The Power of Definition and Belief. In which my Whackadoodle student and I begin the second of fourteen lessons for navigating life, and rediscover how important it is to keep examining our definitions. If you have entered this story in the middle, click here for the prologue.
“So I have been thinking about how to introduce Episode Two: The Power of Definition and Belief into our Navigating a Whackadoodle World Series,” I said as she began packing up from our tutoring session.
“Oh,” she said sarcastically, shoving the last of her books into her ever expanding backpack. “So now you’re thinking about the best way to present the series?”
“You forced me into it,” I reminded her. “Once we’ve begun, we need to finish.”
“Ha,” she said, flopping back into her chair. “Shall we have an extended session this week then?”
“Well, you did start it.”
“I know,” she nodded. “And I wanna finish, so what’s your idea?”
“Well, I was kind of inspired by your idea last week about introducing the episode with an article, so I thought we might do the same thing this week, but with an article that I suggest.”
“What article do you have in mind?”
“It was written by a Dr. Michael Kimmel, Sociology Professor at Stony Brook University. He wrote an article entitled Raise Your Son to Be a Good Man, Not a ‘Real’ Man. It basically shares what he learned during several all male lectures he’s given over the years, at Police Academies, boy schools, West Point, and other places. He’d start by asking the groups to define what it meant to be a Good Man, and he’d almost always get answers like, ‘A good man has integrity and honor. A good man is responsible. He is a good provider and protector. He does the right thing. He is willing to sacrifice and put others first. He is caring, and he stands up for the little guy.’”
“So?” she asked skeptically.
“Well then he would ask, ‘Where did you get your definition of a Good Man?’ He describes that the groups would often look confused until eventually, someone would say, ‘Well, it’s everywhere.’ Dr. Kimmel goes on to agree that this definition of a good man is everywhere. He calls it ‘Shakespearean, Homeric. It’s the Judeo-Christian heritage. It’s the air we breathe; it’s the water we drink. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is what it means to be a good man, and that we learn it through osmosis in our respective cultures.‘”
“Hum,” she nodded. “So because that’s their definition of a good man, it will influence their choices, right?”
“Could be,” I agreed. “But Dr. Kimmel didn’t stop there. After getting his list of what it meant to be a good man, he’d then ask the groups, ‘Okay, fair enough. Now tell me if any of those ideas or words or phrases occur to you when I say, ‘Man the F-up! Be a real man!’”
“Really?” she sounded a bit shocked.
“He’d then get a list from that groups of what it meant to be a real man,” I continued. “A real man never cried, was always strong, never showed feelings, played through the pain, and sucked it up. A real man shows power, aggression, and wins at all costs. A real man knows how to get rich and how to get laid.”
She was silent, waiting.
“Finally,” I concluded. “He’d ask them where they had learned their definition of a real man, and they would talk about their fathers, their coaches, their brothers, and their many guy friends. They seldom ever mention learning what it was to be a real man from women; instead, they would talk about the times that they had been bullied and shamed by their fellow men into being a real man.”
We both sat in silence for some time, taking in the story.
“So,” she said at last. “How we define ourselves changes depending on who we are with and how they define us. Real man, good man, family man,” she paused as if trying to get her head around something. “And because the way we define ourselves determines our choices and actions, those things also change depending on who we are with. Is that the point?”
“Partly” I told her. “But it’s more than that. It’s also about where we get our beliefs in the first place, and how those beliefs get reinforced day by day; which also has a lot to do with who we hang out with, the stories we hear, the music we listen to, the news we watch, the churches we attend. It’s all cause and effect. Did you know that people who watch crime dramas like Law and Order are more likely to think that the police are successful in lowering crime, use force only when necessary, and that misconduct does not typically lead to false confessions?
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“It’s from a scholarly study posted in Sage Journals entitled, “The Role of Entertainment Media in Perceptions of Police Use of Force.” I used my scholarly voice to explain, then continued in my everyday voice. “I think it’s one of the reasons people get impatient with the justice system.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those shows make justice look easy, but in reality justice takes a long, exhausting, and winding road.”
“Especially if you have enough money to buy your way out of it,” she added with a smirk.
I ignored her comment, and continued. “So many things are made to look easy in stories, but life is much more complicated. Consider romance novels. Find the right guy, drive him mad with desire, get married, and live happily ever after. Those fairy tales mess a lot of girls up.” I shook my head, then added as an after thought, “And let’s not even talk about how many movies glorify a lone ranger ready to pull out a gun for justice, or the many commercials that are specifically designed to influence our beliefs about sex appeal, weight loss, and what it means to look and be successful.”
“So you think all those things, like the stories we read, the people we hang with, and the churches we attend, create and reinforce our beliefs?”
“Do I think that the history we learn and the schools we attend influence our beliefs, definitely?” I replied. “What gets repeated to us often enough, we eventually begin to believe; at least we believe it until reality makes itself known and slaps a few facts into our brains. I mean let’s face it, people who watch Fox News are more likely to believe that our 2020 Presidential election was rigged before and during the election, and the people who watch MSNBC News are more likely to believe that the outgoing President tried to rig the 2020 election after a free and fair election’s results were in.”
“Two completely different belief systems trying to govern together,” she concluded for me. “So what do we do?”
“We look for a common purpose and some ways to agree, so we can move forward.”
“Good luck with that,” she laughed.
“Well, giving up before you begin is a great way to start,” I retorted. “If you already believe it’s not possible, it will never be possible. Or maybe you have a better idea,” I continued. “Maybe we could use force, fear, and intimidation to get everybody to do things our way. Maybe we could use name calling, deflection, and projection to win every argument. Maybe if we create enough chaos and throw enough temper tantrums, people will just give in.”
Her eyes became serious, “Okay, you have more than made your point.”
“Have I?” I asked.
“You are pointing out that some people do use humiliation, force, fear, deflection, and a lot of other things to win at all cost. You are pointing out that even though their ways can work, there might be a better way, so long as we believe in that way enough to work towards it.”
“And do you understand the power of belief in all that we’ve discussed?”
“I think I do,” she replied carefully.
“So are you ready for this week’s homework?”
“Homework,” she countered immediately. “What do you mean homework? This is just supposed to an article series. I’m already taking five college classes, and now you want to give me more homework?”
“Do you really think that this article will have any impact on your daily habits if I don’t assign some homework? Because I don’t. I think you will remember our conversation for a few hours and then get distracted by something else. It’s called human nature. Besides,” I added to guilt her. “You are the one who wanted to start this series of articles.”
“Okay, fine, what’s the homework?” she said, fishing a note pad and pen out of her backpack.
“Pretty easy actually,” I told her. “I simply want you notice how often people use abstract nouns without bothering to define them clearly.”
“You know; they are the opposite of concrete nouns.”
“Concrete nouns are people, places or things. We can touch concrete nouns. We can visualize concrete nouns. Concrete nouns make communication clear. On the other hand, abstract nouns are ideas, concepts, norms, feelings, beliefs; they cannot be touched because they are abstract. And unless those abstractions are well defined in a conversation, you are going to have a communication melt down.”
“Example please?” she said, jotting down a few notes.
“I would do anything to find love,” I said, quoting some commercial I had heard recently, then asked her, “Can you spot the two abstract nouns in that statement?”
“Love,” she answered after a moment. “And maybe anything?”
“And how many different ways have you heard love defined in your short lifetime?”
“Too many,” she admitted.
“So can you understand how important it might be for you to define what you meant by love before you started talking about what you would do to gain it? Both for yourself, and for the person with whom you are speaking?”
“I suppose so,” she said carefully.
“Which brings us to the second part of your homework. Don’t just notice the abstract nouns. When you can, pause in your discussions with others, and ask them to define their abstract nouns. What do they mean by love? What do they mean by faith? What do they mean by patriot? What do they mean by power? What do they mean by idiot? What do they mean by anything? That way you can confirm understanding.”
“I think I would like another example,” she grumbled.
I paused to consider the many possible examples, and decided to choose one that had been taking over the weekly news. “What if I were to call someone a Fascist, or maybe just a Semi-Fascist? What in the heck do I mean by that? Technically, Fascist refers to a member of an Italian political party made popular during World War I, and which fell into disrepute during World War II. By that definition, any Fascist left alive would have to be over one hundred years old. But that is not what I’m calling someone when I call them a Fascist, is it?”
“No.” she answered uncertainly.
“No,” I confirmed. “I am referring to the tactics the Fascist Party used to gain and hold power. They used fear and intimidation to control the masses. They took over the media, and used their justice system to destroy any political opposition. They were known for using violence against those who opposed them.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. “I’m still not sure that I get your point.”
“My point is that instead of just calling each other by abstract names, we should ask people to define their actions, their policies, and their systems of governing. In other words, their beliefs.”
“Still not sure,” she managed.
“Think about it,” I told her. “It’s doesn’t matter what I call you, Fascist or not. What matters is, ‘Do you support using violence and intimidation to get your political way?‘ Many people claim that they are against Fascism, but they also admit to supporting the use of violence and intimidation to get their political way, which is pretty much the definition of Fascism. Name calling is a communication barrier, no matter how accurate that name might be.”
“So don’t let people argue about whether or not people are Fascist, and start discussing whether or not they believe violence and intimidation is an acceptable political tool?”
“Exactly,” I nodded. “Call them a Fascist, and they get to deflect. They get to yell about how you dared to call them a Fascist. It just adds to the chaos. But ask them what they think of violence and intimidation to achieve political ends, and the chaos begins to clear.”
“Okay,” she said after taking a few more notes. “So for homework, you want me to notice how often people use abstract nouns with out really defining them.”
“Right,” I nodded. “And do you understand why I want you to do that?”
“I think it’s because you want me to see how often people use words that are poorly defined because they just assume everybody accepts or understands their worldview.”
“Excellent answer,” I nodded again. “And why do I want you to ask people to define those abstract nouns for you, when you have an opportunity to ask?”
“So that I can be sure that I understand what they mean, and don’t mistake my worldview for theirs. So that we don’t end up name calling, but actually talk about actions that we can agree to take together.”
“Even better answer, but there is one more piece for your homework,” I warned her. She groaned as I continued. “I want you to examine your own definitions. Most of all, I want you to examine how you define yourself, and how your definitions change depending on whom you are with.”
“You mean like real girl, good girl, sexy girl, smart girl, family girl?”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” I said, attempting a smile. “Did I give you too much homework?”
“Nah,” she said, tossing her notepad and pen back into her bag. “Might be good for me. But just to be sure,” she added. “You want me to do this all week?”
“I want you to examine definitions until examining definitions becomes a habit, and you no longer have to remind yourself to do it,” I told her. “It is, after all, Rule Two.”
“Crap,” she said. “I knew you would say something like that.”
“Then why did you ask?” I laughed.
“Because I needed to hear you say it,” she grumbled.
“So,” I offered as she finished up packing. “I guess that I will see you next week to work on episode three?”
“Yeah, along with the rest of my homework,” she finally grinned. “I’ll get back at you then.”
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