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Communicating To The Truth Instinct

On November 17, 2015 the Department of Defense issued an update to its Joint Publication 3-61, Public Affairs, the second update since its original issuance in 2005.

(Unlike the civil service, which operates without a shared set of standards for public affairs, the military has developed clear and concise guidance about how this vital function is supposed to work.)

In reading the publication, my first reaction was appreciation. This is a very sophisticated document. For example, early on we are reminded to tell only the truth:
"PA [public affairs] personnel will release only accurate, fact-based information....Denying unfavorable information or failing to acknowledge it can lead to media speculation, the perception of cover-up, and degradation of public trust....Once an individual or unit loses the public perception of integrity, it is nearly impossible to recover."
Of course, my second reaction was dismay. If the thinking is so good, how can the reality be so disappointing so often?

I believe the answer lies, as usual, in the disconnect between ideals as they are expressed on paper, and reality as it is lived in the organization.

The former can be reduced to logic, at least in theory.

The latter is far more messy.

We still don't understand exactly how organizations work, but we do know that they represent a dynamic interplay between such things as self-expression, cultural norms, and (yes) the raw display of power.

The fact of the matter is, even the doctrine that appears in a guidebook is little more than a social construction. In our country, official communication is supposed to represent accountability. Elsewhere, the situation may be just the opposite, as censorship and manipulation are explicitly endorsed.

What we write and what we do. All of it is socially determined, and the actions we undertake ultimately create a feedback loop that influence the next iteration of the guidance.

I am reminded of a law professor's rejoinder to a student who critiqued his wearing of a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt to class as inappropriate.
"Like the humans who make it, Law (sic) is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school."
Here is one thing I do know for sure. It is this that keeps me grounded, both as a person and as a communicator: The truth-seeking instinct is basic to human existence.

For ideas about communication come and go. Culturally they differ, geographically they differ, historically they differ and they even differ based on the current mad dash for technique. For more than fifty years, branding has had its "moment"; the past decade or so has witnessed the exponential rise of social media. Who knows what the trend of tomorrow will be, who will use it, and how that "idea virus" will spread?

But we still read the classics. We cannot put them down. For there is something in human nature that seeks incontrovertible truth. It is a basic to our biology - truth means knowing threat from opportunity. On a spiritual level, it is that moment when we connect our frail selves to the Divine.

And the opposite holds as well. When we try to deceive our audiences, even if it's just a little bit, they know it. And in today's lightning-quick Information Age, they jump away online to a better source of information.

So you really don't need a guidebook to tell you what to do.

Just picture in your mind a homing pigeon.

Picture it relentlessly searching for its home.

Picture your audience doing the same thing with the information you give them.

Know that they have a reliable radar, to filter out truth from falsehood.


All opinions my own. Photo of homing pigeon by Andreas Tepte via Wikipedia (Creative Commons).

Please Do Not Tell Me That You Are Colorblind

"Here in North Carolina’s third-largest city, officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists — even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.   Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance."

 - " The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black," The New York Times, 10/25/2015

Racial discrimination is everywhere. So please don't tell me that you, personally are "colorblind" or that a movement such as "Black Lives Matter" is "racist."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent survey on "Public-Police contact" (2011), there is a disparity in perceptions by drivers about whether police are pulling them over for legitimate reasons or not. Only 68% of Black drivers felt this way, versus 74% of Hispanic drivers and 84% of White drivers. And Black drivers were three times as likely as White people to be searched: 6% versus 2%. (The search rate for Hispanic drivers was highest, at 7%.)

Numbers don't tell stories.

I once had the painful experience of listening to a colleague tell me about the "traffic-stop problem," which can reduce even the most dignified, accomplished human being to the equivalent of a cornered animal.

My colleague said that she routinely coached her son about how to dress. She was afraid that if he looked too casual (or wore any type of hoodie, obviously) he would get pulled over by the police and maybe shot.

She was afraid when he left home because she did not know if he would return.

We pride ourselves on overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace but the evidence shows we haven't come all that far. Except when it comes to hiring, we tend to "pull over" White people as opposed to those who seem demonstrably Black.

Remember "Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" (2003) This National Bureau of Economic Research tested whether "White-sounding" candidates would get more responses than "Black-sounding" ones when applying for jobs.

Indeed, the "White-sounding" candidates were 50% more likely to get called.

While it's true that this survey is dated, one of the study's primary researchers, Sendhil Mullainathan, told Politifact in 2015 that "large gaps" remain. Northwestern University professor David Figlio, also quoted in the article, said much the same thing.

So...racial discrimination: What can YOU do about it?

Two things.

First, please do not pretend that race, ethnicity, gender, and other categories of identity simply do not exist. That is not a plan. That is denial.

Second, please do not think you will ever understand the experience of another human being as they walk this planet.

Self-consciousness, real consciousness is what's needed.

We can start by having a conversation with ourselves.


Cover photo by Leah Lockheart via Flickr (Creative Commons). Photo of via Wikipedia.

Surviving Your Midlife Crisis

In the first stage, you do what you have to do. Hands over your ears, you march. Elementary school, high school, college, job and maybe grad school. Maybe the military, maybe marriage, maybe kids.
There go your boots on the pavement. Do you hear the rain? That's about all you hear, in the protection of your uniform, as you methodically put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
In the first phase of your life, success means that you've made a commitment to avoid "distractions." You have to work, work work at whatever you are doing, and do the best you can not to look up.
Inside the bubble you train your thinking mind to stop itself from thinking so very much. Like a pair of noise-canceling headphones, busy-ness drowns out the sound.
Is it limiting? Sure. But it's also soothing: You don't have to deal with anything -or anyone.
But what you may not realize, at that stage, is that your first phase of life is where you most resemble a caterpillar. Yes, you hatched out of your egg - but it's only the first birth out of two.
In the second hatching of life the caterpillar actually consumes itself. It eats itself up into a little ball - yes, it literally digests its own body.
And then it emerges a beautiful butterfly. A delicate, beautiful, ethereal being totally different from the fuzzy worm it used to be.
A creation that flies high above the Earth. 
The life of a butterfly has a profound lesson in human terms.
You start out by living in a routine. It's the office, it's Starbucks, it's yoga class and Saturday Night Live and hanging out with friends or family on Sundays. It's kids, and playgroups, and putting them on the bus for the first time.
It is familiar, that's for sure. You get a coffee with one shot of espresso in it. You know exactly which seat is near the "good plugs," so that you don't go a minute un-charged. You know your food, your clothes, your neighborhood and it seems like that's the way it will always be.
But one day something starts gnawing at your stomach. You don't know quite what the feeling is, because it isn't something you have experienced before.
It's like you want to scratch an itch, but on the inside. 
Soon, like the caterpillar, you find that you are very much eating yourself alive. You're asking the difficult questions, because they've found you. And boy do they give you heartburn.
Are you happy with the way you've lived your life?
What happened to your relationships while you were getting things done?
Homeless people, you saw them - did you feel anything at all?
Where did your faith go? Or what do you believe in? Who are you?
So many questions. You are eating yourself alive. 
Not because something is wrong. But because it's almost time for you to fly.
None of us really understand what another person goes through. But I do feel fairly confident, at midlife, observing this: The second phase of life, what we know as a "mid-life crisis," is fairly inescapable. 
I know because I've been there. I'm still there. (I'll let you know how it goes.)
Seriously, let's be honest, we all know this - personal growth isn't pretty. And we can't really do it in private. More likely we're in the glare of a lot of fluorescent lights.
So if you're going through your second hatching right now, or you know anybody who is, don't think of it as an unpleasant bad thing.
Instead, please give yourself a hearty round of applause.
For if you've made it this far, the next part of your journey will surely be amazing.
All opinions my own. Cover photo by CasparGirl via FlickrMarchingcaterpillar and butterfly photos via Wikipedia. Photo of family by Randen Peterson via Flickr. Photo of homeless man by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr. Tangled cord photo by Prawnchop via Flickr. Jumping out of plane photo by Royal Navy Media Archive via Flickr. (All Flickr photos are Creative Commons.)

Rabbinic Sexism Is Not Religious

Here is a screenshot photo from a video posted to Facebook July 7, 2016 by Israeli nonprofit group Women of the Wall. It shows religious men ripping up the prayerbook, to applause and cheering, of a group of women who have gathered to pray at the Western Wall, the only remnant of the holy Jewish Temple and the holiest Jewish site on earth.

The group doing the praying is controversial among Orthodox Jews. It fights for nontraditional (read: non-Orthodox, pluralistic) freedom of worship for women at the wall who are engaged in doing things that men traditionally do. This includes reading from the Torah, and wearing tallis and tefillin.

The sight of this video literally nauseated me. This among numerous other visible manifestations of condescension, sexism and outright woman-hatred that are unthinkingly considered part and parcel of Orthodox Judaism.

“Deborah, a prophetess…judged Israel.” — Judges 4:4
With regard to this verse, R. Berekhiah had four sayings: Woe unto the living who need help from the dead; woe unto the strong who need help from the weak; woe unto the seeing who need help from the blind; woe unto the generation that has to be led by a woman.” — Midrash Tehillim 22:20, cited in Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah

I didn’t set out to be the big feminist criticizer of Judaism but that’s looking like the path I’m on right now. And it makes some people uncomfortable.

More than once I’ve been asked, nicely and not, to please “keep it down.” I am told that I speak “against the Rabbis.”

There are worries — well by now they’re probably more like solid perceptions — that my type of talk will get our family “in trouble” with the “invisible hand.”

They don’t use those words. But we all know that they exist: “the system,” the hidden decision-makers, the ones who quietly decide, by whispers and word of mouth, who is kosher (for inclusion in the community of believers) and who has crossed the line into apikorsus, heresy.

The requests carry with them the quiet weight of a threat. 

I know of more than one woman who began covering her hair and pretending to be ultra-Orthodox, solely “to help the girls get married.”

I know of men who feel they have witnessed rabbinic sexual abuse but will never speak out for the same reason. “The family (meaning its marriage prospects) would be finished.”

You may think such pressure would not affect me; many think that because my public name and my pen name is Dannielle that I am only part of the secular world. But like other Orthodox Jews, I am subject to what other people think, of course. It's a small community.

And I live a dual life, and I know how to “pass.”

Every day I wake up and say Modeh Ani and wash Negel Vaser. I put on a crocheted French beret, a way of covering my hair in the Orthodox tradition. That person is “Dossy, wife and mother.”

I pick out my clothes and depending on what I wear for the day. Normally that is a work-appropriate pair of pants, a blazer and a shirt with professional jewelry. That person is known in the secular world as “Dannielle, the professional communicator.” And at work, we keep our religious preferences to ourselves.

A few weeks ago I would not have put myself into any conversation about Orthodox Judaism. For I would have called myself “Conservadox,” meaning I believe in the principles of Conservative Judaism and the principles of Orthodox Judaism and try to knit them together.

But the more closely I examine myself, the more I realize that the term “Conservative” doesn’t describe me. Not because I’m perfectly observant, but because I believe in Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith which are considered the fundamental basis of Orthodox Judaism. These are quoted below as described by
1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.
2. The belief in G‑d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.
3. The belief in G‑d’s non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.
4. The belief in G‑d’s eternity.
5. The imperative to worship G‑d exclusively and no foreign false gods.
6. The belief that G‑d communicates with man through prophecy.
7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.
8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.
9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.
10. The belief in G‑d’s omniscience and providence.
11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.
12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.
13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.
If you notice, nowhere in the Thirteen Principles does it say that you have to believe blindly in every utterance that emanates from the mouth of a rabbi. And it is some of those utterances that I think have taken us off-track.

There is an old joke once that goes something like this.
Wife to husband: “Why do we have to do this again?”
Husband to wife: “The rabbis tell us.”
Wife to husband: “Who is Rabbi Tellus?”
There is a lot more to be said on this subject. But the opening salvo here is as follows:
  • I have the same right as any other person of faith to speak my mind, regardless of how I look or whether I fit into a “mold.” In fact, I am not required to fit into any “mold” whatsoever.
  • Idol worship can include worship of human beings. Sadly there are those who believe we must worship the rabbis, no matter what they say or do. But just the opposite is true: They are instruments of Torah and must be held strictly to its standards.
  • No matter what the rabbis in the Talmud thought of women, their comments are just that — comments. And so my status as a female does not render me less qualified to speak.
  • Our conscience is a holy thing. It is morally wrong to quiet ourselves when we see injustice happening.
I do not believe that “all rabbis are bad.” Just the opposite; these are by and large selfless public servants who take a lot of flak just to do the right thing.

I do think that contemporary rightwing rabbinic culture (which represents itself as the only authentic version of our religion) is unhealthy for Judaism, and it is unhealthy for women. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religious observance and everything to do with a host of other factors that will only drive people away.

Finally I believe that feminism is not an ideological challenger to Torah-true Orthodoxy. Rather, it serves a corrective purpose to the misogyny that runs through much too much of its traditional literature and current practice.

A very big topic. More on this to follow.


All opinions my own.

Taking Our Torah Back From Tyrants

I was done with Judaism and I was angry about being done and I was telling my aunt Renee all about it.

It was about seven years ago; that was the last time I ever saw her, before she made Aliyah to Israel.

We were not too far from the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC. Its words are from a speech he gave on March 15, 1941, nearly a year before Germany declared war on the United States and we responded in kind.

A fuller quote from the speech explains why Nazism was not only an existential danger but an ideological one. It is the sick idea that there are a few superior people who deserve to rule the many, and that if they have to do so by force then so be it.
"Nazi forces are not seeking mere modifications in colonial maps or in minor European boundaries. They openly seek the destruction of all elective systems of government on every continent — including our own; they seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers who have seized power by force."
The President explains that the Nazis’ followers were brainwashed into thinking things would be better, more orderly, more stable in the future idealized “new order.” But that is not the way stability works. For stability is based on freedom. Freedom yields willing participation by the many over a long period of time.
"Yes, these men and their hypnotized followers call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order. For order among Nations presupposes something enduring — some system of justice under which individuals, over a long period of time, are willing to live. Humanity will never permanently accept a system imposed by conquest and based on slavery."
No matter how pious somebody seems to be, if they act to control other people’s lives, they are nothing more than evil.

Sometimes it takes us awhile to figure out what is happening. But eventually that lightbulb does go off in our brains.
"These modern tyrants find it necessary to…eliminate all democracies- eliminate them one by one. The Nations of Europe, and indeed we ourselves, did not appreciate that purpose. We do now."
My aunt Renee is observant but she did not try to proselytize me like religious people tend to do when confronted with an angry nonbeliever.

She simply said, “You owe it to yourself to explore your heritage first.”

Those 10 words.

They were the beginning of a very painful journey, one that I am still on.

Because I had been running away from a corrupt, cultish version of Judaism that did not resemble the observant ways I had learned in my youth.

In my mind I never conceived of the possibility that my own personal experience was part of a much larger problem. Which can be briefly stated thus:

Orthodox Judaism itself had become more and more tyrannical, and it was suffocating me.

Was it a coincidence that we walked near the FDR memorial that day?

I don’t think so.

Tyranny is a social disease — a cancer that can spring up anywhere. Even among those who have survived it.

The intervening years have left me wandering, or maybe more like stumbling, along a path that feels something like “coming back to faith.”

Something else is happening as well. Something hopeful, something shocking, something spontaneous that I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would live to see.

Observant Jews themselves are gathering in a loosely networked movement.

We are waking up to that fact that some people use religion as a cover for something that is truly, deeply evil.

Our G-d is One G-d and He gave us the Holy Torah by which to live our lives. Good people can disagree, can have a healthy debate about what the moral course of action is in any given situation.

But bad people have to have their way. And when they try to have their way, they inevitably claim that G-d Himself is behind them.

Truly Orthodox Jews are not tyrants.

We have come to take our religion back.

More on this to follow.


All opinions my own.