Friday, February 18, 2005

Plain Speech - Horton Style

I do not say "thee" or "thou" very much. I call the first day of the week Sunday instead of First Day. I am not completely consistent in my usual practice of refusing to use titles like "Dr.", "your honor", "Mr.","Mrs." or "Ms.". But after a fashion I do make an attempt to use "plain speech". My exemplar is not necessarily John Woolman or George Fox, whose particular kinds of plain speech evolved in a different time. My exemplar is Horton the elephant whose version of plain speech is set forth in Horton Hatches an Egg by Theodore Geisel (who the world calls Dr.Seuss).
"I meant what I said.
I said what I meant.
An elephant's faithful
One hundred per cent!"
Note that the claim about an elephant's faithfulness may seem to be about actions rather than speaking. But its point is that what we say and what we do should not be different.

Not that I succeed in any of this. But it's a good goal I think.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans


Blogger Amanda said...

I'm loving the elephant theme today.

Thy Friend,

7:26 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Ruthie said...

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10:15 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Ruthie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:24 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Ruthie said...

Indeed, lets all hug the elephant!

Rich - I very much sympathise with you here and the concern for equality that trying not to call people by their titles displays.

If I don't have a complete breakdown, blog a little less, work a lot more and have a teensy bit of luck, in about a years time I'll be sporting the title Dr. Ruthie.

I don't think titles make a you a good or worthwhile person. One of the few things I'm really sure about is that the most important thing is to practice compassion and justice in the way we live our lives. A PhD is irrelevant to that, and I hope I don't loose my head in a puff of doctoral arrogance and ever forget that my education doesn't make me better than anyone else and its what I do with it that counts.

While I believe very strongly in equality and the importance of listening to everyone, there is a simple fact that being able to use a title can give you a little bit of clout in certain situations.

About a year ago I was subject to an absolutely appalling sermon. The preacher (who is quite well known and who was endorsed by even more well known people) told a congregation of around 700 people that ADD (attention deficit disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder - common amongst soldiers coming back from war and people who have witnessed a particularly traumatic accident or been a victim of violent crime) were made-up "sin-dromes" invented by psychologists to give people an excuse to sin.

Unfortunately I lacked the guts to stand up and march out in disgust, but sat scribbling detailed notes which I later compiled into a rather feisty and strongly-worded letter that was mailled to the denomination's head quarters as soon as I got home.

When I was writing the letter, I badly wished that I had my PhD so I could sign of as Dr. and send it on university letter-headed paper. I didn't do that and simply said that I was a PhD student specialising in ADD and that I was appalled that the church would propagate such ignorance and prejudice against already stigmatised members of our society (etc. etc.) So in a sense, I already used my educational background as a means of asserting myself.

Should I use my title (if I ever get there) to give myself a little extra clout in a situation in which I can do that for the good of others?

I'd be interested in your perspective.


BTW - the head of the particular denomination later wrote an apology and said that the speaker in question had been informed, was very regretful and admitted he spoke out of turn. It seems my little attempt at advocacy was well received and hopefully went on to have some small but positive effect on how the leadership of that particular denomination understand and treat people with mental health disorders.

10:27 PM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Amanda and Ruth-Ann for their comments. Amanda's may stand in need of some explanation for anyone not in attendance at 15th Street Meeting yesterday: another elephant was referred to in the vocal ministry near the end of meeting yesterday: not Horton, but the proverbial elephant who was described so variously by different blind people who touched (or grasped or hugged) different parts of him or her (the blind person who grabbed the tail thought the elephant was like a snake, the one who touched its side thought it was like a wall, etc.) This, by the way, was an example of ministry that may well have been inspired by God and that certainly spoke to some people's conditions but that left some others (like me) unmoved. I was overexposed to this story in years gone by - usually by someone who seemed to assume that no one present had ever heard it before and that it had to be re-told in considerable detail and then have its moral patiently explained in case we were too dense to get it. For years, you could always count on someone to recite this story whenever anyone else mentioned Jesus or anything deemed "narrow" or "dogmatic" or "doctrinaire" in Meeting. John McCandless, a wonderfully radical Christian Quaker curmudgeon who wrote a column in Friends Journal under the pen name Noah Vail, once responded to the over-used elephant story by writing to the effect that no one really understood the elephant (whether they were blind or sighted) unless the elephant stepped on them.
I, on the other hand, am trying not to be a Quaker curmudgeon, so when I hear this story in Meeting now (not very often any more, for some reason) I remember the wise advice that a message not meant for me may be meant for someone else, and I resort to the silence.

Ruth Ann's story about how she responded to that "absolutely appalling sercon" calling ADD and PTSD "sin" is interesting. But I think I draw different conclusions from the story than she does. It seems to me that she did exactly the right thing in this situation and that it turned out to be the most effective thing as well. Nevertheless, she regrets that she "lacked the guts" to walk out in disgust - an action that might have been satisfying but would not have been nearly as effective as what she actually did.

She also says "When I was writing the letter [of protest], I badly wished that I had my PhD so I could sign of as Dr. and send it on university letter-headed paper. I didn't do that and simply said that I was a PhD student specialising in ADD." But it turns out that even though she didn't use a title, the church official to whom she wrote still responded positively. So the moral there seems to be that the truth doesn't always need credentials to get itself heard. Ruth-Ann does say that she mentioned her studies and "in a sense used my educatonal background as a means of asserting myself." I would suspect, however, that the relevant factor was not her status but the fact that she seemed to know what she was talking about. I see nothing wrong with saying "I've studied this and here's what I've found." But maybe it would have been even more effective to speak from direct personal experience of people she has known who suffered from those conditions and how treatment has helped them.

In fact, I think an awful lot of people (including me) are much more receptive to advice and information that comes from a sincere and informed fellow-human like Ruth-Ann than to judgements and instructions handed down from on high by experts brandishing their degrees and diplomas.

Finally, I notice that Ruth-Ann attributes my aversion to titles to a concern for "equality". I guess equality has something to do with it, but I don't explain it to myself in those terms. To me, it has more to do with striking a blow against pride and self-importance. If I seek out medical advice I'll probably go to a medical doctor, reasoning that she or he has had the opportunity to learn a lot more about health and disease than I have had. So in that sense the doctor is not my equal but my superior and I am glad of it. Similarly, I gladly recognize that a judge is more equipped than I am with knowledge of the law, and also that the judge has been charged with the responsibility and authority to interpret the law. I don't have time to acquire similar knowledge and don't want the burden of that authority. But I think it is spiritually dangerous for the medical doctor to enter into a habit of mind that expects automatic deference and respect in all things and that takes offense if the title "Dr." is not affixed to his or her name. The judge, too, has every right to make his or her rulings within the scope of authority that is granted to a judge, and I think it must be right in almost all cases to respect that authority. But it can't be good for them to have people leaping to their feet when they come into a room, or calling them "your honor", so I think it's a good thing to refuse such forms of obeisance. I realize that most people will say this honor is directed toward the office, not the person, but the actual behavior of many judges - their frequently touchy vanity and high-handed arbitrary sadism in the courtroom - belies that rationale. Those who are truly concerned for the majesty of the law will be those who are most able to tolerate a dissenter's apparent cheekiness (to use a word that I take it is familiar to Britons.) So I'm all in favor of a modernized version of the testimony against hat-honour. I can even be very brave about bearing that testimony when I am surrounded by other Quakers in a courtroom full of them. When I report for jury service, however, I normally do not have the fortitude to remain seated when a judge enters the room. Quakers like me don't seem to have quite the same stuff that George Fox had.

3:56 PM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger Ruthie said...

Thanks Rich, wise comments as ever.

I think what you say about listening to people who are well informed and know what they are talking about is important.

And indeed, in retrospect, as much as I would have liked to walk out, perhaps listening and then responding was the best thing. Although I still wonder if anything more could have been done for the sake of people in the congregation who would have been effected by mental health problems, either personally or through a close family member or friend...

We all have our areas that we're good at and perhaps the best thing we can do is use our expertise, whatever that is, to the benefit of others.

Excellent thoughts as ever Rich.


10:03 PM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Plain speech in an Algonquin court...

Thy post made me laugh to recall an event... I had the honor to be appointed to a judgeship in a North Eastern Original Nation's court. My court clerk called me and said, "It's official your honor, last night the council named you a judge..." I should tell ye all at this point, like many of the Whaling Indian Nations, over the years, this group of folks had become very dark complected... and for those readers who don't know me... I have very very very little melanin to tan my hide.

"Oh, thank you, Sparrow," says I..."But in a consensus court, your honor is a bit much, really too much entirely. If you have to, when I am on the bench, and only then, if you must, you can call me judge."

The next morning the phone rings... Sparrows voice, always chipper... "HHHeeeeeeyyyyyy Gooooood Moooorning! Judge WhiteBread...!!!"

Long pause... "em... yes... um, Good morning, Sparrow... and well, maybe we could go back to 'your honor'"

Thy friend
lor (Judge Whitebread)

6:43 AM, February 22, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Hi Lor,

I may not say it out loud, but from now on I will always think of you as "Judge Whitebread".

- - Rich

9:45 AM, February 23, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Interesting post and interesting comments. I am reminded of my struggle with how to address a letter to George W. Bush, in light of various events over recent years. In keeping with the principle of integrity and my own interpretation of not using titles, I found it gave me greater courage to speak truthfully and plainly when I addressed the letter and its opening greeting with "George Bush" and "Dear George Bush..."

I have come to understand that there are times when it is not so much that I feel diminished when I address someone who, in the secular world, has a title; but that I feel empowered when I realize I have the same right to share my understanding of the Truth, and to speak Truth to power, as the one who holds an office, a degree, or what have you.

Similarly, when I call airlines and hotels for reservations, sometimes they'll begin to call me "Ms. Oppenheimer," and I simply encourage them to call me Liz instead.

My dentist let's me call him "Chip," and as I get to know my regular physician, I move into callling her Sandy rather than use the title of "Doctor." In a way, these are symbolic gestures, yet they hold Life for me, and so I continue speaking as I do with others.

And I agree that Ruthie's experience points to the good order of speaking Truth to power: that we need only the spiritual authority that we are given in our leadings and inward prompts.


1:06 PM, February 24, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I'm glad that Liz Opp visited Brooklyn Quaker. This reminded me that I've been meaning to add a link to her blog,The Good Raised Up, on my sidebar. So now I've done it. I recommend going over to take a look at it.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

2:15 PM, February 24, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

"Aww, shucks" (look down at shoes, kick at dirt)... Thanks for the link, Rich. Once I have a chance to pay attention to my own blog instead of commenting on so many wonderful posts, I'll be updating my Blog links.


6:43 PM, February 24, 2005  

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