Don’t be a Nodder: Painting, Poem, and Periagoge

On Saturday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with a group of wonderful students with whom I am currently attending the Witherspoon Institute‘s First Principles seminar.

Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”

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“The Anonymous Passive”

This evening I attended the first annual Frank Eyck Memorial Lecture in German History at the University of Calgary. Guest lecturer Dr. Christopher Browning from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill spoke on the topic: “Why Did They Kill? Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators.” From the lecture, there is one concept that stands out specifically in my mind. According to this site: “When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, [the north-western German city] Bremen’s police force did not hesitate to side with them. Their decision to collaborate turned civil servants into mass murderers.” Browning told us that a reserve policeman from Bremen who served as the company photographer wrote letters to his wife that have survived and are being studied. For accuracy, I will quote from Browning’s paper on which he based his presentation:

One month later, after reporting on latest packages sent home, he [the Bremen reservist] noted explicitly: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed. The Jews are being totally exterminated.” He advised his wife not to think about it—”it must be”—and for the moment to “say nothing about it” to their eldest daughter. Significantly, he wrote in the “anonymous passive” voice—omitting any identification of the actors–so pervasive in postwar accounts but here employed even during the war.

The phrase “the anonymous passive” and Browning’s explanation of it using this example struck me as quite relevant to my recent reflection on the tendency of international relations theorists and international political economists especially to personify non-persons and to dehumanize actual persons so that action is carelessly assigned to non-actors and moral responsibility cannot be properly designated.  “Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons ‘actors’, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.”

Browning’s student Patrick Tobin elaborates on this point in his Master’s Thesis on the second largest Nazi crimes trials after the Nuremberg Trials. He says:

Those interviewed by and large played a difficult balancing game, trying to come across as helpful and open, while reluctant to provide any self-incriminating statements. When confronted with the information about the massacre in Garsden, most acknowledged that this occurred, but made self-exculpatory statements along the lines of “I did not see these things with my own eyes.” Similarly, they tended to speak of the shooting in what Christopher Browning has termed the “anonymous passive,” noting the crimes but omitting the criminals: “After the first group had been shot, the next ten people were led to the grave… In the end, they themselves were shot just as their predecessors.”

Dehumanization is often cited as one of the key tactics of genocidaires. (By the way, this French word for ‘those who commit genocide’ was coined after the genocide in Rwanda and I think we ought to have an English equivalent that is more precise than ‘perpetrator.’) Dehumanization is defined by Browning as the “ability to construct a world in which those whom the perpetrators had killed were not within community of human obligation, but rather totally devalued.”

Using theories, models, paradigms, abstractions, and other “constructs” distract from “the community of human obligation.” Valuing human persons requires a personalist and human action approach to politics. Also, international politics is about more than necessity. Constructing a system of the world according to what is possible rather than according to what is responsible leads to immoral consequences.

A few thoughts on conference etiquette

“Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
– Emily Post

Attending numerous conferences renders one particularly perceptive to the unique kinds of manners and conduct that can be typically observed at such gatherings.

Recently I attended a political conference and inspired by a few observations I made, I would like to share a few thoughts on conference etiquette.

Arrival: When arriving to a conference there is usually a registration desk. Regardless of how much you may expect to be recognized and greeted by name, it is a courtesy to take the initiative to introduce yourself upon arrival. This way you help expedite the registration process and make it easier for those at the registration desk to find your name tag and confirm your attendance on their list.

Dress Code: Sometimes the conference organizers inform attendees of the dress code. If not, it is appropriate to ask the organizers. Otherwise, err on the side of professionalism. Sometimes I like to look at photos of the same conference or event from previous years to get a more exact sense of how people dress for the particular occasion. If you find yourself making excuses to yourself for your attire, chances are that you should change.

Business Cards:
Everyone who attends a conference should bring business cards -enough cards for every conference attendee even. A key purpose of conferences is networking and exchanging business cards is a great way to make connections. When you receive a business card, you should receive it graciously. This may mean taking note of the design or some interesting piece of information on the card and making a comment or offering an affirmation. Then, the card should be respectfully placed in a pocket or cardholder. Cards should not be carelessly left behind on tables, the floor, or the buffet table. At the earliest opportunity, write a note about the individual you met on the back of their card. Perhaps note the key topics of your conversation or the most interesting things you learned from them. Then, when you return home from the conference, send them an email to follow-up and thank them for the pleasure of meeting.

Language: Avoid jargon and acronymns. Both jargon and acronyms can serve to exclude people unfamiliar with the terms and also tend to carelessness in speech. There is a way to explain words that may not be known by everyone rather than patronizingly defining them. By taking the time to explain what you mean, people will be attracted by your inclusiveness and thoughtfulness.

Research: Conference programs are generally released in advance and usually you can predict what kinds of people will be there. It is a good idea to research the panelists, keynote speakers, attendees, and organizations involved. This will make introductions smooth and you can have a solid frame of reference for most conversations.  People are flattered when you recognize their place of work, their research interests, their latest media appearance, and especially anecdotes from their biography. Be careful not to lead on to just how extensive your research has been or to how sharp your memory is. This somtimes comes across as creepy.

House Rules: The recent conference that I attended invoked the “Chatham House Rule.” Essentially, this rule was summarized: “What is said here, stays here.” Curious about the origin and nature of this rule, I did some research.

The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

It is important to respect the conference rules because how you honour or dishonour the rules will be a reflection of you. It is especially helpful to know the spirit of the rule so that you can adhere to it accordingly. All of this is especially good to bear in mind in light of new technologies that grant us the opportunity to publish instantly. As the adage goes: “Think before you tweet.”

Questions: At most conferences there is an opportunity to ask questions publicly. In this excellent article How to Ask a Question Peter Wood laments that we seem to have lost the art of asking good questions. He begins his article explaining what happened when the floor was opened for questions at a debate:

“The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, ‘Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?’

Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.”

When asking a question at a conference, I recommend beginning by stating your name and where you are from (city or university or company, for example). Avoid providing an oral resume. Far too often individuals spend two minutes describing how qualified they are to ask the question before finally taking a full minute to ask it. When asking a question, remain standing at the microphone until the question has been answered.  Avoid the most specific references in questions that are outside of the parametres of what has been the focus of discussion. For example, it seems odd when, after a session on the principle of religious liberty or the global financial crisis, people stand up and ask very particular questions about Latvia and Pakistan. Share your personal and niche interests when you mingle, not during question period.

Speakers: When you are the speaker at a conference, arrive early. It is good to arrive early enough to visit with conference participants and perhaps to join them for a meal. Then, it will also be appreciated if you can stay for a short while after to address individual questions and to receive compliments! Making time for participants when you are the speaker in this way will show that you respect your audience and are willing to go above and beyond showing up to speak and collect a fee or honorarium.

Speakers should definitely avoid apologizing during their presentations and confessing to a lack of preparation. A speaker should not say “in conclusion” or “I have only a few minutes remaining” when he is only halfway through his presentation. This makes the audience anticipate a speedy end to the presentation that they would otherwise likely be far more attentive to sit through were the speaker to make no reference to time.

The chair of a panel or the master of ceremonies should always greet the speakers who they invite to the podium with a handshake. It is important for the chair to take this initiative and for the other speakers to respond the gesture. The podium should never be left unattended. Applause should occur consistently before and after each speaker and it is the role of the chair to model this to the audience. Applause should be held until the speaker arrives to the podium to be greeted by the chair. Even when the chair and a speaker are friends, hands should be shaken rather than a hug or any other reception at the podium.

For more resources on public speaking and leadership, check out Toastmasters.

At conferences there tends to be buffet meals, plenty of socials, and lots of occasions to go out for drinks. It is typical to not feel even a bit hungry or thirsty throughout such a conference. However, consider how moderation and a little sacrifice can serve to cultivate discipline that can sharpen your conscientious dealings with others. Intentionally foregoing some of the luxuries at conferences is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of the conference and to be sensitive to others.

Intensity: Conferences are intense experiences. They provide opportunities for tremendous growth personally, professionally, academically, and even spiritually. Aim to strike a balance between total immersion and a bird’s eye view.

Reflection and Goal-setting: After a conference has ended, take the time to reflect on your experiences. Write down your observations, memories, highlights, etc. Then, set goals. What actions do you resolve to take inspired by this conference? Do you intend to attend the same conference again? Are there similar ones that you can attend? What were the highlights? How will you transform your experience into action? How has the conference shaped your character?

Happy conference-going!