Friday, February 20, 2009

Who owns it? (of chimps, stimulus and CPE)

When you say something -- or write or draw something -- you may know what you mean to express, but the reader (or receiver) may hear something else entirely. Who gets to determine what your message means? The original owner (the speaker/writer), or the new owner (the receiver)?

This may sound like a question only an academic could love, but it's actually a very important one that comes up all the time in practical ways and it's one that has special relevance to the world of pastoral education. There is a very sharp controversy in the media right now that illustrates well this "who owns it" question. The New York post published a cartoon showing two police officers standing over a dead chimpanzee on the ground with two holes in its chest. One officer is holding a smoking gun. The other says to him, "they'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill".

What did people receive when they saw this cartoon? Well a lot of people heard that the chimpanzee represented president Obama (who is, after all, the ultimate author of the stimulus bill meant to revive our ailing economy). And that message is offensive because it resonates with deeply painful stereotypes about African-Americans.

In my view, however, it's pretty clear that the artist intended no such thing. He did not intend the chimpanzee to represent Obama; he intended it to represent Washington as a whole (after all, the stimulus bill we ended up with was not really authored by Obama -- it was authored by a series of committees in the House and Senate who negotiated endlessly over its final form).

But, so what? Does the fact that the author didn't intend to say something hurtful make the hurt some people felt just disappear? Certainly not. Once it left his pen (or whatever he drew it with), the author no longer owned the message. His cartoon was indeed hurtful and offensive and he should unreservedly apologize about it.

In the world of pastoral education and pastoral care we transmit messages all the time. We ask our student chaplains to take the risk of offering feedback and critique to one another. These transmissions are not always received as the author intended them to be. Sometimes both the transmitter and the receiver end up feeling deeply hurt. Communication fails.

The path to a better way starts with realizing that neither the transmitter or the receiver really owns the message. The construction of what a message really means -- and this is the insight we get from Social Constructivism and similar approaches -- is something that is co-constructed by transmitters and receivers. So, the better path starts with embracing the fact that you need to co-construct the meaning of what you want to say -- the feedback you want to give -- with the person you are talking to. You have to invite them into the feedback giving process. You have to ask their permission every step of the way. "Is it alright if I talk to you about this?" "Have you ever thought about this?" "Ok, I hear what you're saying about that, but would you be open to my perspective on that situation?"

I call this the forging of Shared Meaning. Or you could call it contracting, conventing, or -- to use the appropriate Hebrew word -- the cutting of a brit.

If we realize that feedback is really a Holy process that involves a shared dialogue of back-and-forth between its participants, we can get closer to truly communicating with one another -- and with the people in need we are hoping to offer some healing and comfort to.

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