Copyright © 2010, Trojan Horse Productions.
All rights reserved.
Online or in any electronic copy of this file, each item in the list below is a link to the corresponding portion of the text.
What this is all about
1. Judge the thought, not the thinker.
2. Avoid categorizing.
3. Avoid characterizing.
4. Avoid name-calling.
5. Avoid pejoratives.
6. Avoid sarcasm.
7. Don’t change the subject.
8. Don’t filibuster.
9. Don’t presume to be a mind reader.
10. Make judicious use of qualifiers.
11. Deal with exactly what the person says.
12. Be willing to say, “I don’t know” …
Pointers for Callers
One beautiful summer evening some years ago, shots were fired in the block north of my house. Where I live, this isn’t unusual. What is unusual is what happened behind it.
I finished what I was doing inside, and then went to sit on my steps and see what I could see. I was astonished that there was absolutely no one around; at that hour, on a night like that, there should have been people everywhere. Someone must not have wanted any witnesses.
A minute or two later, this big fat man in a tiny white car rolled up slowly from the south, stopped right in front of me and yelled, “Get off the steps.” He rolled on about fifty yards farther, made a U-turn, came on back southbound, and stopped in front of me again. “Get off the steps,” he yelled. I just looked at him. I said nothing, but if I had said anything, it would have been this: “You don’t rule me.”
The William Tell Show is all about freedom. It’s about folks’ freedom to call in to a talk show and be treated with respect no matter what they say; for which reason I call it “A Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood(R) for Adults.”
It’s about learning to think for yourself, and not have to think and act however some bully, some gangstah, some preacher[*] or minister or mullah or imam, some self-appointed “community leader” or politician or talk show host tells you to. Learning to think for yourself means also not wanting or needing some hero to do all your thinking for you; Tell says instead, “Be your own hero.” That can be a tall order, especially when debate is heated and questions are tough. It can involve emotional or, frankly, spiritual issues that leave one feeling as if one’s just had a hard workout. Therefore I also call it “A Gymnasium for the Soul.”
[*] In saying this, I don’t mean to put-down all clergy. I am deeply religious myself, and intensely involved in my church. There are, however, some clergy who act this way.
It’s not about becoming free. Tell believes that each adult human being is free already. Autonomous (“awe-TAW-nuh-mus”), which means “self-ruled,” is the word I prefer; it can also be translated “free” or “independent.” I hold that each person is autonomous now. I seek to encourage you to “realize,” or “own” or “own up to,” your freedom — which means “owning” also the power you have now, and “owning up to” the resulting responsibilities.
First and foremost, William Tell seeks to teach people to think independently. Whether a participant agrees with me about any issue does not matter; as to most issues, I have the goal of never expressing my own opinion. Rather, I hope to equip you to choose a stand for yourself, and then sharpen your thinking skills so that the case you make for that stand will be the best, the strongest it can possibly be.
The title of this book, Free Speech Handbook, is ambiguous — on purpose. Many things about The William Tell Show are like that.
The title could mean, “a free handbook about speech.” Or, it could mean, “a handbook about free speech.” In fact, I intend that it mean both.
But suppose I hadn’t said that. Then some folks might say, “It means this,” and other folks say, “It means that.”
In any conflict, it pays to have a firm grasp of what is. In this case, what is is, (1) the title of the book is Free Speech Handbook, and (2) the title is ambiguous. Those are the facts.
From time to time, any one of us may find the facts hard to face. In that case, one may be tempted to pay attention to something other than the facts — to what ISN’T — and try to get everyone else to ignore the facts and pay attention to not-facts as well. If such sabotage succeeds, then (1) at best the debate will get nowhere. Everyone will go home thinking just the same at the end as they did at the start, and no one will have learned anything. (2) At worst, the wrong person, some “fearless leader,” will persuade many followers and lead a nation toward disaster.
Those who have studied these things, have identified many of the techniques people use to sabotage debate. The rest of this book concerns itself with the ones which are most troublesome to my community.
The other resource I have provided on this site, the book Guides to Straight Thinking by Stuart Chase, is a more advanced examination of many of the same techniques. For example, my Guideline 1, “Judge the thought …,” corresponds to Chapter 7 of his book; and my Guideline 7, “Don’t change the subject,” corresponds to Chapter 8.
It’s not enough just to learn to spot your opponent’s use of these distracting techniques. So that debate can work, and people can learn, and free speech can be a blessing to everyone; you must also learn, yourself, to keep from using them. That’s the hard part.
There are twelve guidelines.
On The William Tell Show, as we discuss the affairs of the day, each week the host will coach participants to observe one particular guideline — Guideline 1 the first week, Guideline 2 the next, and so on. The thirteenth week will be a free-for-all. This way, each guideline will receive special attention four times a year.
The most serious problem I see, in the world of free speech, is the tendency to say, “Joe Blow says thus-and-so,” and then either adopt or reject the proposal based on how one feels toward Joe Blow.
Who does this is not only not thinking independently; who does this isn’t thinking at all.
One must make clear in one’s mind, a distinction between the thought and the thinker.
Perhaps the proposal pertains to U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps it pertains to the best way to change a tire at night in an ice storm. Either way, we debate the merits of ideas, proposals, propositions — not people.
The proposal itself is up for grabs, grist for the mill. Slice it, dice it, stir fry it, burn it; subject it to the most severe critique you can muster. Be my guest.
Hands off the person who makes the proposal.
The ugliest person on the face of the earth is perfectly capable of having a good, correct, highly useful idea. The same person is perfectly capable of being the only one who’s ever thought of it. The idea itself deserves consideration, no matter how ugly the appearance, other opinions, or actions of the person who makes it.
I happen to have the profound conviction that every human being is a child of God, and somehow a reflection of God’s image. I intend to show respect for each person accordingly. I expect participants in The William Tell Show to do likewise.
What it is: “That’s a liberal notion.” “That’s what conservatives say.” “That’s how black people think.” “White people like that.”
Why avoid it: Such talk pigeon-holes a proposal, putting it in a nice little box composed of all one’s assumptions about conservatives, liberals, black or white people. Having done that, one need not consider its merits any more. One stops thinking.
Everyone of every category is capable of making useful proposals — proposals that all other thinking people really ought to consider.
We need to evaluate each proposal on its own merits, regardless of who, or what group or movement, has made it.
What it is: “What a silly idea!” “That was really rude.” “People who say that are ignorant.”
Why avoid it: Our task is to evaluate a proposal itself. Talk such as this strongly tempts people to debate the characterization instead. If we formerly were debating a question of U.S. foreign policy, now suddenly we’re debating whether a participant was right to characterize an idea as “silly.” That is, we’re no longer debating the proposal, but the characterization instead.
The characterization may be honest (what the participant really believes), but is unnecessary to our debate; and, given the characterization’s power to distract us from our task, we’re better off without it.
I will just give some examples.
A certain talk show host, in the past at least, used to refer to feminists as “femi-Nazis.” Now, I am aware of a few feminists whom that label might fit. A few. “Femi-Nazi” is the term this fellow used invariably to refer to any feminist at all.
The President’s actual office, inside the White House, is shaped in an oval, and so is often referred to as “the Oval Office.” Now, this same fellow, once the Monica Lewinski scandal became news, forever after referred to the Clinton administration as “the Oval Orifice,” as if referring to someone’s mouth, anus or vagina. Excuse me, but this is no substitute for reasoned examination of policy.
At this writing, the current generation of Latino immigrants to this country probably includes a high proportion of the most industrious and diligent men in the nation. They are the exact opposite of what was meant by a popular term of the 1960s and ‘70s, “Spic.”
A former co-worker used to refer to Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus as “rag heads.” I don’t know what the term means, but it certainly is neither helpful nor necessary.
What they are: A “pejorative” is any term that normally carries with it strong negative ideas or feelings; that makes the person or thing being discussed, look bad.
Say they’re taking up a collection at work, and Mark contributes $25, Hazel contributes $75, and Bob contributes $2. It’s one thing to say, “Bob’s contribution was comparatively small.” It’s pejorative to say, “Bob’s contribution was puny.”
It’s one thing to say someone has a large appetite. It’s pejorative to say the person’s a pig.
It may be pejorative to call a salesperson a “peddler.” It certainly was pejorative for a participant in an online forum I belong to, to call a poster who was peddling certain ideas, a “pimp.”
Why avoid them: First, they contribute nothing to the debate. Second, your opponents may rightly take offense at them, especially since they’re so unnecessary. Third, people who agree with you — possibly me, for example — may be ashamed of your use of such terms.
People may not even notice them, but they still constitute low blows (punches below the belt).
What it is: Saying something the direct opposite of what you mean, in an effort to show how ridiculous is your opponents’ stand.
Why avoid it:
Believe it or not, someone may fail to recognize the sarcasm, and instead think you meant what you said, word for word. The resulting confusion can be hard to fix.
Even in dealing with children: I have seen parents swat a child for some misdeed and then at once taunt the child, “Do it again.” It’s important to tell a child to do, exactly whatever it is you want the child to do; and this parent has done the exact opposite.
My (fictional) autobiography includes the (not-)fact that the name my parents gave me at birth was not William. Like just about everyone else, they wanted something like, but not, “Dante.” We’ve had “Dontay,” “D’Ante,” “DawnTé,” all down the line.
They named me “Don’t.” “Don’t Tell:” that was my name. So I grew up constantly being told, “Don’t clean your room;” “Don’t take out the trash;” and so on — and then being punished for having done as I thought I was told. Is it any wonder I was confused?
Guideline 1 dealt with what I see as the most serious problem in the world of free speech. Guideline 7 deals with the most common or frequent. I am embarrassed at how often I do it myself.
Changing the subject usually happens as soon as someone does not want to face facts. It also happens as soon as appearing to win becomes more important to someone, than solving the problem; for whenever there is a debate or conflict, normally there is some problem, and the correct goal for all participants is to find a solution, to solve the problem, rather than just say, “Whoopie! We won!” But we’re dealing here with human weaknesses.
What it is: Switching attention from a question or set of facts you find hard to face, to an unrelated question or set of facts your opponent will find hard to face.
Why not to do it: Our task is to find an answer or solution to the question or issue at hand. Everyone has some stands that have merit and other stands that don’t, and if we don’t want to face the issue at hand we can go round and round about those other things forever; while the issue at hand never gets solved.
Outside the political arena, it gets worse. If your boss comes to you with some legitimate complaint about your performance, you either can face and correct it, or in the end possibly get fired. If your spouse comes to you with a legitimate concern, and you blow it off, and this happens again and again and again, she or he may correctly start thinking, “Divorce.”
(1) BOSS: “You turned in this report three weeks late, and half of it isn’t done.” WORKER: “Yo bref stink.”
(2) See Example No. 2 under Guideline 9 (link). In that case, the first issue was the gentleman’s excessive rudeness to others. Once he refused to leave, the new issue became his presence on the premises as a trespasser. He didn’t want to face that one, either, and so changed the subject to Presidential politics.
(3) By exactly that same token, in the world where I live, I note that whoever becomes indignant first is usually the one in the wrong. This is the person who will complain that the other person has been “rude,” “ignorant” or “disrespectful.” Those are exceptionally vague terms that can mean, or can be made to mean, just about anything; it’s almost all in the eye of the beholder — all, that is, EXCEPT FOR the fact that the person who makes this accusation, does not want to face the original question.
(4) A first-time customer comes into the grocery store, wearing a uniform shirt that identifies her as working for one of the movie crews that, now and then, shoot here in Baltimore. She strolls right past the cashier, into the “behind-the-counter” area, which is off-limits to customers. CASHIER: “Ma’am, you can’t go back there.” CUSTOMER: “I probably make a lot more money than you.”
What it is: Normally in a democracy, the majority rules. This poses the risk that the minority may be unjustly treated. For that reason, the U.S. Senate has a sort of safety valve: a minority of the members can keep debate of a question going ad infinitum, all day and all night, day after day; until the majority either (1) gives up, or (2) happens at a given moment to not have enough members present to get its way. In the second case, the minority will let debate end, and insist on a vote on the question, and win because they happen to have more members present than the other folks do.
As an abuse of free speech, I have heard the filibuster used most often by hosts or guests on talk shows. The tactic is to take up, fill up, all the available time — that is, all the time available to a participant who’s called in with questions the host or guest does not want to answer — with speech that may or may not have anything to do with the question. If the original question pertained, say, to a rude store clerk; when the caller tries to get a word in edgewise, the host or guest says, “Let me finish,” and then rattles on about clouds, or bridges, or numerology, or anything else just to fill time.
Why avoid it:
This abuse of the filibuster is a blatant ploy to silence, not answer, one’s opponents.
And that’s wrong.
In practical terms, the filibuster is something for participants in The William Tell Show to beware of in their private conversations, debates at home or in the neighborhood or on the job. Beware of doing it yourself.
On the air, on The William Tell Show, it ain’t gone happen.
What it is: Assuming you know how your opponent thinks, about things unrelated to anything she or he has actually said. “Oh, then you must think thus and so.”
In fact, I myself do read minds from time to time. Years ago, when I first thought of doing The William Tell Show, one of my haters and I were both reading each other’s minds so often it scared me. I wound up creating an alias for William Tell, and trained myself to think of him only in terms of that alias, so that (I hoped) this project would remain secret from her.
Why to not do it: Pretending to be psychic in the way I set out at the beginning, is really just a different way of Changing the Subject (Guideline 7). One needs instead to deal with exactly what the person has said (Guideline 11).
(1) A woman was in line at the grocery store checkout. Her phone rang, and she became irritated. As she reached into her purse to get the phone, she said, “You know I’m in line.”
Excuse me, Ma’am; there’s no way in the world the person who made that call could possibly know you’re in line.
(2) A man who was in the store — not even to buy anything, but just waiting for a friend who was buying things — became unacceptably rude to employees and customers. The manager told him to leave. He refused, based on some mistaken assumption about freedom of speech. The manager called the police. The man still did not leave; he supposed somehow the police would take his side. The trash talk he addressed to the manager in the meantime included this: “If you had your way, Obama wouldn’t be President.”
So this guy somehow knew, eh? how the manager had voted in the recent election. I don’t think so.
(3) The psychic presumption works another way, too; in assuming, without evidence, that one knows what everyone else, or no one else, thinks. If someone says, “Nobody’s saying that” — chances are, somebody is.
Some decades ago, the people I dealt with every day generally assumed that nobody actually favors abortion; many folks (like me) acknowledge and accept it as an unhappy last resort, but no one (we thought) actually favors it. But then a one-time-only guest lecturer in a class I was taking — this woman came pretty damn close.
Conclusion: Unless you’ve got some track record of psychic abilities outside of debates — in which case you’d probably be better off getting a 900-area-code phone number and making big bucks that way, instead of calling my show — put the crystal ball away, and listen to and answer exactly what your opponent says.
What it is: Use of terms such as “some,” “a few,” “many,” or “most but not all,” to “qualify” or limit a group one is referring to.
Why do it: “Unqualified” statements, such as, “White people pick their nose and eat the boogers,” are very often false or at least highly debatable. A statement like the one just made, also tends to carry with it the impression that all members of the group are in question; that, here, all white people do thus and so. Prudent use of a qualifier — “Some white people pick their nose and eat the boogers.” — will often yield a statement that is unquestionably true.
Example: In discussing Guideline 9, I mentioned that the remark, “Nobody’s saying that,” is usually mistaken (link). One may more likely be correct if one says, “I haven’t heard anyone say that,” or “No one’s said that here,” or “No one’s said that [on the air] tonight.”
This can be one of the hardest tasks. Psychologists have studied this, and when two people disagree it can be extremely hard for one person even to repeat back, word for word, parrot-like, what the other person has said. Yet that, word for word, is what one needs to deal with.
QUESTION: Why does this happen? ANSWER: It’s usually easier to disprove what you wish the person had said, than to disprove what she or he actually did say.
So, often without even realizing it, one will substitute what one wishes the other person had said, for what they actually did say.
Problem result #1: One then is dealing with not-facts, not facts.
Problem result #2: Your opponent winds up complaining, “That’s not what I’m saying.”
In situations like this, it can become hard to agree even on what the question or issue is, let alone how to address it.
Have the goal of expressing your opponent’s position in terms she or he will say are correct. Once you’ve done that, you’re in business.
… or “I don’t understand.” Be willing also to hear others say it; give them permission.
Why: On the one hand, much of the mischief we have been discussing, comes from a desire to look competent even if one’s not; to look smart rather than stupid. Accordingly, on the one hand, folk are prone to pretend they know things they don’t.
There’s no correct shame in not-knowing. If you were to start listing all the things I don’t know, neither you nor your grandchild nor your great-great-great-grandchild would ever finish. All not-knowing means, is an opportunity to learn.
On the other hand, to deny someone permission to say, “I don’t know;” to insist that the person take a stand, one way or the other; poses a high risk of violating (raping) that per-son’s conscience. No one can rightly be called on to endorse a position she or he does not understand, or has not had time to think through — or, quite possibly, doesn’t even care about.
An attitude of “You’re either for us or against us,” of “It’s us or them,” runs the risk that both “us” and “them” have misconceived the issue, are possibly even asking the wrong questions, so that neither side’s stand is correct. Both sides then might correctly turn to the one who says, “I don’t know,” humble themselves and seek from that person a better understanding.
The author of Psalm 8 said in part (“You” here is God.):
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals, that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little lower than angels,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Awe in the face of the unknown may be the healthiest of all human postures.
If you call in to a talk show and get a ring (rather than a busy signal), chances are you are on one of four, or perhaps six, or perhaps ten, incoming phone lines to the show.
The phone may ring for a long, long time.
It will probably be answered by a person called the “Producer,” who is likely to ask your name, where you’re calling from, and what you want to discuss. You will normally then be put on hold, and will be able to hear the show live over your phone.
It is extremely important that, as soon as the Producer answers the phone, you turn down any radio you may have playing that’s tuned to the show. In order to keep completely unacceptable speech off the air, there is a seven-second delay mechanism; the show as heard on the air constantly occurs seven seconds after the events happened live. On the one hand, this gives the host the chance to step in and override unacceptable speech. On the other hand,
if you don’t turn down your radio when the Producer answers the phone,
chances are you will get completely confused
between listening to the phone (the show as it happens live)
and listening to the radio (the same thing, seven seconds later);
and you will most likely miss your chance to talk on the air.
On The William Tell Show, we will take calls in the order received. This means that if there are four phone lines, each new caller is the fourth caller, with three others before him or her. If there are six phone lines, each new caller is the sixth in line; if there are ten lines, each new caller is the tenth.
Be prepared to stay on hold a long time. If you’re the fourth caller, chances are you’ll be on hold for at least nine minutes, not counting commercials, news and weather and so forth.
Before you call …
… it’s a good idea to think through what you have in mind to say, and even possibly make notes; keeping in mind that the conversation will last about three minutes.
For The William Tell Show, it is important that you eliminate any background noise; that you call from a quiet place. I want the listeners to hear you, not your TV, not someone’s boom box, not fussing family members. For those three minutes, you’re the star, and I don’t want you to share that status with anyone else — anyone else but me, that is.
When to dial
The host of a talk show normally announces the phone number only when there are open lines. If the host isn’t making such announcements, there are no open lines, and if you call you will probably get a busy signal.
There are ways to slip in edgewise, however.
If you listen carefully to the on-air conversation, you can often tell when a particular call is winding down and about to end. When it does end, there will momentarily be an open line, and if you are the first to call at that moment, you’ll get in.
Back in the day, for some years I was a very frequent caller to the local talk shows, and I had it down to a science. When I saw that one call was coming to a close, I would punch in the first nine digits — only — of the phone number; and when the call did actually end, at once I punched in the last digit.
Tell Show policies
I value the time and effort you invest in calling the show. For that reason, in short, if you talk to the Producer — if the Producer answers your call — you will talk to me, and have your full fair share of on-air time.
On the other hand, the Producer will only answer as many calls as are certain to get on the air. At the end of the show, once that caller is on hold who will be the last for that day, the Producer will no longer answer the phone.