The Messy Work Begins

One of the take­aways of this elec­tion this is that we’ve all siloed our­selves away in our self-selected Face­book feeds. We lis­ten to most our news and hang out pri­mar­i­ly with those who think and talk like us. One piece of any heal­ing will be open­ing up those feeds and doing the messy work of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple who have strong­ly dif­fer­ent opin­ions. That means real­ly respect­ing the world­view peo­ple are shar­ing (and that’s as hard for me as for any­one) and lis­ten­ing through to emo­tions and life expe­ri­ences that have brought peo­ple into our lives. Basic lis­ten­ing tips apply: try not to judge or accuse or name call. If some­one with less priv­i­lege tells you they’re scared, con­sid­er they might have a valid con­cern and don’t inter­rupt or tell them they’re being alarmist. 

But all this also means apol­o­giz­ing and for­giv­ing each oth­er and being okay with a high lev­el of messi­ness. It’s not easy and it won’t always work. We will not always have our opin­ion pre­vail and that’s okay. We are all in this togeth­er.

Waking up to President Trump

Bar­ring a very improb­a­ble series of events we will more than like­ly be look­ing at Pres­i­dent Trump once the num­bers have been tal­lied overnight. And not just him but a rad­i­cal­ized Trumpian Con­gress, Sen­ate — and because of the suc­cess­ful stonewalling against Obama’s nom­i­na­tion — Supreme Court. We’ve not just elect­ed an author­i­tar­i­an: we’ve also tak­en away the entire sys­tem of checks and bal­ances that might be able to hold him back. Add to that the expan­sion of the raw pow­er of the exec­u­tive branch in recent years and it’s the set­up for a dystopi­an TV show.

We’ve seen seem­ing­ly sta­ble coun­tries fall apart under con­di­tions like this. We claim Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism but his­to­ry is lit­tered with the corpses of democ­ra­cies that didn’t make it. This will be the biggest test of our civic val­ues in our life­times. We might well expe­ri­ence things the Amer­i­can repub­lic has nev­er seen: the impris­on­ment of a los­ing oppo­si­tion leader, the rise of orga­nized hate crimes, whole­sale theft of incred­i­ble wealth by a new oli­garchy, the divy­ing up of the world back into empires… The mod­el of a kind of alt right soft dic­ta­tor­ship is well devel­oped by this point and Trump has been clear through­out both his career and his can­di­da­cy that it’s his vision.

We do not get to choose our era or the chal­lenges it throws at us. Only some­one with his­tor­i­cal amne­sia would say this is unprece­dent­ed in our his­to­ry. The enslave­ment of mil­lions and the geno­cide of mil­lions more are dark stains indeli­bly soaked into the very found­ing of the nation. But much will change, par­tic­u­lar­ly our naiv­i­ty and false opti­mism in an inevitable for­ward progress of our nation­al sto­ry. We must respond with courage and grace. We’re going to get a les­son in what’s real­ly impor­tant. Time to engage.

Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his pre­sen­ta­tions.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being with­held.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amaz­ing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s argu­ments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be cor­rect.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by chal­lenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visu­al­iza­tions.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear think­ing.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.

Delayed readership

A Quak­er edu­ca­tor recent­ly told me he had appre­ci­at­ed some­thing I wrote about the way Quak­er cul­ture plays out in Quak­er schools. It was a 2012 blog post, Were Friends part of Obama’s Evo­lu­tion?

It was a bit of a ran­dom post at the time. I had read a wide­ly shared inter­view that after­noon and was mulling over the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a behind-the-scenes Quak­er influ­ence. This sort of ran­dom­ness hap­pens fre­quent­ly but in the rush of work and fam­i­ly I don’t always take the time to blog it. That day I did and a few years lat­er it influ­ence spline on some small way. 

It reminds me of an old obser­va­tion: the imme­di­ate boost we get when friends com­ment in our blog posts or like a Face­book update is an imme­di­ate hit of dopamine — excit­ing and ego grat­i­fy­ing. But the greater effect often comes months and years lat­er when some­one finds some­thing of yours that they’re search­ing for. This delayed read­er­ship may be one of the great­est dif­fer­ences between blog­ging and Face­book­ing. 

Autism, anxiety, and bullies

A pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment from my wife Julie ear­li­er this evening:

Autis­tic peo­ple feel anx­i­ety just like all of us. How­ev­er they may cope dif­fer­ent­ly. For neu­rotyp­i­cals, if the anx­i­ety is a result of some­one taunt­ing or being some­how rude or abra­sive or annoy­ing, we know to walk away. But in my expe­ri­ence with my spec­trum kids, they don’t under­stand why peo­ple are mean, and they’ll freak out or just keep com­ing back for more. They don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly get that it’s best to leave some peo­ple alone and walk away. It takes many such lessons to “get it” because their minds work dif­fer­ent­ly. They go from the spe­cif­ic to the gen­er­al, not the gen­er­al to the spe­cif­ic, as Tem­ple Grandin points out. They are easy tar­gets for bul­lies. #The­MoreY­ouKnowAboutAutism

Listening in on our Quaker conversations

On Twit­ter ear­li­er today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or some­one once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & oth­er soc. media? Can’t find it on Qran­ter or via Google. Thx!” Jay sub­se­quent­ly found a great piece from Robin Mohr cir­ca 2008 but I kept remem­ber­ing an descrip­tion of blog­ging I had writ­ten in the ear­li­est days of the blo­gos­phere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the won­der­ful Inter­net Archive​.org Way­back Machine. The orig­i­nal two para­graph descrip­tion of Quak­erQuak­er is not eas­i­ly acces­si­ble out­side of Archive​.org but it’s nice to uncov­er it again and give it a lit­tle sun­light:

Quak­erism is an expe­ri­en­tial reli­gion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doc­tri­nal state­ments. The best way to learn what Quak­ers believe is through lis­ten­ing in on our con­ver­sa­tions.

In the last few years, dozens of Quak­ers have begun shar­ing sto­ries, frus­tra­tions, hopes and dreams for our reli­gious soci­ety through blogs. The con­ver­sa­tions have been amaz­ing. There’s a pal­pa­ble sense of renew­al and excite­ment. Quak­erQuak­er is a dai­ly index to that con­ver­sa­tion.

I still like it as a dis­tinct­ly Quak­er phi­los­o­phy of out­reach.

Carolina Friends School in Durham confronts reports of decades-old sexual abuse


A Friends School talks open­ly about past school abuse:

The alum­nus said he’s upset the prin­ci­pal [Harold Jerni­gan] has not acknowl­edged the accu­sa­tions. But he said he doesn’t regret send­ing his orig­i­nal mes­sage. ‘If you read Quak­er lit­er­a­ture, they spell ‘Truth’ in the upper­case – the impli­ca­tion of divin­i­ty,’ he said, ‘that it is a holy thing to con­tin­ue that search for truth.’

I’m glad this is get­ting out now, but I did a double-take as the accused prin­ci­ple is still alive and liv­ing a few dozen miles from me. He was a lightning-rod fig­ure as prin­ci­pal of at least two oth­er schools after Car­oli­na. I imag­ine the behav­ior con­tin­ued. Updates below:

  • An peri­od arti­cle on his tenure at a Friends Sem­i­nary, a Man­hat­tan Friends school, talked about the unrest of his two-year tenure there. It sounds like he came in and sum­mar­i­ly fired the heads of the low­er, mid­dle, and upper schools. This is the kind of thing one would do if they want­ed to cur­tail account­abil­i­ty.
  • A mem­oir by Quak­er edu­ca­tor Leonard Ken­wor­thy talks about this peri­od at Friends Sem­i­nary: “He moved much too rapid­ly in bring­ing about changes, ask­ing for the res­ig­na­tions of the heads of the ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, plus sev­er­al oth­er shifts, with­in a very short peri­od, even before he took over as prin­ci­pal. Over and over I urged him not to move too fast but he said there were two ways of han­dling such a sit­u­a­tion. One was to move slow­ly over a peri­od of years. The oth­er was to bring about quick changes and then to begin rapid­ly to ini­ti­ate new pro­grams and new per­son­nel. He was deter­mined to use the lat­ter approach.”
  • A 1986 New York Times pro­file of Friends Sem­i­nary had this to say of its for­mer head: “After a shake-up of the staff that led to the res­ig­na­tion or dis­missal of sev­er­al teach­ers, a teacher’s union was formed, and stu­dents went on strike. Even­tu­al­ly, the prin­ci­pal, Harold Jerni­gan, resigned and the school ”reject­ed mus­cu­lar Quak­erism and returned to its mys­ti­cal faith,” in the words of the offi­cial his­to­ry.”
  • A com­menter on one news arti­cle writes: “Please also know that Harold Jernigan’s behav­ior con­tin­ued on at Atlantic City Friends School, where he was Head­mas­ter. As an Alum of ACFS, I thought that should be made clear.”
  • Car­oli­na Friends School wrote an open let­ter to the com­mu­ni­ty in June.

Update Decem­ber 2014. I have received emails from a for­mer stu­dent who wished to remain anony­mous at this time. I have no way to fact check this but it is con­sis­tent with the his­to­ry and I have no rea­son to think it’s inac­cu­rate. With that caveat, here are some excerpts:

As an Alum­ni of Atlantic City Friends School I am not sur­prised at all to hear about Harold Jerni­gan sex­u­al abuse in the least . Please note this abuse along with more forms of abuse went on at ACFS into the ear­ly 80’s

Sex­u­al abuse was not the only abuse. Abuse of the school sys­tem in gen­er­al includ­ing drugs , abuse of pow­er , mon­ey , teach­ing so bad­ly that curves were used to grade so curved that the high­est grade in a math class Harold Jerni­gan taught was a 42 yet all were passed . Harold Jerni­gan also would lis­ten to class­rooms and lock­er rooms with a speak­er sys­tem in his office even after he promised Teach­ers he would not . Please note if Harold Jerni­gan did not want a stu­dent to pass he would call a meet­ing with all Teach­ers to make sure cer­tain stu­dents would not pass no mat­ter what .

I was a vic­tim of his non sex­u­al abuse but still abuse all the same .

I am only telling you this so some­one puts a stop to this abuse. Back in the late 70’s ear­ly 80’s who would believe a teenag­er . To see this Final­ly come out makes me know there is Kar­ma .

As teenagers in school we would talk amongst our­selves . No one would come for­ward because we knew Harold would hold back our Diplo­mas or not for­ward a let­ter to a col­lege .

You must remem­ber ACFS was attend­ed by either high IQ stu­dents , rich kids that were kick out of their oth­er schools or stu­dents that want­ed to attend a pri­vate school . This made the stu­dent body Easy Prey .

Dur­ing my time at ACFS I made friends with some of the Teach­ers . These Teach­ers are some of my sources ! They knew but need­ed their job

Self-promotion and ministry temptations

Jon Watts looks at the ironies of fame-seeking and avoid­ance:

But this striv­ing for per­fect hum­ble­ness can eas­i­ly become dog­mat­ic. We can come to reject any­thing that looks remote­ly like attention-seeking, and we miss God’s mes­sage in it.

Jon weighs in with some good, juicy ques­tions. Where is self-promotion a way to pro­mote some­thing big­ger? And when is it ego-driven? t’s not just a inter­net ques­tion, of course. This is also at the heart of our Quak­er vocal min­istry: some­one just stands up in wor­ship with an implic­it claim they’re speak­ing for God.

Samuel Bow­nas is a good go-to per­son for these sort of dilem­mas. He was a second-generation Friend who shared a lot of the inside dirt about Quak­ers in min­istry. He wrote down the tri­als and temp­ta­tions he faced and that he saw in oth­ers in their “infant minstry” as a con­scious men­tor­ship of future Friends.

One of Bownas’s themes is the dan­ger of ape­ing oth­ers. It’s tempt­ing to get so enam­ored of someone’s beau­ti­ful words that we start con­scious­ly try­ing to mim­ic them. We stop say­ing what we’ve been giv­en to say so as to sound like the (seem­ing­ly) more-articulate per­son whose style we envy. Most cre­ative artists walk this ten­sion between copy­ing and cre­at­ing and as Wess will tell you, the idea of remix has become of more impor­tance in the era of dig­i­tal arts. But with min­istry there’s anoth­er ele­ment: God. Many Quak­ers have been pret­ty insis­tent that the mes­sage has to be giv­en “in the Spir­it” and come from direct prompts. Unpro­grammed Friends (those of us with­out pas­tors or pre-written ser­mons) are excep­tion­al­ly aller­gic to vocal min­istry that sounds too prac­ticed. It’s not enough that the teach­ing is cor­rect or well-crafted: we insist that it be giv­en it at the right time.

When think­ing the pit­falls about min­istry I find it use­ful to think about “The Tempter.” I don’t per­son­i­fy this; I don’t insist that it’s cen­tral to Quak­er the­ol­o­gy. But it is a thread of our the­ol­o­gy, one that has explained my sit­u­a­tion, so I share it. For me, it’s the idea that there’s a force that knows our weak­ness­es and will use them to con­fuse us. If we’re not care­ful, impuls­es that are seem­ing­ly pos­i­tive will pro­voke actions that are seem­ing­ly good but out of right order – giv­en at the wrong time.

So, if like Jon, I start wor­ry­ing I’m too self-promotional, the Tempter might tell me “that’s true, it’s all in your head, you should shut up already.” If I work myself through that temp­ta­tion and start pro­mot­ing myself, the Tempter can switch gears: “yes you’re bril­liant, and while you’re at it while don’t you set­tle some scores with your next post and take some of those fak­ers down a notch.” There’s nev­er an objec­tive “cor­rect” course of action, because right action is about strip­ping your­self of self-delusion and nav­i­gat­ing the shoals of con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es. The right action now may be the wrong action lat­er. We all need to grow and stay vig­i­lant and hon­est with our­selves.