Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's Terrifying, But Sarah Palin Has Helped Me Make a Deep Philosophical Point

I read what I think is the most insightful and deeply understanding assessment of Sarah Palin in the entire Western media firestorm ever since she emerged from the wilds of Alaska: “Lost in Translation” by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick. Her point is brilliant in its simplicity that encompasses so much complicated madness. Palin believes that everything she says makes perfect sense. But it is impossible for anyone around her to make sense of what she says.

Lithwick’s illustrative example is of an American tourist who visits Paris and believes that all he has to do to speak French is to speak louder. It’s an old stereotype about the insular American, but it shows exactly what Sarah Palin is a political failure: that very insularity. As a teacher, one of the most difficult lessons for a student is how to communicate an idea clearly and carefully. The papers of writers who have not practiced are often disjointed, lacking cohesion, a reader is unable to tell what their point is.

But communication is not simply a matter of clarity, and Palin’s reaction to her treatment by the media can teach us this. A student will eventually improve in their skill at articulating their ideas, and this improvement in articulation will feed back into their own thinking processes. This will revitalize, clarify, and improve the depth and focus of their own thought. In order for that feedback process to begin, the student herself has to be open to what I’m trying to say. Now, I can be a little weird sometimes, and while my teaching evaluations this term were glowing in their awesome brilliance, I was concerned that my explorations of philosophical concepts might go in too many weird directions.

My own fears were unfounded, however, and my students happily appreciated my philosophical theatre. (I feel quite lonely sometimes in my department as being the only graduate student who believes first-year undergraduates are capable of complex thought.) But the point of my theatrical approach to teaching is that it encourages students to pay attention to me and the concepts I’m talking about. This attentive listening is just as important, if not moreso, to improving one’s thinking and communication as one’s own practice in articulating one’s own ideas. To listen is to ask for help in your own articulations, and in order to ask for help, you must admit to yourself that help is needed. Listening is a fruitful exercise in humility.

Sarah Palin’s problem was that she was incapable of listening. An articulate question from a journalist, an aide, or a colleague was answered with a brute repetition of the same old rambling. She strongly believed that she made sense, and that it was our fault for refusing to understand was she was saying. Because she never thought of herself as trying to say anything. She considered herself as clearly saying what needed to be said. And without that humility necessary for listening, she was never able to improve her ideas beyond the brute articulations she made. While she understood herself, she was too insular to believe that she was difficult to understand.

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