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ComNet16: Award-Winning Author and Journalist George Packer

ComNet16 Keynote

George Packer, author, journalist, and recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, spoke at ComNet16 about how to use language and narratives to bridge divides in beliefs and opinions.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.




Holly Potter

Good afternoon everyone. For folks looking for seats, I’m going to remind you, there is plenty upfront. I am pleased to be here. I am Holly Potter. I’m the chief communications officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Thank you Allen and … and riveted by this year’s presidential campaign and trying to grasp the ramifications for our work. The truisms that we have come to know in guiding our communication’s efforts, the trust in institutions, the credibility of experts, respect for intellectualism all seemed to be slipping away. I know I spent a lot of time questioning what does that mean for those of us who advance progress through the advancement of ideas.

As someone who works in the heart of Silicon Valley, I sometimes feel like I have a front seat to what’s next, the rate of change over the last few years has been mind-boggling and we’ve seen our communities struggle to adapt. On a regular basis, I marvel at the fact that much of the innovation and the technological change that we’re seeing everyday is actually fueled by our founder’s prediction, which is commonly known as Moore’s Law. Fifty years ago, Gordon Moore imagined much of the technological progress that we’re experiencing today. Yet neither he nor anyone else could have imagined that progress’ impact on our society.

The true impact of technological advancements is often difficult to comprehend while the promise of self-driving cars and expeditions to Mars can be inspiring. We’re only beginning to grapple with the unintended consequences, socially, politically, and economically. This year’s campaign is highlighting just how uneven the distribution of those benefits are from the past 50 years. It’s exposing on a mass scale that there are different stories about where we are as a nation. With those differences laid bare, it feels like identifying and communicating a common ground has never been more difficult. I suspect that many of you like me are looking for guide post, how to meet our audiences where they are.

Our next speaker’s work and expertise may have some clues. He’s an advocate for storytelling and a crusader for dejargonizing the language that serves to separate us. His stories force us to move beyond the caricatures to see those who maybe unlike ourselves as complex through real beings. George Packer writes for The New Yorker and his most recent book The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America won the National Book Award. He and his writing provides some valuable insights, exposing the underlying shifts we are all experiencing. Please join me in welcoming, George Packer.

George Packer

Thanks for that Holly. I grew up in what is now called Silicon Valley. We didn’t call it that when I was growing up and it still seems like a kind of absurd name to me because how can a valley be made of silicon but I guess that one is. I’m going to talk first about my most recent book which does has some bearing on the themes that Holly mentioned and then about the situation we find ourselves in now as a country and what the two might have to do with each other. The book is called The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America. It came out of a sense I had back in 2008 that we were on the cusp of some major transition that the election of Barack Obama.

The collapse of industries including right here in Detroit banks housing market institutions really across the country that had been the pillars of what had once been I would say a middle class democracy, we’re crumbling and along came this incredibly talented politician to point a new way. I thought that 2008 was a turning point. It turns out I think it was less of one that I imagine. I had an idea to write a book about that and the question for any book is how do you tell this story? Where do you begin? What are the ingredients? What’s the form? What’s the voice? I mean, these are the fundamental questions that I, as a writer of non-fiction narrative ask myself every time.

My idea was that really, we are at the end of a period of right-wing ascendancy that have began when I became an adult back in the late 70s, early 80s and it had ran its course and we’re at the beginning of something that looked more like a turn to liberal politics, toward progressive values, toward a more activist role for government and toward more equality as a goal for the country. That too, turned out to be somewhat misguided, perhaps a little bit delusional even. That was my idea and as soon as I began to think about it, I felt defeated by it because how do you write a book about such a massive subject.

I’m not a professional historian. I’m not really a policy guy. I don’t give TED talks, I don’t have my 10 point list of things America needs to do to turn itself around. I am not Thomas Friedman in other words. They didn’t seem to be a ready made formula for how a book like that, a book about the turning from one ear to another in a time of great upheaval, 2008, how that book could be written? Instead I do what journalist do and what I’m lucky enough to have, The New Yorker to allow me to do and I can’t tell you what a rare privilege that has become in our time to actually get to go out with a very vague notion of what I’m looking for.

Travel to, as I did in those years small out of the way places, rural communities, exurbs that were quickly turning into slums, old industrial cities and hard hit small towns. What I found was these places were a lot more interesting and seemed to be in some ways more at the heart of the matter of what was changing in America than anything I heard or saw in New York where I live, in Washington or even in the fabled Silicon Valley. I kept going back without really, again, a notion of how I was going to use this and I met people, that’s what journalist get to do. They get to talk to people who in their ordinary lives, they would never meet and might not even want to meet or might be too shy to meet or might not like well enough to get to know.

Journalism gives you an excuse to talk to people who are from fundamentally different places and to ask them impertinent questions, that you wouldn’t even ask a close friend. Somehow in the structure of that relationship, which is not a friendship but is intimate. A little bit like a relationship with your therapist. You’re not going to go out and have drinks together but because of that, you could talk to each other in a way that cuts to the chase and it isn’t polite and doesn’t get hang up on social embarrassments.

I met people. I met people in rural North Carolina, in industrial and the industrial Youngstown, Ohio, in the ghost subdivisions of Tampa Bay which had been at the heart of the housing boom and were now empty and creepy because these kind of pretty new stucco houses with no one living in them and weeds growing up in the driveways were a sign that something had gone really wrong but there were people living in those places too and I talk to them. I began to hear recurring themes and this is what a writer listens for. What people keep coming back to. What do they keep telling you and you have to trust that everyone is an expert on the circumstances of their own life.

They may not be an expert on the federal reserve or on the business cycle or on foreign policy or even on the health care bill but they are an expert on their own life and so you listen carefully when you have that access to people talking about their lives. What did I hear? I kept hearing … I began to break it down into three things. The game is rigged. In other words, somehow they, those people in far away centers of power, they are playing a game that I have no access to and can’t win. It’s like a casino that won’t let me inside and if I got inside, I’d be the sucker at the table. They are playing with each other, whether they’re in government or business or media or probably the nonprofit world if some of them had thought to include that.

They somehow have a game going on with each other that doesn’t include me and that is at my expense but it is guaranteed to make them win. It’s a fixed casino. The second thing was there was no more middle class here. There was a middle class, that shoe store, that pharmacy, the owner of it ran the local little league organization or was on the town council or was the head of the rotary club. Those people are gone because those stores are boarded up, as you can see because there is a Walmart up on the highway, where everyone now shops and there is no small businesses left here. The middle class is gone. Everyone is either rich or poor, mostly poor.

I heard a phrase from one woman, I’m formerly a middle class and that became for me, again, one of those things you hear that sticks, you write it down, you chew on it, you think about it. What does it mean to be formerly middle class? I began to realize, everyone I’m talking to is formerly middle class, at least they think they are. As we know, all Americans think they’re middle class. At least that used to be sort of a quality of our democracy. We don’t really believe we have classes and so we’re all middle class. Well, people don’t say they’re middle class anymore, the way they used to. There were polls 30, 40 years ago, saying 90% of Americans describe themselves as middle class.

I don’t think those polls would say the same thing today. The third thing that I kept hearing was that my children won’t have as good a life as I’ve had. The jobs are gone, whether it’s in Winston-Salem where the tobacco factories have closed up or have laid off 90% of the work force or whether it’s a textile mill in Greensboro or whether it’s the steel mills in Youngstown. Those jobs are gone, the good jobs so my children won’t be able to get as good a job. They don’t see the point of going to school so they’ve dropped out of high school. Drugs are beginning to enter into our community. In fact, they’re rampant. In fact, my children are suffering from them. Prison seems to be a more and more common feature of life.

These are places that ones thought of themselves as, “The Heartland.” This is where America works. The center of the country and the people in them talked about life there more and more as if they belong to a new underclass. It was no longer just in the cities. It was in small towns. It was in rural areas and this has become more and more common and commonly known. The children’s future did not look so bright and that in some ways is the most painful of the truths that I was hearing because if there is such a thing as the American dream and if our way of life is justifiable in some fashion, it’s in it but there is mobility, you can move up.

If our level of mobility is lower than that in Germany, Scandinavia as it is now, then what’s the justification for our unchained capitalism? It had always been justified as, well, it maybe hard but you can move up and that is less and less true. These were the themes I kept hearing but I’m making it sound a bit too abstract because imagine sitting on a guy’s front porch, drinking Jack Daniels and hearing about his childhood and about his busted dream of owning a chain of truck stops, it’s very real. It’s very personal and to hear those stories requires … it’s not just an ability to listen but to really want to know.

To really not be satisfied with the first or second or third thing you hear because everyone has a kind of quick version of their life. It’s what they would give to a reporter who had 15 minutes with them or quick opinion about politics. I was impatient with those things because they always seem to fall … people began to sound like cable news anchors because they were watching cable news and they were getting some of their ideas and information from cable news and so I knew which cable news network they were watching by what they would say to me. I thought, there’s got to be more than this. People’s lives are richer than Sean Hannity, thank God.

I would push and push and it’s dangerous to push because you can get pushed back. Who are you to ask me these things? Suddenly they become aware of the unnaturalness of the entire arrangement. Who are you to ask me these things? I’m not going and talking to people for an hour. I’m spending a week with them and then I’m coming back two months later and spending another week. I was staying in their houses in some cases and I remember one moment when one of the main people who I knew was going to figure into my book, a woman named Tammy Thomas in Youngstown. We were talking about how the factory she worked at moved to Mexico.

She had to take a buy out and the money she had gotten out of the buy out, partly she’d invested with a relative who turned out was running a Ponzi scheme and she lost it. She felt not so much angry at him as angry at herself. How could I have done that? How could I have been so foolish to do that with this precious money I got from 20 years of working at Delphi. Suddenly, I’m asking her another question, another … and suddenly she said, you asked too many personal questions. That’s the moment you don’t want because I said, “You’re right. I’m asking a lot of personal questions.” Suddenly we both became aware of the odd thing we were doing.

Why are you telling me these things? Why am I asking about these things? We got past it, fortunately. It took a lot of trust on her part and some patience on mine but we got past it. I think I had to try to persuade her and everyone I was talking to that I was not there to make them look foolish. I wasn’t digging into the Ponzi scheme story in order to expose some foolish thing. It was rather to understand her life and I guess the point I’m trying to get at is if you truly want to understand then people will talk to you and talk to you because I think almost everyone wants to talk about their life.

It’s a rare opportunity for a lot of people because most people don’t have someone in their lives who’s hanging on every word and wants to know every detail but that’s what a writer does and it’s a kind of shocking thing to find someone who you don’t know, who wants to know everything. As long as the trust gets built and repaired if it ever seems torn people want to tell their stories. That’s the lucky thing for me and for people in my business because otherwise, we would be out of business. After about two or three years of wandering around these places and meeting these people, I had to think how am I going to write this?

It didn’t add up. There was no single story. I had people who lived in these very distant places whose lives were different and who didn’t know each other. This was not a Dickens novel. I couldn’t have some coincidence happen on page 300 where two characters who had no idea about each other, bumped into each other on the street one day, which would have been really great but I couldn’t do that. I could have orchestrated it. That wouldn’t have worked very well. I came up with a form that was, I think new for non-fiction and this was both the frightening and the exciting part of it.

I was experimenting with the form. What I ended up doing was instead of telling the big story of 30 years of American history that I thought I was going to do, I told that same story through these individual lives, starting with one character, moving to a second then to a third back to the first then maybe introducing a fourth. It was a very complicated structure and it asked a lot of the reader because you had to be willing to read 10 pages about someone and then leave them without knowing why and whether you’ll come back to them. Start reading about a second character. The whole burden on me was to keep the tension in the line, the fishing line.

To keep the reader on that line with tension with the sense of, we’re getting to something. This is leading somewhere. It’s adding to something. One way of doing that is to have kind of overlapping history. Even though they didn’t know each other, their lives were embedded in the same American context. Ronald Reagan’s emergence in politics has one effect on one person and a different effect on another or the beginning of the end of the steel industry has different effects but it’s the same context. The reader begins to realize there is a bigger story here and these individual stories are part of it.

To even make it harder and more complicated, I added short portraits of the famous people from the same period. The celebrities who I thought showed what was happening at the top of American life. The people I was writing about were not at the top. They were somewhere between the middle and the bottom and in a couple of cases, they were sinking. We needed to know what was happening at the top. Who was making the decisions that affected their lives, that at some ways sent their lives into upheaval. What was the culture that people who turned on their TV saw? I chose them from different sectors, different walks of life.

From politics, I chose Newt Gingrich. Now, why Newt Gingrich? Because I think he’s actually in some ways, the most important political figure of my adult life. I think he did more than any other person to introduce the toxic atmosphere that is now common in politics, into our politics. The rock throwing, the name calling, there is no limit to what you can do. Now it’s almost ordinary and in fact, has exceeded even Newt Gingrich’s imagination but Gingrich kind of began it. I have a chapter on Oprah because I think Oprah created an idea of TV as your friend, as your therapist, as the person at a chair next to you in the beauty parlor.

She also held up an idea of self transformation and even enrichment through some kind of inner quest. It was an idea that all the people in my book in one way or another were feeling. It’s an American idea. It’s kind of our own American native philosophy. The mind philosophy. If you think it, you can do it. The original phrase I think was what the mind can conceive and the heart believe, the will can achieve and that was the guy named Napoleon Hill who was sort of like the original positive thinking philosopher of the early 20th Century who had a huge effect on the life of another of the people in my book, Dean Price.

Oprah, I think had a huge role in the culture. There are others too. There is Colin Powell, to represent kind of a man who believed in institutions and was a great example of them and then found out that the institutions actually weren’t working. There is Alice Waters who brought the movement up for local and organic food, that is now so pervasive. There is the writer Raymond Carver. It may feel a bit arbitrary but I was trying to create a picture of what ideas and even instincts were in the minds of people in America during these periods. Then, I had to put it all together into this elaborate puzzle so that you never quite lose the tread of anyone of these characters, I hope, if the book worked and I had no idea if it did.

I was terrified when I finished it because it was something I never tried and it was all in the hands of the reader. Does this work or not? I don’t want to be too self-promoting but try it and tell me if you think it works. One thing I’d made sure of was there is no I anywhere in the book. There is no first person and that was a radical thing for me because I’m always the narrator of my own non-fiction. I’m always sort of your guide. In this case, I thought there is no role for me here. This is like a big movie and I would be the guy at the seat next to you, talking about what’s happening in the movie while it’s going on.

That’s annoying, maybe I should shut up and let the reader watch the movie. There was really no place for me and because of that, I was able in a way to write through the voices of the characters rather than my own. Of course It’s my voice but I used the thousands of pages and hours of transcripts to capture if I could the rhythms of their speech, the words they used, the diction, the jokes, the odd things that are idiosyncratic to a person. Always using the third person, never entering into their point of view because I think that’s presumptuous but trying to capture what it’s like to be with them. I’m just going to read one passage to give you sense of that.

This is about a guy named Dean Price who grew up in Western North Carolina, Scotch-Irish, tobacco farmers back to the 18th Century, very conservative part of the country. His father was a baptist, Fire and Brimstone Baptist preacher. A bitter racist and addicted to pain killers and ended up committing suicide. Dean’s whole struggle was not to be his father. To be a success, to be free of the demons that his father lived with and that his father inflicted on him. His first effort was at truck stops. He bought a chain of gas stations and convenient stores along Route 220 between Greensboro, North Carolina and Martinsville, Virginia.

For a while he was successful but then with the discount gas coming in in the form of sheets oil and with the incredibly uncertain price of oil and with Walmart coming in and selling gas. He didn’t have a chance and he realized that he couldn’t compete with these multi-nationals. The point that I’m going to read from is just as he is realizing that this, not just this business but this way of life is a failure. What way of life? The way of life of long haul trucking and fast food and big box stores and nothing made locally, nothing consumed that was produced on a local farm. Everything expensive or lousy or cheap and lousy because it’s coming from far away, that this was somehow pulling down his whole community.

They had lost tobacco, they had lost textiles, they had lost furniture and they were sinking into that underclass that I mentioned. Dean is just trying to figure out how to get out of this rot and into something else and what he gets into is biodiesel. Making diesel from canola which is grown right there on those fallow tobacco fields and selling it out of his own truck stop which he probably called the first farm to pump truck stop in America. That became his vision, not just for his own success but for a kind of renaissance in this declining rural area but that hasn’t quite happened yet. Once driving through Cleveland County, Dean happened to pass the Hard Shell Baptist Church that his father had once tried to get but failed.

The failure that had broken his father’s will. Dean had gone down with him to Cleveland County and heard the sermon that his father had given for his audition back around 1975 so that decades later he recognized the church. He also noticed that there was now a fucking Bojangles right next door. For Dean, Bojangles had come to represent everything that was wrong with the way Americans live. How they raise their food and transport it across the country. How they grew the crops to feed the animals they ate. The way they employ the people who worked in the restaurants, the way the money left the community, everything about it was wrong.

Dean’s own business, gas and fast food had become hateful to him. He saw the error of his ways as his father never had and the conjunction of his father’s legacy and his own struck him with bitter irony as he drove past. He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listen to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses. Always under cover of darkness like a vast shameful trafficking. Chickens pump full of hormones that left them too big to walk. He thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to his floodlit Bojangles up the hill from his house.

That meat would be drowned in a bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food. That food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Walmart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of the super center just like hormone-fed chickens. That’s a glimpse of Dean Price and the book. What I felt at the end of this was, we’re known now as this deeply polarized country. Polarized between red and blue, left and right.

That is true. We are, it’s not all about what Fox News and CNN and the politicians of Washington think. It’s what Americans think but I began to realize that you could draw the chart a different way and it might even be more accurate and that was up down because I kept meeting people in these places that did not fit the familiar red blue scheme quite so neatly. They might be white southern country people but they hated corporations and big box stores as well as the federal government. One guy had a law practice but he kept imagining and almost welcoming an apocalyptic vision of armed citizens turning to political violence.

One was an ex-lobbyist who wanted to punish Wall Street executives with sweeping legal reforms and jail sentences. They followed the tea party but sounded a little like occupy Wall Street or vice versa. They were unorganized, loose molecules, unattached to any party hierarchy or really any institution because the institutions are what had failed, government, corporations, banks, newspapers, churches, schools. These are what had failed. They no longer had these connections. They were more individualistic than most Democrats but they were more anti-business than most Republicans. What united them was a distrust of leaders and the institutions that elites led, really of the prevailing order of the modern world which is now increasingly a global order.

If you divide it less in terms of left and right, then up and down, you begin to realize that elites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with their own party members down below. A network systems administrator, an oil and gas company vice president, a journalist and a dermatologist, hire nannies from the same countries, dine out at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same frequent-flyer miles, invest in the same emerging markets index funds. They might have different political views but they share a common interest in the existing global order and its survival and I think if one were to put a single phrase to what we’re seeing in our politics this year, it’s a reaction.

It’s a reaction against that global order which hasn’t worked for a lot of other people. Now elite is the one word that unites the country these days. Pretty much everyone hates them, even the elites agree. That’s how far populism has taken us. Does anyone say, I’m an elite and yet I would guess that most of us in this room probably should cap to that term. We can’t get rid of them and in fact, they have an extremely important role to play if only they would play it. Forty years ago, they were more likely to see themselves in a role that both had an element of profound self-interest but there was also a notion that they were in charge of national institutions.

Now, this attitude came with a lot of entitlement and exclusivity. They were white and male, we know that but these heads of banks and corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, media companies, they weren’t any more or less venal, meretricious and greedy than their counterparts today. Human nature doesn’t change but I would argue they rose to the top in a culture that at least put the brakes on some of these traits. It was called hypocrisy and it’s underrated. Today, instead of elites, we have celebrities. They dominate the landscape like giant monuments. They’re as sentiment as they are grand and they offer themselves to each of us for worship.

In times of widespread opportunity and mobility, I would say the distance between these Gods and the mortals closes and the monument shrink to human size. They become diversions, gossipy diversions but they loom larger in times like now with inequality soaring, trust in institutions failing and the normal paths of upward mobility blocked. They constitute their own super class. They hang out at the same TED talks, big idea conferences and fund raising galas. They appear on the same talk shows. They invest in one another’s project. They wear one another’s brand apparel. They champion one another’s causes.

They marry one another and then cheat on one another with one another. There is often a quality of self-invention to their rise. Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to master of the universe. Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z. Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona and then a brand and then an empire with the business imperative of grow or die. This process actually substitutes celebrities for institutions. As the institutions have declined, celebrities have filled the void. Instead of robust public schools, we have Zuckerberg’s attempted rescue of the Newark School system.

Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of federal investment and basic scientific research, we have Eric Schmidt’s Ocean Institute. Celebrities either buy institutions or else disrupt them in the favored term. After all, if you are the institution, you don’t need to play by its rules. They live by the hacker’s code. Ask forgiveness not permission. They obliterate all distinctions between profit making and philanthropy. Politics and entertainment, journalism and self-promotion, leading to the phenomenon of being famous for being famous. An activist singer, Bono is given a lucrative role in Facebook’s IPO.

A protrusion politician Al Gore becomes a plutocratic media executive and tech investor. The inevitable next step is for Kim Kardashian to sit on the board of a tech startup, hosted global poverty awareness event and write a book on popular neuroscience or for Donald Trump to get within an inch of the presidency. The replacement of elites with an institutions with celebrities is part of this declining trust that has given us Donald Trump and this political year. I would say that part of the distrust comes from language. This is something that, as a writer I feel particularly strong about and noticed.

The ever proliferating use of words and syntax that essentially raises up a wall rather than a window whose purpose is opacity rather than clarity. I’m going to give you a few examples and you might ask yourself what area does this come from. You might even ask who wrote this. First slide, you probably can’t read it so I’m going to read it or maybe you can. Is it legible? I’ll read it to you. “A tiny global oligarchy has amassed obscene wealth, while the engine of unfettered corporate capitalism plunders resources; exploits cheap, unorganized labor; and creates pliable, corrupt governments that abandon the common good to serve corporate profit.”

“The relentless drive by the fossil fuel industry for profits is destroying the ecosystem, threatening the viability of the human species. And no mechanisms to institute genuine reform or halt the corporate assault are left within the structures of power, which have surrendered to corporate control.” Now hearing this, you may think, “Yeah, that’s true,” but what exactly is it saying? If you don’t think, yeah, that’s true, is it likely to persuade you or even make you think I want to listen to more of this. It’s a kind of tidal wave of language that is the language of a certain group, a certain in group and unless you’re part of that in group, it’s going to alienate you. It’s not inviting you in.

Second one. “Data is moving from something you use outside the workstream to becoming a part of the business app itself. It’s how the new knowledge worker is actually performing their job.” Again, this is so familiar. It’s the kind of thing that we just breath everyday. What does it mean? What do this neologism is actually about? What is the argument? Is there an argument? Is he really saying anything? Is it jargon because jargon has a kind of comforting feel to it? It actually allows you to say something without saying anything.

This is from an internet trends code conference but it could be from the prospectus of any tech company or from an interview with a CEO or you know the type of language and it’s the kind of language again that is sort of designed to make you feel either, yeah, I’m part of that or I’m not quite up to that. I actually don’t know what he’s talking about and maybe I’m not good enough to be a part of his workstream and maybe I could never be a new knowledge worker because I don’t even know what a new knowledge worker is. It’s intimidating and it’s designed to intimidate. It keeps out people who don’t rate.

Next slide. This is an awful … “It’s my view that gender is cultural …” Is this the right one? I can’t quite see, “That gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom and that it is most important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are noncomforming in their gender presentation.” I won’t read the second part of that. What field does this come from? It’s academic language. Anyone who has done graduate work in social sciences and humanities has ran into this kind of language. Again, it maybe something you feel instinctively.

Yes, I agree with that. That’s right but then you have to ask yourself, what does it really mean and are all those words … is there actually a referent that they’re pointing to, that I can translate for someone who’s not part of the graduate program and gender studies. If I can’t, is there something wrong with it? Maybe there is something wrong with it if it can’t be translated. Actually, I think of journalism as a kind of universal translation service, where we try to create a language that everyone speaks so that these esoteric worlds are available to all of us but it’s hard to if there is no correlate in that world for the language that you’re trying to translate.

Sometimes this jargon is used to make everyone feel good. To give them a sense of being on the right side of something and yet, I get suspicious when I’m feeling good, while I’m listening to something. I think maybe this isn’t making me feel good for a good reason. What is it really about? Maybe I’m a little bit too skeptical but that’s my instinct when I hear this kind of language. Next slide. This one might hit a little closer to home. “The CBP Program emphasizes a collaborative approach where communities and organizations work together on priority issues, and additional contributions are leveraged through partnerships with government, philanthropy and/or community agencies.”

“The program aims to achieve the following objectives. Build the capacity of multicultural communities to actively contribute to all aspects of life; strengthen participation, inclusion and service access by multicultural communities; strengthen the capacity of multicultural community organizations; and to foster collaborative and partnership approaches between community and organizations.” Now, whatever that means, I know I’m for it but these words do the thinking for you. You just grab a handful of them, collaborative, partnership, community, philanthropy, participation, inclusion and just sort of cram them together, almost in any order.

If you rearrange these sentences you pretty much get the same thing. Again, they gave you that feeling of yes, this is good and yes, I’m in that world. That’s my world. I’ve got the star on my belly. I’m the sneetch with a star on my belly. I’m not one of those sneetches without stars upon thars, for those of you who know what I’m talking about. These are kind of more predictable examples of jargon. They all belong to a certain worlds, academic, business, politics, philanthropy and these worlds have these insular tendency. It’s almost inevitable. They’re going to start to close in on themselves and it’s dangerous.

Now, the fifth one is different. Last slide. These are tweets. “Hey, UN corruptocrats: Spare Us Refugee Sanctimony. Our new country’s going to be great! Four Pakistani minors arrested for gang-raping a 16-year-old boy in migrant camp. Washington mall killer is a permanent resident, orig from Turkey.” This is not the jargon of these other examples. This is a way of communicating that actually pretends to be anti-jargon. This is the truth. This is unvarnished language and unvarnished reality but it’s always in service of some shared belief, some shared anger at the world, whatever the group in this case.

This is obviously anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant so you don’t even need to know anything beyond the 140 characters that you get to know that you agree and to feel that you had been given another quiver in the arrow, another bullet to put in your gun in the endless war against your opponents. This is actually in some ways a more insidious problem with language because it doesn’t seem as if it’s hiding but actually it is hiding. It’s hiding behind presuppositions that are not going to persuade anyone who isn’t already persuaded and that’s the nature of our politics today. To finish up, we can take that down because I don’t really want to have you guys looking at it for any longer than you have to.

One thing elites, let’s use that word can do to restore trust in their institutions and to restore the institutions to the role that they need to play in our national life is to speak and write clearly, precisely, without jargon, without fear because jargon is also a sign of fear. As if they were speaking to people who know nothing about your work, who are not on your side, whose point of view needs to be understood before you can try to reach them and persuade them and then try to reach them and persuade them. Find language that can do that which means a common language rather than a separate tribal language which is what these examples are.

This may seem like a small thing but I think at a time like this, small things are a good place to start. Thank you very much. I think we have time for questions. Maybe 15, 20 minutes for questions. It’s a little hard to see but there is a microphone going around. I think they want you to identify yourself and your organization.


Hello. Dakarai Aarons from Data Quality Campaign. I’m all the way in the back, that’s why you probably can’t see me.

My question is how do we then write language that includes people instead of dividing them? I think you point out a lot of examples of well intentioned language that probably makes sense to people who are in that space but creates a certain sense of otherness to other people who we maybe in that instance of that nonprofit language trying to help. What would be your recommendations for how we write things that allow more people to be included instead of excluded?

There is a bit of an echo, a little hard to hear but what you’re asking is how do we find language that doesn’t simply appeal to people who are already in the group?

Exactly, and more specially does not then exclude other people who may otherwise wants to join in but don’t understand what we’re saying.

I mean, I think the first thing is to recognize their fundamental differences of value and opinion that really can’t be papered over. I mean, we are a divided country and the divisions are about real things and so there is no reason to look for some squishy middle ground. That’s not what I’m saying. The divisions are serious but I guess what I’m saying more is ask yourself whether you are saying what you want to say in the most direct way and the most available way possible. Is what you’re saying, could it get you in trouble? If it couldn’t then maybe there is something wrong with it because really a thought we’re thinking is a thought that should get you in some trouble with somebody.

At the same time, flip it around and imagine someone of the polar opposite view giving you the same version of their rhetoric, their jargon. How would you react? Then you can try to judge whether you’ve actually gone beyond that to provide an argument, to provide some evidence, to provide a concession which we all honestly have to make because we’re … total vindication is a dream and a concession that can actually lead to the beginning of some conversation. If you find that those things aren’t in your version of them talking to you, then maybe they’re not in your version of you talking to them.

I think if you can get inside … President Obama gave a speech at Howard University a few months ago. It’s really well worth reading and at one point, he said, try to get into someone else’s head and that in some ways to me is like a fundamental value of democracy. Try to get into someone else’s head and then maybe the words will follow. I don’t know if that’s helpful but that’s the best I can do to give you some practical advise. Others, questions. I can’t really see so maybe someone else should just call on people.

Hi. I’m Allison Ahcan. I’m way in the back here. I’m with the Blandin Foundation in Northern Minnesota. We are focused on rural communities in our state and strengthening them. I am very curious, I hang out a lot in very small towns and I’m trying to imagine a guy from New York, in Effie, Minnesota, staying for a week that would be awesome, come on over. I’m just wondering how this experience changed you and you in a position at The New Yorker or whoever as an author, you have a chance to help write the narrative of our country as many do. Just wondering how you think your experience could be used to improve the narrative others are telling?

How did it changed me, the work I did? It maybe dislike myself, it maybe acutely aware of my own biases and expectations and the class I belong to, the place I come from. At times I felt going from Brooklyn to Rockingham County, North Carolina was a longer stretch than going to Ivory Coast or Iraq which are places I’ve spent time in. It made me dislike that insularity and the manners and morals that are considered normal where I live, I began to see them to some degree at a removed from other … through the point of view of people I was meeting in other places and to realize, these are actually not the universal goods of the world.

This is not how you should live which we all sort of begin to think, I think about our world. We are ranging things in the best way possible. Well, it turns out there are other ways and there are other kinds of life that might strike someone else as being the best way to live. I think a bit of self-criticism was a big reaction I had, the more time I spent around the country. The other was, an odd reaction which was even though I found myself furious with the inequities and the ugliness and just the injustice that’s so rampant in our country. I actually found myself more attached to America as a result.

As if like my own family was falling apart and I didn’t want that to happen because it’s my family. This attachment can be turned toward not so nice ends. It can become a kind of nationalism which in the hands of some politicians is like a loaded gun. It’s also, I think a natural feeling and it can be a positive feeling. I came way both maybe more self-critical but also more passionate about thinking that this country was worth thinking about. Yeah.

I want to thank you for your remarks and for your self-reflection because I think what has discouraged so many of us about the discourse in the country right now is that we’re really quick to dismiss other people’s points of view and we’re quick to dismiss people who aren’t like us as being imbeciles or less educated or wrong and I think the fact that you approached your project with such a deep interest in getting real with people and really wanting to hear their story is really powerful because that’s not always the case and as a former journalist, I’ve had the same privilege that you have in a lot of cases and it was always an honor to sit down with people and have them trust me with their story and I just think we could all do that a little bit more with one another. Thank you.

Thank you. I guess just to add to that. I would say, I feel uncomfortable when I find my thoughts echoed by everyone around me. I begin to think that there is something wrong with either me or them or the thoughts. Every now and then it’s good to have your … the comfort you feel in people who think like you, and Americans more and more really live and work and socialize and tweet with people who think like them. It’s actually bracing and even, I’d say weirdly enough a little fun to have all that upset and to find that you’re surrounded by people who actually think that you’re one of those crazy liberals or whatever they think.

I’ve never been comfortable when everyone was saying the same thing and I have my own political views. They’re very strong. I am profoundly distressed and frightened this year but in some ways, I’m trying also to step away from that week to week, day to day feeling in order to try to understand where did it come from, why is this happening now? Really the traveling and interviewing I did for The Unwinding gave me, almost prepared me for what’s happening now. I could see it coming. I could easily see it coming. Yes.

My name is Jeff Cramerding. I’m with the American Association of University Professors. I have not read your book but I will. Is it written at a level that the subjects could read it and enjoy it? I ask because in The New Yorker, a lot of material is at a higher level that many working people would not be able to enjoy.

Yeah. Well, I don’t know that that’s true. They may just not want to read it. We still publish long articles and the thing I most dread is when an article of mine is published, someone writes about it and says, a very long article by George Packer. As if, don’t bother, just read my tweet about it. That’s all you’re going to need. Yeah, in fact, not only could they but they did because as part of the whole process, I actually sent them what I wrote about them before it was published, which is something … some of my journalist friends thought was insane and that put me at risk, put them in an awkward position, really meant, we were going to have to have it out.

I didn’t want them to have those feelings after the book was in print and it was too late because these were people who, they were in their way sophisticated but they never talked to a journalist like this and they told me a lot of things that they might regret. I didn’t say, I’ll take out anything you want. I just said, I want you to read it and then let’s talk and those conversations actually made it a better book, even though there were some painful moments. Yeah, they sure did read it and then we had a book party and all of them came and met each other which was truly weird. It was like the things in my head came into the room and met each other and I wanted to disappear. It felt almost dangerous but it was fun. Anything else?

Nate Dappen with Day’s Edge Productions. We’re a documentary film production company. You provided a couple great examples of how vague language is used intentionally. I was wondering if you could provide us with some examples that we could go look at as good examples of how to communicate with people on the other side.

I can just tell you the writers I like. Is that a good answer because I can’t think of specific things in the media today. Actually, some of my ideas about jargon comes straight from George Orwell, politics and the english language which is a great essay about how unclear language allows politicians to do and say evil things because their intentions are disguised by jargon. All of Orwell really is a wonderful guide to clarity and fearlessness. James Baldwin, his book of essays, Notes of a Native Son is in a very different style than Orwell, is just a great repository of American language in an almost a mix of high culture street and church diction.

It’s a vision of a country that is the searing and deeply uncomfortable but also true and in some ways helpful, even though he’s a kind of old testament prophet but it’s a hopefulness that maybe we need today. I would say The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son are great examples. All right. We’re done. Thank you. Have a great time here.


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