

 

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Public Speaking for the 21st Century

Review: TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

Connect, narrate, persuade, explain, reveal – and practice, practice, practice

Let‘s start with news you can use – if you‘re in the market for a how to book about public speaking, I suggest you get this one.  You won‘t escape the underlying „you can get if you really want“ theme so prevalent in the genre, but  here it comes in much milder form than usual.  If you need to work on an important presentation urgently, invest in the accompanying „Udemy“ course, too. Anderson delivers it himself and it comes with some helpful worksheets:

https://www.udemy.com/chris-anderson-on-public-speaking/

The combination is probably the best value-for-money public speaking training material you can find in the English language market. It will almost certainly work for you, provided you are the rare kind of learner able to hone her public speaking skills in a self-directed fashion. Because even if you apply all the useful techniques that Anderson introduces, you still need to practice your delivery.

Recruit an audience

And you‘ll need practice it in front of an audience – an audience which is willing to listen and willing to listen more than once. Not easy for autodidacts, but doable.

So, if you are willing to pester friends and family with your presentation for a couple of weeks: get the book, buy the course, apply the advice and practice as much as you can. You have every chance that your performance as a public speaker will improve significantly.

This just in case you are busy and were reading this article purely to help you decide whether or not to buy the book. Buy it. And get the Udemy course. The video lectures in combination with the blow by blow worksheets make it much easier to actually apply the ideas and create a presentation.

If you have time and would like to know more about the book, read on by all means. Initially, Anderson does wax a little too grandiose about the power of speeches and presentations on the internet, but I guess that‘s to be expected from the Head of TED.

Language is awesome

It is a bit of struggle to get past the „Prologue“ and „Foundation“ with its‘ college dorm-room philosophy: „Humans have evolved a technology that make this possible (the communication of ideas). It‘s called language.“ Reading it, you feel like passing the joint and saying –„Yeah, man. Language is a technology. That‘s amazing“.  –  or „Our ideas make us who we are“.

Anderson obviously skipped the Hume lectures and the Scot‘s insight that reason is a „slave to passion“ while he was at Oxford.

And of course there is a fair amount of the ever popular brain and “neurotalk”: „Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman‘s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1200 brains in the audience. These pattern will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives impacting their behaviour years into the future.“

It seems as if every writer of business and self-improvement book feels the need to make his output sound scientific by talking about neurons and the brain. This is unfortunate, because it often fails to provide any insights. If we agree that there is no divine spirit dwelling in the brain, every cognitive process by definition involves the biological matter inside the skull.

Shaping the brain

Unfortunately, business book neurotalk is often misleading and sometimes just plain wrong. Listening to a presentation once will most likely not leave any durable traces in the brain. Learning does shape the brain, but learning takes time, revision and plenty of practice . The audience will simply forget the content if it isn‘t reinforced, no matter how skillful the presentation. “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand“, Confucius is supposed to have said 450 BC. Long before there was neurotalk and modern science.

You also have to navigate past the preachy, seemingly inevitable ideas -can-save the-world stuff: „Ideas that could solve our toughest problem often remain invisible because the brilliant people in whose mind the reside of lack confidence or the know-how to share those ideas effectively.“ Like everybody who has been binging on Silicon Valley Kool-Aid , Anderson seems to be convinced that it‘s all about ideas, innovation and technology. Politics, power and distribution of wealth are ideas that don‘t seem to flourish in sunny California.

But once you made it through the prologue, Anderson‘s polished, self-deprecating style  makes for much better reading than the tedious self-aggrandizing and militant positive thinking so common in American self-improvement literature. Or to say it with Steven Rosenbaum, the American TED speaker who wrote a fawning review for “Forbes” magazine: „Anderson‘s thinking, his evolution, and his emerging leadership in the world of spoken word storytelling is in turns both inspirational and remarkably useful.“

Beware the Org Bore

In addition to the style, Anderson‘s book distinguishes itself by framing a successful talk as a gift, the gift of an idea. This is a good metaphor because it helps to avoid the four types of talk that he warns against: the sales pitch, the ramble, the org bore and the inspiration perfomance. The org bore, i.e. a monothematic rant about the wonders of the organization you work for; and the sales pitch – are in my experience more common in businesses, especially in Germany.

Like every good English language how-to book, the guide presents a mix and match „tool box“. Anderson calls his tools: connection, narration, persuasion, explanation and revelation. These are useful techniques and once he gets on to practical part, the book becomes very valuable. He livens up the narrative with plenty of examples and excerpts from conversations with TED superstars like Ken Robinson and Amy Cuddy.

Cuddy is an interesting case, because the results she based her wildly successful TED talk on are actually hotly debated in the scientific community, to say the least. But this kind of critical, questioning stance isn‘t Anderson‘s forte and he doesn‘t even mention the controversy (For more information, take a look here:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170911095932.html

TED freaks also get plenty of TED history, behind the scenes anecdotes and some insights into Chris Anderson‘s own journey.  Anderson took over the TED conferences from its colorfull founder Richard Saul Wurman in 2001. As he reveals in the book, “I was reeling from the near collapse of the company I had spent fifteen years building and was terrified of another huge public failure.”

The approach in a nutshell: Distil your throughline, own your vulnerability

The strength of the book is its realism when it comes to the difficulties of creating an excellent presentation and its focus on actionable advice. From appropriate dress to calming your nerves, the bulk of the book brims with useful tips. Spend time on distilling the “throughline” of your talk into 15 words, own your vulnerability and express it onstage. Emphasize parable and metaphor in your storytelling.

Avoid bombarding people with information, don‘t put bullet points on slides and read them off.  Avoid airy expressions of gratitude when you start and finish, focus on the big questions and assertions that stoke curiosity. His exhortations to revise, rehearse, and rethink your story and the emphasis on practice and rehearsal are to the point.

The book can also be read as a helpful writing guide or a primer for effective communication in general.  It’s disappointing that the closing chapters once again devolve into overenthusiastic cheerleading about TED‘s world-changing powers. He does at least achieve what in presenting lingo is sometimes called the „loop“, i.e. coming back to the opener in closing.

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Do we hold any truths to be self-evident?

Book Review: “How to have impossible conversations – A very practical guide” by authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. “How to Have Impossible Conversations” is a terrific book in many ways and it does contain some directly applicable practical advice. What it isn’t, however, is very practical, even though it makes that claim in the title.

It’s easier to write 10 volumes of philosophy than to practically apply a single principle.”

Tolstoi, Diaries 1847

The blurb states that authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay will “guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation, whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control.”

In my edition, the back cover comes with praise from atheism’s number one ideologue Richard Dawkins, who calls it  “a self-help book on how to argue effectively, conciliate and gently persuade” and claims that “The world would be a better place if everyone read this book.”  There is a certain irony in having one of the most ideological “New Atheists” praising a book that has a whole chapter on dealing with ideologues but since Mr. Boghossian previously wrote “A Manual for Creating Atheists”, it fits.

For the purposes of this review, it makes things easier that the authors seem to agree with the categorization of their work as a “self-help book”. Leaving aside the misgivings about the genre, the relevant questions are: Does it do the job? Does it help? Mr. Dawkins says that the world would be a better place if everybody read the book. I hope what he means is that the world might become a better place if people actually applied the lessons from the book.

Reading a book is easy, even writing a book is easy, compared to the notoriously difficult task of  changing one’s behavior. This is where the book falls short; it overwhelms with extensive lists of skills and challenging concepts, while providing next to no guidance of how to go about practicing and actually applying them.

However, before we get to the problems and suggestions on how to remedy them, there is some useful advice that you can hopefully take away from reading this review. In order to avoid the trap that the authors fall into, I will limit it to three points. Two of them are taken from the “Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds”, the third one is hidden in the end notes to the “ Six Expert Skills to Engage the Closed Minded.”

1

 Beginners are advised to model to the conversational behavior that they would like to see in their counterparts. In order to stop your partner in the conversation from obfuscating or refusing to answer a direct question, Boghossian and Lindsay suggest this refreshingly simple and straight forward idea: Tell your counterparts to ask you the same question. When they do that, “give them a succinct answer (that is, model what you’re seeking) and then immediately ask them the identical question.”

There is an interesting example for the application of the technique at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Boghossian successfully used the technique with a Muslim community leader in Australia who tried to obfuscate the fact that he was in favor of stoning adulterous women. Everybody with teaching or leadership experience and every parent knows how important consistent modelling is and how much more effective than the popular “Do as I say, not as I do” school of trying to influence behavior.

2

The second useful idea from the Beginner Level is the “Unread Library Effect.”  It refers to “the well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand how things work better than they actually do, i.e. the “tendency to believe we’re more knowledgeable than we are because we believe in other people’s expertise.” The authors invite us to think about this very common phenomenon with the analogy of “borrowing books from the great library of human knowledge and then never reading the books.”

A way in which self-help books can be useful is making something explicit that many of us know implicitly.  Giving it a name and describing it as a skill makes it easier to apply, like the human tendency to get into arguments about issues we don’t know very much about. The practical application of the “Unread Library Effect” that the authors suggest is to “model ignorance”. Instead of getting into a discussion about an issue that both parties know little about, the idea is to start with a question about the “how” rather than the “what”.

Using the contentious topic of immigration, they give this example: “I don’t know how the details of using mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play out. I think there are likely pros and cons and I really don’t know which outweigh which. How would that policy be implemented?”

The more ignorance you dare to admit, the greater the likelihood that your counterpart will not switch into adversarial mode but will try to explain the issue to you. Using this approach you get the chance to either learn something about immigration policy or it can lead your conversation partner to the realization of her own “Unread Library Effect”. This is a more effective way of sowing doubt in somebody’s mind than arguing your point.

Giving others the “gift of doubt” is the main theme of the book, in this way it is a philosophical book in the best sense. The authors seem to have great faith in the human ability to reason, the whole book can be read as an encouragement to reflect and to lead an “examined life” in the meaning attributed to Socrates. For Socrates, the examined life meant the attainment of wisdom and intellectual humility by questioning our superficial certainties.

There is a dangerous political naivety and inability or unwillingness to see the limits of their faith in reason and civil discourse that I will examine in the last part of this review.

3

One of the most common dead ends in conversation is what the authors call the “true for” stance, meaning this is true for me and therefore cannot be questioned. Everybody has encountered this maddening stance which insists on the only superficially understood relativity and subjectivity of knowledge. What it fails to understand is that rational discourse is only possible if both parties agree that there are things which are “objectively” true in the sense of a shared description of the world.

A simple way of understanding this is to use the example of the natural sciences. There are no final truths in science. This doesn’t mean that it is a free for all, however. There needs to be a shared understanding of the method of deriving knowledge and there needs to be shared insights to build on, in order to make discourse possible. Would you want to fly in a jet constructed by an engineer who strongly believes in her truth, even though it substantially differs from the laws of thermodynamics?

Boghossian and Lindsay suggest this ingenious intervention, one my favorites being: “If someone says something is true for them, ask to borrow one of their possessions, such as their water bottle, sunglasses, phone or keys. Then claim that you believe “Possession means ownership is true for me, so it is true for me that this is mine now.” When they object, you can immediately ask them “Why can things be true for you, but not true for me?” I love this idea and am looking forward to applying it.

I hope I have convinced you at this point that “How to Have Impossible Conversations” is a terrific book, a treasure trove of interesting ideas, backed up by solid research and a thorough understanding of philosophy and science. From the point of view of reaching its objective, however, of actually helping people to change their behavior, there is a problem. It is an academic book written by a mathematician and a philosopher who seem to lack an equally thorough understanding of didactics and the psychology of learning.

Say Please and Thank you

Here is the table of contents of “Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations”:  Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds, Intermediate Level: Seven Ways to Improve Your Interventions, Five Advanced Skills for Contentious Conversations, Six Expert Skills to Engage the Closed Minded, Master Level: Two Keys to Conversing with Ideologues. 36 skills you need to master, with a large number of subordinate skills, all in one book, which claims to be a “Very Practical Guide”.

Even if I build a “golden bridge”, skill two, intermediate level and grant that some of the skills are very basic and most people won’t need to train them, like for example “be courteous, say please and thank you” subskill nine, from main skill three,  “rapport”, this is simply way too much to handle and nearly impossible to operationalize.

Be the change

I have been working on “active listening” skills with participants in communication training for years. I would argue that active listening, i.e. fully concentrating on listening and understanding, suspending judgment and quelling the urge to discuss or formulate a reply while the other person is talking, actually covers a lot of the ground that Boghossian and Lindsay aim for.

They list it merely as skill four of the “Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations”. The insight I’ve taken away from training active listening and trying to apply myself is how very difficult it is to actually do consistently. The instances where people are able to apply active listening after the first time they encounter it is rare.

I am referring to a training situation, where the trainees first get an explanation, then watch a video and read a text about the skill. Once they are asked to apply it in a role play, the majority of trainees struggle to suspend judgement and many fall into the trap of turning the conversation into a friendly discussion and the normal exchange of views.

The Noble Quest

This doesn’t say anything about the intelligence or level of education of the trainees. Most of them were highly educated, intelligent and competent people. It just shows how difficult it is to break the habit of a lifetime. Modern organizations are competitive environments where wisdom and intellectual humility are not regarded as career enhancers. What is rightly seen as career enhancing is intellectual dexterity, strong rhetorical skill and the ability to intelligently bullshit when you don’t know the answer.

How many times can you honestly say “I don’t know” in a meeting or a presentation, subskill 17, Skill 9, Beginner Level, before your boss and/or your colleagues will have the impression that you are incompetent rather than wise and intellectually humble?

They might make the counter argument that their advice is not intended for the workplace but that is where people spend most of their time, if they are lucky enough to have a well paid white collar job. If people can’t train and apply the insights from the book there, its value is questionable.

This discrepancy between the ideal world the authors are painting and the reality of the existing professional environment again points towards the political naivety I will deal with at the end.  For the time being, my focus is on how to help people actually apply all of the great ideas the authors present in their work.

The Psychology of Religion

If my task was to develop a full time curriculum to train all of the skills up to “Master Level”, where they delve into fascinating questions regarding the connection between identity and morality, I would say that a year long full-time course would still be an ambitious time frame. And it would certainly entail a fair bit of reading after class.

Especially the “Master Level” covers a lot of challenging content and you need to wrap your head around quotes like this one: “The psychology of politics is really the psychology of religion, understanding national elections is not about what’s the most efficient policy. It really is the psychology that we evolve to be religious; we evolve to do intergroup conflict; we evolve to make things sacred and encircle around them.” If you are not familiar with evolutionary biology, the work of Jonathan Haidt and the psychological turn in philosophy, you have a lot to read up on.

Communication seminars normally last 2 or 3 days and if they are good, the majority of the time is devoted to actually practicing the skills. It is obviously impossible to even cover the “Beginner Level” in such a time frame. The only way to deal with the wealth of content accumulated by Boghossian and Lindsay would be to break it up into a series of seminars, streamline the content, boil the 36 skills and innumerable subskills into something a lot more manageable, say five skills each for every level.

That would be an interesting project and a valuable series of seminars. A crucial point would be to create practical exercises for every single skill. It would take time to get the concept to a level where it flows well since creating good seminars depends on actually running them several times to smooth out the kinks. So much for some constructive criticism and a suggestion on how to remedy the book’s shortcomings.

Let’s now turn to the problems that have no obvious solutions. The main problem that I see is the insistence on “civility” and “rational discourse” being the solutions that America needs right now. We find ourselves in their version of the “agora”, the public square of ancient Greece where the philosophers assembled to hash out their differences, jointly seeking truth through the application of reason.

Straight White Guys Are Liars

If only, they seem to say, the United States could be more like this, less divided, less ideological, less irrational, then America would be great again. You can read the whole book as an academic version of “Why can’t we all just get along?” They have very little time for “radicals” and “extremists” and seem to conceptualize politics in the United States as a failing debating society that needs to read their book.

They are amusingly tone deaf to the anger of minorities since they see the righteous anger not as necessary propellent of social change but as something to be avoided at all costs. There is a very telling example in the book, where they talk about a feminist colleague who said to Boghossian: “At this point, if a straight white male told me 2 + 2 = 4, I wouldn’t believe it.”

The two communication specialists take this statement at face value, not as an expression of exasperation with a society that continues to treat women and minorities unfairly. They hilariously suggest applying their methods to the statement and recommend asking questions such as: “If you went to the emergency room and the doctor happened to be a straight white male, would you believe him if he told you that you need an immediate emergency surgery to save your life?”

It would be interesting to know how they would react if a black man said the same thing to them. Since their underlying philosophy is nothing if not conventional, they would probably shy away from giving such a silly, patronizing response. Convention has made white Americans very sensitive about belittling the righteous anger of black people but it’s still ok to mock the feelings of women and queer folk.

This is not the place to discuss the real problems of identity politics. Suffice it to say that America’s gravest problems are not to be found in the powerful position of the “grievance studies” in American academia.

More Than Rational

The most serious intellectual error they commit lies in their shortsighted critique of ideology and the assumption that the problems of ideology can be remedied by a good helping of “reason” and “rationality”. As much as they might dislike Focault and modern political philosophy, it is baffling that they fail to appreciate that politics in modern mass democracies is not a debating society, especially since they hail from a country which came into being through a violent revolution.

Ideology, understood correctly in this context, is the necessary legitimization for a political struggle that is fundamentally about power. It’s not amenable to reason, its very point lies in the fact that it cannot be questioned and thereby legitimizes action. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Very little room for sowing doubt there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let them eat ideas

Peddling the usual facile self-help ideology while delivering a solid, predictable mix of communications advice and psychological research, „Talk like TED“ by C. Gallo is more remarkable for what it fails to talk about.

When you offer a course by the name of „Training for TED“, it‘s almost unavoidable to read a book called „Talk like TED“, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how somebody else got away with so shamelessly attaching himself to a popular brand.

Journalist turned communication consultant Carmine Gallo is an old hand when it comes to surfing in the wake of popular brands and people. His oeuvre includes works like: „The Apple Experience – Secrets to building insanely great customer loyalty“, „The presentation secret of Steve Jobs – How to be insanely great in front of any audience“ and „The power of foursquare – 7 innovative ways to get customers to check in wherever they are“.

Like many a self-help book, „Talk like TED“ is more interesting in terms of what it leaves out than what it actually says, not that it is bad when measured against the standards of its genre. It delivers everything one would expect, starting with the conventional, Silicon Valley inspired big picture: „ideas are the currency of the 21st century“ and the cliches that come along with this kind of superficial thinking: „There is nothing more inspiring than a bold idea delivered by a great speaker. Ideas, effectively packaged and delivered can change the world.“

Ideas are the currency of the 21st century. We will, of course, later on be regaled with a passionate lecture about what powerful rhetorical tools metaphors and analogies are, all backed by what Gallo likes to call „deep science“. The naive, philosophically ignorant admiration of science is a typical problem of self-help books. Science is a very poor guide when it comes to the fundamental, ethical questions human beings are faced with.

Sincerity is good because it works, science proves it. If science proved that skillful mendacity was a higher predictor of success, as it actually does in some instances, how would the advice sound like then? It seems unlikely that the many CEOs Gallo likes to talk about as his clients have reached their positions because they are just decent, honest gals and boys who‘ve learned to speak from the heart

Burning with passion

The metaphor of ideas being the currency of the 21st century probably didn‘t originate with Gallo but it warrants some closer examination. What is meant by that, one wonders? Ideas won‘t pay your rent or your health care bills. What Gallo and the great Silicon Valley visionaries mean, of course, that everybody equipped with a smartphone and good helping of passion, (we will hear a lot more about the importance of passion in the chapter „Unleash the Master within“), has the chance to turn his ideas into a life mission and, more importantly for the average person, a livelihood. We only need to identify our „core purpose“ and liberate our passion and we are all set.

I try to avoid being too cynical about the intention and mindset of individuals and prefer to leave it as a question: With half of the United States living either just above or already below the poverty line, with Trump in power, with social unrest in France and the right wing on the ascent all over Europe, how can anybody in their right mind continue to dish out such platitudes?

Not that ideas aren‘t important or beautiful or that being able to communicate them well isn‘t a valuable skill, but it‘s the kind of high end skill and life goal that a growing number of people are light years away from. They are just too busy coming up with creative ideas to make it to the end of the month. Why is that? Have they failed to identify their core purpose?

Not even to mention the pregnant teenager working in the Bangladeshi garment factory or the Thai girl from the countryside working in the Bangkok Go Go bar to feed the family, but much closer to home: the uber driver, the fast food worker, the disposable cubicle soldier. Have they failed to unlock their passion?

Many people who do follow their passion, their passion for helping others, for example, or for doing valuable and meaningful work, like nursing or teaching, are actually punished for their choice. Rather than being richly rewarded for following their passion, they are poorly paid and treated. Since they do what they love and care about what they do, they are easy targets for exploitation.

Let‘s hear what Gallo has to say in his parting piece of wisdom: „ If you are like most people, you‘re capable of so much more than you‘ve imagined in your life.“ Dream big. „You have the ability to educate and electrify, inform and inspire, but only if you believe in your ability do so“. You’ve got to believe. Believe in yourself. Gallo, who later on advises the reader to stay away from empty phrases and worn out cliches, should have taken his own advice.

The Power of You

The myth about the immense power of the individual, its untapped potential, the dormant kernel of greatness that lies in everybody and blossoms once the authentic self, „the core purpose“ has been identified, is probably the most toxic psychological effect of neoliberal ideology. It is so toxic because it is not blatantly wrong or malicious in itself. Who wants to argue against the importance of the quality of individual experience? It is after all the founding ideal and indispensable myth of modern societies.

It is so toxic because it falls on fertile ground, i.e. the unleashed, often almost infantile narcissism of consumer society. If the imagination wasn‘t clouded by the cult of the self, it would be obvious that the kind of world Gallo seems to have in mind is far away from the social reality of most people in both the industrial and the developing word. It is an upper middle class fata morgana with a fair sprinkling of the rich and the super rich. It‘s not that it is an unattractive world; I like TED presentations and Davos is probably lovely in spring, but before it makes ethical sense to get all excited about this kind of world a more fundamental problem needs to be addressed: the problem of how to make this kind of social reality accessible to more than a tiny minority.

In the rich diet of illusions that maintain the status quo, the idea papadums of TED presentation are certainly the tastier and more easily digestible bits. As long as people are encouraged to see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, however, and don‘t understand that in modern mass democracies the fundamental problems are solved through politics and solidarity rather than economics and individualism, the kind of optimism on offer there doesn‘t seem warranted.

The Value of Being Average

There are, of course, other problems with the idea that everybody should be the hero of their own life. What about the value of being average, which, let‘s face it, most of us are? It seems cruel and inhuman to force everybody to release their inner hero in this particular neoliberal fashion. It lays the onus purely on the individual and, unwittingly or not, creates the cruel logic of winner and loser, of form over content, that Donald Trump is such a glorious example of.

Which is not to say that people shouldn‘t educate themselves or try to become better public speakers, on the contrary. There is certainly value in identifying what you really care about and what drives you. Expressing it can be and often is liberation from this very topic, however, rather than turning it into the message on which to base your newfangled entrepreneurial self.

Authenticity in many ways is something that happens when you stop trying so very hard and learn to acknowledge unadorned reality, about yourself and others. It is a slow process and it entails the ability to become aware of the full range of your emotions including the anger, frustration and helplessness that so many feel; especially the ones who are excluded from the neoliberal fantasyland where unemployment, zero hour contracts and unpaid electricity bills are non-issues.

The book abounds with stories of resilient people heroically overcoming the worst of life‘s vicissitudes: a stroke, the amputation of both legs, a brain tumor, are met with the most positive of attitudes. They are presented as role models for the deeply ingrained dogma of „being positive“; to not feel or display anger. Or, if you do, your anger should be entertainingly packaged, for example as exasperation directed at individuals failing „to have a great career“, like in Larry Smith‘s TED presentation.

Political change from below is impossible without the fuel of righteous anger, however. Anger becomes noble and positive only insofar as it becomes a quest for justice; its confrontational character remains unchanged. Significant change in democratic societies only happens if ruling elites feel that they have something to lose in a confrontation; not because of their benevolence. Anger remains dangerous and unpredictable, however and the elites should start to respond before it turns violent. Insofar as the elites are present like TED conferences and Davos, they would do well to start taking their role more seriously and use these platforms to enlighten each other about the social reality for the many that has developed under their watch. They should by all means be exchanging visions but they need to do better than a miserly guaranteed basic income for the obsolescent masses muddling through a burnt out planet.

Success Breeds Success

Gallo, of course, is as far away as you can be from any kind of critical attitude.“Talk like TED“ is an American self-help book, after all, bound by the iron laws of being positive and starry eyed, undignified admiration of success for its own sake. It is this slavish admiration of success for its own sake, of form over content, that is one of the strongest indicators of the paucity of the current public discourse. Whether you are Martin Luther King, Joel Osteen or Ronald Reagan, it doesn‘t matter to Gallo. They are all great, great speakers and successful communicators. It feels very much like the next book in the series is going to be: „Playing with the truth and moving the masses – Donald Trump’s insanely effective communication secrets.“

In terms of its value as as an effective, practical how to guide, „Talk like TED“ is solid average. None of it is completely wrong, it‘s easy to read, Gallo is a fairly skillful writer even though the way he keeps stealing subheadings from the TED presenters is as shameless as the book’s title. „Novel“, „Emotional“ and „Memorable“, behold the „power of three“, is what the presenters should strive for their presentations to be. If I had to give a buying recommendation for this kind of book, however, I would suggest to get „TED Talks“ by TED curator Chris Anderson. (I will review his book in the next article).

It‘s likely that „Talk like TED“ will be helpful on the simple level of imparting some basically sound advice about how to communicate effectively to ambitious middle managers and junior consultants. It will solidify the status of the TED format as the gold standard for how to give presentations. It will help to further alleviate the grim tedium of the old school business presentation, where somebody reads off slides which are later on e-mailed and used as a document. The problem of form over content stays the same, however. As long as there is no viable political vision for society that business can serve and fall in line with, the content will more often than not be cant and skillful mendacity, obfuscating an empty obsession with profit and shareholder value, no matter how glossy and skillful the presentation.

My critical review of „Talk like TED“ begs the question how my „Training for TED“ is different, since I am backpacking on the success of the TED format just as much as he is. My approach doesn‘t differ very much in the skills which the trainees train, human beings need stories and concrete examples, they do prefer new information to old and so on. The difference rather lies in inviting and offering a more critical and challenging view of what means to understand and present an idea.

To fully understand an idea means also to understand its limitations and the context in which it is or can be applied. It means to present it well and with enthusiasm, but without becoming a mindless cheerleader and without deluding oneself that it somehow magically will „change the world“. The role of the trainer needs to cover the whole breadth from being encouraging and supportive to playing devil‘s advocate who encourages honesty and critical thinking. I‘d like my trainees to get better at telling truly fascinating stories, stories that engage with difficulty, ambiguity and contradiction, not simple commercials.

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Television’s Monsters – “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Revisited

Classics tend to be books which people would like to have read but never did. Neil Postman’s “Amusing ourselves to Death” is a classic which doesn’t deserve this fate. His counter-intuitive take on how our media shape our understanding of the world is more relevant than ever.

Prophecy is a notoriously difficult business and many great minds have embarrassed themselves trying.  In “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, first published in 1986, Neil Postman passes the prophet test with flying colors and writes whole passages which now read as eerily accurate descriptions of the present.

Even though the main focus of the book is on what Postman calls “the epistemology of television”, i.e. how a new medium like television shapes our understanding of what constitutes knowledge and how we acquire it, he briefly turns his attention to what in his day was called “computer technology” and has this to say about it:  “a central thesis of computer technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the  massive collection and speed of light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations, but have solved very little of what is important to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

Written in 1985, when Mark Zuckerberg was still a toddler, 13 years before Google was founded and two years before the term “big data” was allegedly coined by John Mashey.

The Concept of Truth

The core of Postman’s argument is that television’s rise to the position of America’s leading medium has transformed the American understanding of what constitutes knowledge and valuable information. In his view, media aren’t simply conveyors of information but define what is understood to be as true and important. He says that “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not and never has come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the truth is a kind of cultural prejudice. “

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” delivers a significant part of the explanation for the success of serial liar Donald Trump: “television provides a new definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. Credibility here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality testing.   It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity and vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one more) conveyed by the actor.”

Complex phenomena like the rise of Trump don’t lend themselves to monocausal explanations, but Postman’s observation regarding the changing nature of a culture’s perception of truth goes a long way in making sense of his appeal. The main point here is that Trump’s rise to power is not an aberration. It is the logical consequence of a culture which has adopted television as its most important medium. Donald Trump is nothing if not a creature of television and it is his authentic-seeming style, honed by years as a reality TV host, which represents truth in an age shaped by the epistemology of TV.

Don’t blame it on the Kardashians

The problem with television Postman warned about in 1986, isn’t that it produces trivial entertainment. His argument is more sophisticated than the standard conservative trope about the success of the Kardashians being a sign of decadent times. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood this way: “to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as a standard brand academic whimpering, and kind of elitist complaint against junk on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow.”

The problem he warned about wasn’t that television produced entertainment, but that on television, everything becomes entertainment.  He calls entertainment the “supra ideology” of television and says: “No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”

By reframing the world as the wellspring of a constant visual stream meant to entertain us, television has probably fueled what the American writer Chris Hedges calls the “cult of the self”. Information changes from something we need to adapt to our local circumstances to something we constantly consume, mostly without any meaningful consequence.

More than a Moral Critique

Television strengthens the illusion that the world exists to entertain us that we don’t live to serve, but that our infantile, insatiable consumer selves sit at the top of the pyramid. Plenty of books and articles have already been written about this dangerous development, so there is no need to pursue this train of thought further here.

Postman take was prescient and remains unique and interesting because it doesn’t just come in the form of a moral critique. There certainly is an element of that in the book, best exemplified by the ominous sentence on the back cover of my paperback edition: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when a cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture death is a clear possibility.”

It’s hard to deny that Trump and the current state of public affairs in the US spring to mind, but it would be facile and foolish to lean back in the armchair over here in Europe and assume that the dark prophecy has become true. The future remains open, the complexity of the world doesn’t fit neatly into the confines of any single theory.

Writing this in Germany, it is interesting to note in passing that part of the reason that Germany has been to significantly delay these problematic developments might be the national penchant for regulation, seriousness and the inherent conservatism of German society. Television, for example, still hasn’t become as ubiquitous as it is in the US.

From Telegraph to Television 

The true value of Postman contribution is his perspective on how different media shape of our understanding of who we are and what we perceive to be true. His perspective helps us to get beyond the naïve misunderstanding that media are neutral and that it doesn’t matter how the message is delivered.

The foundational medium of Western-style societies is the printing press. Postman says:   “Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion.”

These are sweeping assertions and it doesn’t matter if they are a 100% true or not. Postman helps to think about media and the way we understand the world differently. He invites us to switch our perspective.  Here is another example of this refreshing switch: “The clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded. Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And that, though few would have imagined that connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy then all treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.”

Postman’s story, the story of shifting media dominance from typography, via the telegraph and photography to television gives us a framework to think about the internet, the new medium which is well on its way to incorporate all others.

It helps us to ask more intelligent questions. Instead of asking what we should do with the internet, how we should regulate etc., we need to ask what it has already done to us, to our understanding of ourselves and what we perceive to be true. What is the epistemology of the internet? Has it just continued the trends already apparent with television, for example?

Is the credibility of the teller still the measure of truth? Is entertainment still the dominant “supra ideology”? On a deeper level, the book raises questions about the nature of human insight and understanding. How does human insight differ from machine cognition? What is the role of intuition and innate ideas?

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a terrific book and it has aged well. It’s beautifully written and far more than a boring, pessimistic diatribe about modern life. I recommend it to everybody who wants to understand how the media we use to define the way we perceive ourselves and the world we live in.

 

Links

Neil Postman Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death Part I

Amusing Ourselves to Death Part II

Neil Postman on Cyberspace

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 1 v 3

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 2 v 3

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 3 v 3

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A Humble Suggestion for the Inauguration Speech Of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

My fellow citizens, when we come together to inaugurate a president, we come together to confirm the power and the beauty of the idea our great republic is founded on.  We come together to celebrate the power of the promise made in the Declaration of Independence. The promise that everybody on this earth is created equal and endowed with the same inalienable rights. Not only is this the true creed of our time, the world has been looking to America to see this promise fulfilled for more than 200 years. It is this creed that binds this nation together. And from our shores, it has spread all across the globe.

We have received this precious gift from our founding fathers and we bear the responsibility to keep this promise alive. However, I will not allow my gratitude and my humility to cloud my vision. I will not shirk from the responsibility I shoulder when I accept this precious inheritance and I urge you, my fellow Americans, to do the same. Our founding fathers were merely human and they were flawed. They murdered Native Americans and stole their lands. They kept slaves and condemned innocent women, children and men to unspeakable misery for generations. We still feel the reverberations of their deeds today.

With that in our minds, we won’t judge the past by the standards of the present, but we also won’t allow our gratitude and the love for our country to disregard the unnecessary human suffering caused in our nation’s past. Only by daring to acknowledge our painful truths and continuing our journey to bridge the meaning of the words in the Declaration with the realities of our time, we can prove ourselves to be worthy heirs of the promise made at the founding of our republic.

I take my oath of office at a time of great danger for our nation. But I’m not just speaking of the pandemic, which has killed far too many of our citizens. I am certain that we will win this battle, once again guided by reason, competence and responsibility for the lives of all Americans.  I‘ m not speaking of Russia, China  or Iran, either. No other nation poses the greatest danger to the survival of our republic. What I’m speaking of is our unwillingness to see ourselves, our almost childlike inability to face the truth about who we are and what we have done.

Our founding fathers, for all their flaws, would be appalled by our conduct. We have become blind to our dark side. Our flag has become the wool over our eyes. We have become addicted to war and violence. We have all but forgotten our noble tradition of providing refuge to the poor and the persecuted. We have kept immigrants in cages and ripped their families apart.  We have turned our weapons against ourselves, brutally repressing protests demanding justice and persecuting journalists for uncovering war crimes.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the Middle East have perished and we are no closer to ending the war on terror.  On the contrary, our violent acts ensure that the children of our victims hate us with ever greater passion. We are spawning new terrorists every day. Our founding fathers fought heroically to free themselves from imperial rule. My fellow Americans, ask yourselves: how would our founding fathers judge us? What would they say to the American Empire?

We maintain military bases in every corner of the world. Our war machine is the most fearsome and expensive in the history of the world yet victory remains elusive. We profess the love for our soldiers, but these proclamations ring hollow. While we thank them for their service and glorify their sacrifice, we continue to send our sons and daughters to kill and be killed in senseless, unwinnable wars.

Are we a nation of deluded infants? Has it come to that?  I believe we are better than this. I believe we are worthy of the great inheritance before us. We can find the courage to see ourselves, we can face up to our truth: yes, we have built an empire.  We have built an empire in the belief that we needed to in defence of our freedom.

We have alienated many other nations because instead of shouldering the imperial responsibility and leading an empire of reason and civilization, we have allowed ourselves to fall far short of our ideals.  We have preached human rights, but we have supported violent coups and unjust regimes.  We were attacked and we didn’t seek justice. We sought revenge. We have abducted, tortured, and killed innocent people all over the world.  People created equal and endowed with the same inalienable rights.

The United States, like any other nation, has the right to act in its national interest and to safeguard its national security. However, our national interest no longer is the common good, the well-being of all Americans. Our national interest has become captured by a small, corrupt elite who serve nobody but their own monetary interest. Many in our elite have fallen prey to the oldest temptation: idolatry.

They have bowed down to idols and betrayed their better nature, they have chosen the route of self-enslavement. Their appetites have shaped themselves as gods and these false gods have taken command. It would be too easy to just blame the elites, however. Our whole culture has been infected by a slavish admiration of wealth and power. The money changers have taken the high seats in the temple of our civilization.

Today, we say ‘Enough is enough! We will bear it no longer!’ Today, we begin to restore that temple to the ancient truth, the ancient truth inscribed in the heart of every human being. We will relearn to discipline our appetites, we will build an economy that serves the people.  We will no longer be enslaved by our fears and our appetites.

We will no longer be enslaved by the illusion that we live to serve the economy. We will no longer slavishly admire the money hoarders while our brothers and sisters are begging in the streets.  Trump is gone, a new day has come. We will extend Medicare to every American. We will make sure that freedom for is more than empty word for the majority of Americans.  As long as we live in fear of becoming sick and ending up in bankruptcy, we’re not free.

Now that we have found the courage to face the dark side of our magnificent achievements, we are  finally ready to take on the challenge of climate change. The world has grown weary of American leadership and we have turned inwards, fighting futile culture wars. But America is back!  My administration will work tirelessly to regain the trust of the world’s nations.

This work will start here in America. To achieve our goals as individuals and as a society, we must move forward as a disciplined and loyal army willing to make sacrifices for the common good.  Without such discipline no progress is made and no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. Here at home, this larger good will take the form of the Green New Deal.

We will renew and rebuild our power stations, our airports, our highways, our schools, our roads and bridges.  Our greatest primary task is to put our national house in order and to put our people to work. In large part, we will accomplish this through direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war. We will turn our war machine into the greatest power for reform and renewal the world has ever seen. We will deploy the skill, excellence and bravery of our people to serve this higher purpose.

We will once again become the shining city upon a hill and set an example for the world. The time of wasting blood and treasure in senseless wars is over.  Now is not the time for the human family to fight each other. Now is the time for all us to stand together against a common enemy. The climate crisis has given us the greatest gift, if only we are willing to accept it. Our human hearts seek the bond and certainty of belonging to a group and all too often our groups have faced each other off in battle.

Let us face this greatest danger our species has ever encountered together as one human family. Let us stand together to preserve the fathomless beauty of our home in this vast, inhospitable universe. We have a larger battle to fight, it’s the battle for the survival of mankind and America is once again offering its leadership to the peoples of the world. In this dedication of my nation’s task, I humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one in our great human family.  May He guide me in the days to come.

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