Natalie Hamlen is a senior, majoring in Politics & International Relations as well as Human Development and Family Science

 

This post is the eleventh of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

“He called it Tierra de Gracia, the Land of Grace” (45). In Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse, William Neuman details the history of a country inundated with natural resources and commodities. Just as the indigenous people did not benefit from the resources exploited by explorers in 1498, neither do Venezuelans today experience the “grace” of the land. The novelty of populist leaders quickly wears off as living conditions continue to decline. Neuman skillfully chronicles the collapse of Venezuela through varied accounts of life from both inside and outside of a country engulfed by governmental corruption and economic disparity. Although Neuman’s deference to the personal life stories of Venezuelans evokes a deeper level of insight into the crisis, his biased depiction of the efforts by political parties in the United States to navigate conditions in Venezuela undermines his attempts to fully represent and explain the collapse of the Latin American country.

Neuman investigates the crisis in Venezuela by using the overarching event of the 2019 blackouts to symbolize the government both figuratively and literally leaving the citizens in the dark. He relies upon eyewitness testimonies from everyday Venezuelans to uncover the abundance of unfulfilled promises made by President Maduro on behalf of the government. Committed to addressing the healthcare crisis, the president announced the construction of new hospitals. However, Neuman’s interviews with locals in Venezuela revealed the government’s shortcomings. He recounts a woman’s story, depicting the scene following a house fire in her neighborhood. The ambulances that arrived to provide medical care did not have oxygen masks, and the hospitals lacked the necessary resources to care for the survivors (362). Survivors quickly became victims due to insufficiency, which has become the outcome for many Venezuelans as Maduro continues to issue empty promises (382). Instead of addressing the root cause of the crisis–corrupt and failing leadership–the Venezuelan government continues to deflect blame to other parties. When they do show up, it is only to put out fires–merely proximate causes of an abiding crisis that threatens to engulf the country.

Neuman’s work sheds significant light on the stories of many Venezuelans living in the dark. His book created an opportunity for the people of Venezuela to fill in the gaps left in the reports on the country. Neuman wrote about the incidence of looting, for example, but graciously used the personal stories of those partaking in the action as a vehicle to explain it. Plagued by hyperinflation, Venezuela is a starving country. Neuman does raise the question of where one might locate a sense of morality within the crime, but his account opens up a dialogue for a Venezuelan woman to speak directly on her experiences and justify why humanity loses its sense of right and wrong in times of crisis (50). Instead of giving his own answer, Neuman gave Venezuelans their dignity back. He recounts the stress experienced by the woman as she tried to balance the desperation to put food on the table with the knowledge that stealing is wrong (51). Neuman rationalizes her struggle by explaining that the crisis stripped Venezuelans of the ability to think past tomorrow, which would give a reason as to why people no longer could justify adhering to any sort of standards to promote prosperity and stability for a future that might not exist.

Although Neuman includes a portrayal of the United States’ response to the collapse of Venezuela, his bias undermines the effectiveness of his argument. In contrast to a more ardent and well-intended characterization of the Democratic Party, Neuman’s description of Republicans indicates his clear opposition, “In the United States the Republican dream was to starve the beast, to cut government financing so deeply that most of the things we expect the government to do become impossible” (Neuman, 365). He invites an unreasonable comparison between the Republican view of small government and the Maduro administration’s failure to fulfill the responsibility to provide functional services, such as public hospitals (365). Neuman’s penchant for blaming Republicans in the United States for the struggle of Venezuelan citizens (primarily referring to the use of sanctions) and disregard for more than a century’s worth of problematic interference by both parties indicates his bias and, therefore, brings the legitimacy of his argument into question. Although I do not believe Neuman intends to use Republicans as a scapegoat for Maduro’s incompetency, his characterization of Venezuela as the “Republican dream fulfilled” allows for the failure of Maduro’s government to take responsibility for its citizens.

In his illustration of the collapse of Venezuela, Neuman represents a variety of different perspectives to demonstrate the complexity of politics. Even in the presence of an obvious problem, identifying, defining, and responding to an issue remains a complex process for both internal and external actors in both domestic and comparative contexts. Despite being victims of a humanitarian crisis as a result of poor decisions made by the government, not all Venezuelans agree on the culprit of the crisis and, therefore, the party responsible for solving it. Neuman’s interviews include the perspective of a Venezuelan who came to realize how Chávez exploited the country, as well as a Venezuelan whose belief in Chávez’s sincerity and innocence never wavered (384-386). The difference in opinion caused some Venezuelans to leave the country after realizing the government would not take responsibility for the collapse and others to remain in hopes that the government would recuperate. Whichever stance the population of Venezuela finds itself inclined to adhere to, Neuman’s work rightfully validates the suffering of the people living under a government incapable of bringing them into a better future.

 

Jackson Hazen is a senior studying politics & international relations, as well as Spanish.

This post is the tenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

The state of Venezuela has served as a harrowing example of the fragility of new democracies when they are placed under extreme distress. However, when commenting on the state of Venezuela, many political pundits and politicians miss the key factors that have led Venezuela down the wrong path. William Neuman brings his journalistic expertise and his experience working and living in the region in Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse to reveal those often-missed truths. His purpose is to portray the historical realities that have caused Venezuela to become so broken, while also showing readers real stories of Venezuelans to bring back some humanity and dignity to people who are often overlooked and whose interests are often subverted. In the text, Neuman demonstrates how the power of populism can lead to the deterioration of a state. Although at times leaning on his journalistic experience of impartiality, Neuman also writes into his own bias which has the effect of muddling some of the points being made in the text. But overall Neuman crafts a story that combines facts and history with the personal stories and narratives of Venezuelans to demonstrate to his predominantly U.S. audience how complex and issue the Venezuelan state really is. In doing so, Neuman allows the people of Venezuela to reclaim a national identity themselves, one that lies beyond the speeches and actions of their leaders, and one that exemplifies their resilience and humanity.

Neuman reveals the power a populist leader like Chavez can have over a nation. Often when Venezuela is spoken of in U.S. public discourse incorrect assumptions are made as to why the state has reached the point it has; the answer to the question of why Venezuela failed is far more complex than a simple answer like “communism”. The power that Chavez held, which would later be transferred to Maduro is a large part of the reason why Venezuela has reached the point they are today. Chavez (and Maduro) held centralized power and knew how to control the system and the people to maintain control. Neuman builds on the work of political scientist Jan-Werner Müller to explain that “populism incorporates a moral vision that pits the pure people against the corrupt elites” (82). Chavez knew how to play his people; he would speak to them directly using the television in his Aló Presidente broadcasts. In these broadcasts, “He would make announcements that his supporters knew would enrage his enemies, and because of that, they loved him even more” (67). The power that a populist leader can have over a nation was one key takeaway from Neuman’s book.

Neuman demonstrated excellent journalistic qualities throughout the text, however, at times he leaned more heavily into his own bias, which became evident in the latter half of the book and did at times inhibit the points being made. Though Neuman kept a fair account of history and was critical when appropriate, there were instances when it was clear that Neuman held one position over another. When Neuman spoke of the Trump administration or of Republicans he was more critical than when he spoke of the Democrats or of the Biden administration. For example, when writing about the lack of government services in Venezuela Neuman wrote, “The irony was that Republicans in the United States considered Maduro their enemy, they should have been applauding him, he was their fellow traveler” (269). His writing bias takes away from the point of the book by distracting readers with U.S. political rhetoric. Keeping a fairer tone would have served the book better.

Though Neuman’s political bias did show through in the book, his portrayal of Venezuelans not as objects or pawns, but as real people with lives and stories to tell, shone as a high point in the book. Throughout the book, he writes the stories of citizens who, despite all the hardship and suffering they face, are still living in the country they love. One example that stood out to me was Neuman’s story of his visit to Maracaibo. He spoke with a man who was scavenging in the pit in the center of the city when a woman who had lost her purse approached them. She asked them if they had seen her purse, and neither of them had, but the man told Neuman, “I would have given it to her if I’d found it” (244). This story, and many others shows how the Venezuelan people are not broken and hopeless as so many think to portray them as but are resilient and hopeful.

Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a valuable tool for anyone who is in the realm of politics. It reveals how complicated history is connected to issues and problems that we face today. It also shows how important it is for those connected to politics to be able to communicate with the public, as well as some of the dangers of leaning too heavily on our own biases and notions when writing. Neuman’s book also serves as an example of how to convey complicated information to a broader audience while not getting lost in jargon or specifics Additionally, the book also does an excellent job of covering a complicated issue while not losing the human stories that are behind it. It also serves as a reminder for us to not be arrogant in our actions because, as we saw in the book, it is this arrogance that can lead to bigger problems.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

This post is the tenth of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

According to current research, countries around the world have experienced a wave of autocratization – whether turning from democratic systems to authoritarian ones, or remaining democratic broadly, but experiencing backsliding that sees leaders acting in ways that undermine the system.  (See this summary report from the respected organization IDEA – International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Accountability.)  One such “contraction” of democracy has been the rise of populism in recent decades, a development that has occurred in many countries across the globe.  Scholars such as Guillermo O’Donnell and Nadia Urbinati have characterized populism as a dysfunctional or disfigured democracy, as it tends to rely on popular support, but as a means to gain power to undercut one of the central elements of democratic systems — that of pluralism intended to spark competing views to evaluate decisions.

Our third text of the fall capstone course Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse by Wiliam Neuman, offered a deeper dive into these themes from our comparative and international relations subfields.  Neuman, a journalist with long-term coverage of Latin America, examines the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the country’s eventual economic collapse within the larger international context in which these events occurred.   With almost 8 million of its citizens displaced around the world — more than a quarter of the 30 million who had lived there in 2016 — readers gain a sense of the struggle that has prompted mass migration from the country.  Its dependency on oil as a revenue source has subjected the nation to a very fickle source of income, one that the state did not manage well.  Neuman also provides a small window into how U.S. foreign policy shaped events in Latin America through recent sanctions, which are part of a larger pattern of economic and military influence and intervention that stretches back almost two centuries.  In all, the book launched rich conversations, provoking critical thinking about these issues.

Read on for the first analysis of the book – “A Failed State, Not a Failed People”

Leengee Pierre is a senior politics and international relations student.

This post is the ninth of our new season of the From the Field student blog series: For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this opening post for some brief context. 

In Life Worth Living, Volf, Croasmun and McAnnally-Linz observe that “[w]e are reason-seeking animals, and we are (all too often) people in pain. We need responses to suffering that both help us cope and help us fit the pain and disjointedness we find in our lives and our world into a larger picture.” (202). Suffering has been the biggest part of human lives. We know suffering can have a huge effect on our lives; it has impacted not only who we are as an individual but also the community that we are in. That part of our lives is one of the ways we learn from and can improve ourselves overall. Despite our suffering, we should seek happiness because we would not want to be one’s suffering. They are ways to work against suffering.

Through God, we should have the ability to see beyond our suffering. Yes, we suffer because of our sinful nature, but that does not stop us from rebuking any effect that suffering would bring to us. As 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” (NIV). Through God, you will find happiness despite your sufferings. God’s purpose in your life has no negative effect on your life, but the sinful world that you live in. Those experiences of suffering sometimes create a feeling of God being absent in your life, but it is not ceasing your faith in God. As the authors stated, “God’s purposes and wisdom far surpass any powers of ours to ferret out the meaning of things. The appropriate thing to do is to bear suffering patiently while we wait to see what good it brings.” (Volf et al., 193). Through our suffering, we will find something good out of it when we have God helping us overcome it. There will be happiness, no matter how it hurts you, but it should not stop you from doing the things that need to be done in our life; we must move forward.

Through suffering there will always be an end. Nietzsche’s view on suffering is that it is baked into life, you can learn from your suffering. This suffering helps you understand more about certain things about yourself but also learn about certain things that would prevent you from having that same suffering. Through that suffering, you can see a positive outcome to it. As Nietzsche said about suffering, “Each of our lives sits atop the heap of all history that went before it, each life would have come about without every ounce of that history” (as cited in Volf et al. 196). That history of suffering will be a memory of what you have overcome because there was a purpose through your experience. There will always be a connection to all the experiences and suffering that you have encountered in your life.

I believe you can avoid suffering depending on the circumstances you experience. Sometimes you know you should not put yourself in a situation, so you avoid it. Much of our suffering is based on what we could have done to remove ourselves from the specific situation, which you later find the solution to the problem. For instance, you can struggle to do well in a course, but through practice, study, and meeting with the professor, you can overcome that struggle. We should not accept suffering within ourselves, but pursue happiness. Nietzsche believes that we consider pain ““as evil, hateful, deserving of annihilation, as a defect of existence.” (Volf et al., 195), which is true. I believe that we should accept something that does define who God wants us to feel; happy. God does not want us to suffer, and we have the Bible to guide us into happiness and the path that He wants us to go. We should not let suffering dictate our happiness because there is nothing great about suffering.

For me, this book has exposed various aspects of life that we humans feel in our daily lives. It gives a view of different ways to accept or overcome certain aspects of our lives. Using different beliefs, Bible scriptures, and stories would give us an understanding of how we should think about life and ourselves, especially how we view suffering and our worth to ourselves and the world. It also gave me an understanding of how different people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs – such as Apostle Paul, Confucious, Muhammad, and Buddha – relate each subject to their understanding. It made me realize many thoughts and opinions about myself and others that are around me.

Dominic Gomez is a senior politics and international relations major with an international relations concentration

This post is the eighth of our new season of the From the Field student blog series: For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this post for some brief context. 

Theologian Miroslav Volf and his fellow academics Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, with the help of some of the greatest thinkers, writers, and leaders in human history have come together to answer one of the eternal questions of existence: What does it mean to have a flourishing life? Throughout Life Worth Living, they break the Question into its aspects and evaluate it using multiple worldviews, ranging from Christianity and Buddhism to the classic Greek philosophers and contemporary voices. Regardless of the reader’s disposition, a flourishing life requires action to see it manifest; this has to be balanced daily with one’s obligations and not lose sight of them. However, this path to self-actualization is not something that is afforded to everyone and is highly dependent on one’s social location.

Above all, a life worth living must be lived and made reality. Upon closing the book, readers will have to evaluate the worldviews and philosophies set before them and use that knowledge to formulate how they will live out the rest of their lives. It is like the medieval rabbis emphasized “If you don’t put wisdom into practice, it will wither and die” (231).  If one comes across some profound knowledge but just sits on it, they are doing themselves a disservice and risking those precious gems of wisdom to be forgotten, as if they were never there. This principle of not letting something good go to waste also applies to life itself. One of the greatest things a person can do is to put their principles into action. Volf illustrates this by contrasting Thomas Jefferson’s writings for liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people but simultaneously holding hundreds of people in bondage, making the words ring hollow (227-9). As we pursue this vision, we have to be aware not to let our obligations and daily rhythms distract us from answering the Question, one of the biggest dilemmas from reading this piece. To do so, the authors offer the schema of layers of reflection and action, beginning from the shallow autopilot to the riverbed of self-transcendence. By alternating and transitioning through these levels of reflection and action, one can pursue their answer to the Question while still retaining proficiency in the everyday. 

The book answers the Question using wisdom from different schools of thought, allowing the reader to analyze the views presented and make their conclusion. One of the strongest points that Volf and his colleagues made was debunking the conventional wisdom of the view of a good life as one that prioritizes longevity, happiness and personal health. These things are beneficial of course, but should not be taken to be the final objective. As the authors note “the world’s greatest traditions don’t endorse a “long, happy, healthy”’ life without qualification” (19). This idyllic answer to the Question is a very short-sighted and selfish vision of life. It includes nothing of responsibility to the community and the fact that a life lived well often includes suffering, which can be a building experience. The figures that we admire in history were not defined by their easy-going comfortable lives but transformed the world, often at great cost to themselves and those around them with such examples as Martin Luther King jr, Malcolm X, and Ghassan Kanafani. The author’s debunking of this myth early in the book was an important one to include and set the tone of the rest of the work as one that expects more of its readers in how they think of and live their lives. This work is not without its flaws.

In attempting to answer a question relevant to all of humanity, it seems that this book struggles to expand from its audience of Westerners living in relative material comfort. This is especially seen in the chapters relating to suffering and how to confront it. About how one should respond to suffering, the professors point to Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali who notes “God is not merely all-powerful, but supremely wise and unsurpassably benevolent […] In the grand scope of things, everything works for the best possible good” (192). This kind of advice might work well for someone living in the relative material comfort that we enjoy in the West, but for many in the Global South and in less developed areas, suffering from situations that are truly out of their control like conflict, economic crisis or worse this can come across as tone deaf. To hear that everything is going to work out in the end sounds hopeful but fails to fully sympathize with those who already have difficulty reaching the other levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

This has been my favorite book of all the ones I have read in my college career thus far. Its attempt to answer the Question is sincere, thorough, and enlightening, urging the reader to take it as a guide to see the rest of their life as something to sculpt for themselves. Concerning my pursuit of a career in politics, this book has provided a template for discerning the trajectory of my career. In a field so influential to the real world such as this one, we must evaluate our role in it and ask ourselves: How am I making the world a better place in my role? The book provides a moral lens which can often be missing in this secular realm. In reading it, I have thought more about how I can use my knowledge and position as an educated Westerner to advocate and help those in the Global South, whether that be relating to working with refugees or doing something more broadly in terms of economic development.

 

Jake Lamb is a senior, majoring in politics and international relations, with a minor in psychology

This post is the seventh of our new season, For Times Such as This, and a return to.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

Although there appear to be endless merits to healthy communication, many individuals refuse to accept this practice. For example, many individuals prefer to share their true thoughts on current events over social media where verbal cues can be lost in translation rather than face-to-face with other individuals. Although many elected officials can be thought of as experts in communicating their political perspectives, they often lack communication skills to those with whom they argue their points. This relational disconnect can be attributed to simple issues such as lack of exposure, use of technical jargon, and tendency to choose comfort over growth. Furthermore, communication requires much more empathy and effort than many may realize. Despite being an everyday aspect of our lives, communicating is still a skill in which many of us would admit we need improvement. The struggle in communicating is better understood by unpacking the meaning of empathy and how it can be applied to help us better relate to others. One of the many simple ironies in life is that to improve our own communication, we need to focus on what others are saying. It is this backward and unorthodox way of thinking that is required to guide our actions if we desire to make meaningful change, a view that Alan Alda shares in his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?:

When it comes to communicating complex knowledge and developments in the field, those with expertise find difficulties in explaining their findings to others. Alda argues that this inconsistency results from the fixation on logical processes rather than relational dynamics. As Alda notes “Being truly connected to the other person happens when we see them in a way that’s both emotional and rational.” (24). This drive for connection with others is helpful when applied to politics in the way that it helps us through conflict and to bridge our differences through a common mechanism of human relations. The basic human desire to be heard is an important point of reflection that Alda emphasizes as a way of improving how we relate to each other (28). As Alda advocates for a deeper examination of our thinking towards fundamental human tendencies, we also need to stay aware of the nature of the fields into which we are going.

Although there are many significant points for growth in the current political climate, we must remember how underlying norms become entrenched in human institutions. The communication strategies encouraged by Alda have undeniable practical benefits, but they may be subject to more scrutiny when applied to political questions of significant gravity. As a result of the various checks on differing actors’ authority embedded in the United States government, there are consistent opportunities for conflict or tension. If every political actor were to go into their roles with empathy or hearing the other side’s perspective at the forefront of their minds, how would they preserve their values? We often value elected officials who display empathy towards us, but not those working against the goals we want them to achieve. This cognitive inconsistency can result in harmful double standards when it comes to the development of empathy in government. Recognizing this point does not ignore the importance of empathy to communication and political interactions entirely, but rather underscores that it may not be the most productive characteristic if what we value in our politicians is efficiency in coming to decisions with lasting results. However, as we certainly value efficiency and the ability to achieve concrete policy change among our elected officials, we need to value empathy as an end that extends beyond policy objectives. If our government consisted of individuals who valued empathy, there would be much more opportunity for compromise to produce meaningful change.

While many of the nuanced complexities of communication in research-oriented fields appear difficult for individuals to approach, Alda wants his audience to recognize the tendency to overcomplicate information (28). In Alda’s continuing focus on human nature, how individuals are aware of their own agency and how they relate to others can be embraced as another way of improving how we relate to others (179). This perspective helps to emphasize how we perhaps place too much value on empirical data over relational moments. By examining the relational ends we are trying to achieve, we attribute more meaning and intention to how we apply our means. Therefore, we must not miss the forest of empathy by focusing on the singular tree that itself is the difficulties that come with communicating effectively. This mindset shift may not appear to create any concrete change, but it holds tremendous value if embedded in the social norms of not only political actors but society as a whole. Although it would be ideal if the value of empathy were embraced at all levels of society, individuals need to remember that the only definite change can be created within oneself and remain consistent in this ideological embrace.

 

 

Kyle Chu is a senior politics and international relations major (American politics concentration), with minors in music and statistics.

This post is the sixth of our new season of the From the Field student blog series: For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this post  for some brief context. 

Deep sea divers are brave souls. They, on their own volition, search out the innermost bowels of the earth. On the way, they behold the nightmares of the deep, the horrifying motley crew of uncanny, unwieldy, disproportionate, and plain old ugly creatures that reside solely in the darkness of deep waters. Deep sea diving aptly resembles the individual human quest for finding life’s purpose. The journey is meandering, long, and murky, and the underwater sojourner must be ready to face the leviathans of one’s own character. Fortunately, a group of Yale professors, Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, have written a book to guide brave purpose-seekers in the depths of their own souls. In Life Worth Living, Volf et al. effectively use dialectical tension (albeit at a third remove from the reader) throughout a series of questions to facilitate the reader’s idiosyncratic struggle in answering life’s deepest Question: “What, for me, is the life worth living?”

Questions begin the process of finding one’s life purpose. Unless one faces good probing questions about values, intent, and application, he or she will most likely remain in shallow waters. Volf et al. call the shallows “Autopilot,” wherein “We simply do what we do because that’s what we do” (5). Instead, the authors desire to push the reader to the very “bedrock” of purposive living, where he or she must transcend self-evaluative questions (such as “What do we really want?”) and face the ultimate qualitative conundrum: What is worth wanting (12)? Volf et al. do not simply ask this question, however. They ask a series of proximal questions that manifest different aspects of the Question. For example, they ask the question of authority (Who do we answer to?) in Chapter 3, the question of goodness (How does a good life feel?) in Chapter 4, and the question of desires (What should we hope for) in Chapter 5. These questions serve as a helpful structure for synthesizing one’s response to the comprehensive Question.

While Volf et al. effectively employ sub-questions as the pedagogical structure for answering the Question, they employ dialectical tension to secure the structure with substance. For each sub-question, the authors place side by side answers from a variety of worldviews, some being quite compatible with and others being fundamentally opposed to one another. For example, in discussing the question of inescapable suffering in the world, Volf et al. present a smorgasbord of four worldviews: that of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Islam), of Friedrich Nietzsche (Nihilism), and of Job (Judaism)(Chapter 11). Volf et al. use the tensions and compatibilities in these worldviews to begin the process of synthesis in the reader. For example, Nietzsche claims that inescapable suffering is intrinsic to growth, and thus intrinsic to happiness and heroism (195). For him, the solution to suffering is to realize that suffering is not a problem (199). On the other hand, Job protests his sufferings and demands an answer from God. Job believes that God is all-wise, all good, and sovereign over evil. Job also believes that God relates to humans and is accessible to human cries. For Job, then, the solution to suffering lies in petitioning God for the solution. The fundamental tension between Nietzsche and Job pushes the reader to make a value judgment: either all suffering is an inherently good problem (Nietzsche) or all suffering is an inherently evil problem that only God can solve (Job). In making this judgment, the reader must synthesize the proposed worldviews with his or her own experience and knowledge. In this way, Volf et al. employ dialectical tension as the method of answering the Question via the synthesis of answers to proximate questions.

While Volf et al. explicate the answers of others to the Question, they do not share their own answers to the Question. The absence of their idiosyncratic answers leaves a subtle gap between their purpose for the book (to aid the reader in developing his or her own answer to the Question) and the book itself. The gap lies in this: the information from which the reader derives his or her idiosyncratic answer must be learned from a third remove. For example, Nietzsche writes his experiences down, Volf et al. read and summarize Nietzsche (second remove), and the reader reads Volf’s account of Nietzsche (third remove). Life Worth Living will become all the more effective if Volf et al. input their own experiences in answering the question. The reader can then learn at the first remove and be closer to the action of answering the Question.

In Life Worth Living, Volf, Croasmun, and McAnnally-Linz effectively aid the reader in answering the Question. To this end, they utilize dialectical tension, set in the framework of proximal questions. Although the authors leave a gap in their book due to the absence of their personal stories, the book’s mode of teaching remains effective, not just for answering the Question but also for navigating other life experiences, including politics. Politics forces its participants to address terrible tensions, shifty nuances, and outright contradictions. However, if one is in the habit of diving deeply into value judgments and balancing the complexity of ideas and worldviews, he or she will have an advantage in the political arena by being more readily able to find common ground between clashing interests. What I am trying to say is that deep sea diving, as an analogy for deep evaluative introspection, is the ultimate transferable skill.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

This post is the fifth of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post  for some brief context. 

Students in our politics and international relations capstone course just finished their second book of the course, Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most by Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally Linz.  In this recently released volume, the scholars in theology and religious studies walk their readers through traditions in thought from various religious and philosophical perspectives, encouraging them to evaluate a range of ideas.

Wading into the field of political science requires a carefully developed and nuanced foundation.  Students certainly received much food for thought from individuals across time and from around the world.  As an educator at an institution that seeks to help its students nurture their own authetic faith, it is my privilege to share a selection of their takes on the book and its impact on their thinking.  We unanimously invite you to read it as well!

Read on for the first student response

Isabella Farrington is a junior  politics and international relations major and studio art minor

 

This post is the third of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this introduction for some brief context.

In his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alan Alda tackles what it is exactly that prevents people, especially highly knowledgeable individuals, from being good communicators. Time and time again, through his acting expertise, collaboration with scientists, and firsthand experiences, he comes to the same conclusion: we forget about empathy. Without empathy, communication becomes ineffective, muddled with disinterest, suspicion, and confusion. As humans, we have the great, but limited, capacity to acknowledge others emotionally, one that many attribute as a solely human trait. Why, then, do we often forget to engage empathy in the very moments it is meant for? Well, our humanness also affords us the ability to house pride, fear, selfishness, and stress that distract us from truly relating to others. As citizens, scientists, and relational beings, to truly engage empathy for communication, we must prioritize empathy as a humble, selfless, and practiced tool.

Alda’s explanation of empathy in its importance for effective communication is one of the most appealing and relevant analyses of his book. Empathy is the motivator for understanding. For instance, storytelling as a vital communication tool connects individuals, requiring empathy to do so. As a character experiences hardship, we connect with their thoughts and feelings, expressing sadness or hope as we watch their journey and oscillate between putting aside or relating our own circumstances to theirs. The same is true for the storyteller: being able to attentively relate to your audience, sensing the emotions and reactions of the other person during the storytelling process, “is everything” (132). In other words, empathy empowers narratives, giving us fundamental emotional pathways to grasp understanding. But these pathways require a certain level of sacrificing our own priorities. Storytelling is one example; there are numerous other ways in which empathy can be applied to better our connectivity and communication. However, there are also many ways in which empathy can be abused, the underestimation of which can have significant consequences.

Although Alda does dedicate time to the misuses of empathy to manipulate, he fails to capture just how effectively modes of empathy can negatively impact the thought processes of audiences, especially in terms of commonality biases. Alda describes how the level and awareness of commonality between a speaker and listener increases how “in sync” their brains are (178). Moreover, commonality acts as a highway to empathizing with storytelling. He briefly references how politicians, companies, and other organizations can take advantage of empathy to persuade the public to unknowingly support a narrative that does not really align with their values, but writes that familiarity is still effective if it does not seem fake (184). Alda’s conclusion here lacks significant extension and emphasis on the dangers of empathy, specifically in this model of storytelling and commonality.

Bias as a natural part of receiving stories often perpetuates confirmation bias, polarization, misinformation, exclusion, and even harmful language when groups’ motives are self-centered and competitive. The prevalence of successfully molded narratives to suit unethical or inward focusing needs is seen throughout history, with propaganda, conspiracy theories, and everyday marketing.understanding.[1][2] Wholly recognizing the limits and dangers of commonality in storytelling can allow us to not only better equip storytellers to reframe processes to consider how they might ethically meet the audience’s needs, but also audiences in defending against altered narratives. Alda misses these notable dangers of commonality in storytelling and, thus, the practical importance of being aware of the selfish uses of empathy.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? brings readers an old-is-the-new-new perspective on empathy in communication – we have always had it, but we do not always use it. By understanding the impact of empathy, and storytelling, in the communication and acceptance of ideas, as professionals within the political science field, we can utilize these tools to communicate complex ideas across various levels of knowledge, to educate, and to be educated. As citizens, individuals, and groups with values, we can acknowledge how narrative affects the way we think, and how our capacity for empathy might be targeted by altered narratives, so that we may more sensibly enact critical analyses of information and ethical practices with empathy. As all these roles and simply as human beings, we can remind ourselves that a little humility can lead to a lot of understanding.

 

[1], João Ricardo de Oliveira Júnior, Ricardo Limongi, Weng Marc Lim, Jacqueline K. Eastman, and Satish Kumar. “A Story to Sell: The influence of Storytelling on Consumers’ Purchasing Behavior,” Psychology & Marketing, 40, no. 2 (Feb 2023):239–261. https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.21758

[2] Fred Shaw. “The Power and Danger of Storytelling.” Pittsburgh Quarterly, (Fall 2022),  https://pittsburghquarterly.com/articles/the-power-and-danger-of-storytelling/.

Allie Mast is a senior major in politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English.

 

This post is the second of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this introduction for some brief context.

Alan Alda’s If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? argues that communication is a two-way street, placing responsibility in the hands of the person speaking and the person listening. In doing so, he asks two questions: how do we become better speakers, and how do we become better listeners? As Alda answers these questions, he successfully conveys that responsible communication requires empathy; however, he fails to address how we ought to proceed with respect to jargon, the necessary evil of communication.

Perhaps Alda’s most insightful point was his emphasis on empathy as the heart of responsible communication. His discussion revealed that empathy is a misunderstood concept among myself and my peers, causing us to characterize ourselves as unempathetic people. This view might stem from empathy’s closeness to sympathy, which is the ability to understand someone’s suffering. While it may be true that we host an inherent, but varying capacity for empathy, Alda’s definition of empathy places it in the context of a practice to be adopted, rather than a trait that some individuals have and others do not. Alda encourages empathy to infiltrate spaces that can truly benefit from its presence: the doctor’s office, the classroom, the boardroom, and so on. He reorients our assumed understanding of empathy, placing it in the context of everyday communication. Alda notes that, “with our attention on the other person, and with a heightened ability to respond, we’re tuned in to the present moment; we’re in intimate contact with each other… we can sense what they’re feeling, and we have a greater awareness of what we ourselves are feeling” (43). Through this lens, empathy has reciprocal benefits. Not only does it make the speaker feel heard, but it puts ourselves in a better position to understand and contribute to the conversation.

Alda also successfully adds depth to the relationship between speaker and listener, recognizing the knowledge differences that exist between scientists and the public, doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, and teachers and students. He calls attention to jargon as an element of communication that can be both an asset and a hindrance in these relationships. Early on, Alda describes how “the pull of formality and jargon can yank someone into not relating” (4). He admits that “jargon is all right as long as the people you’re talking to know exactly what you mean,” but also acknowledges the slim likelihood of that happening, given that within a single discipline there might be an unattainable range of technical knowledge (15-16). Alda then drops the issue of jargon without resolving it until the matter resurfaces in the final chapters. Later, Alda concedes that jargon is in fact very useful, for one word can be used to summarize five pages in plain English (188). Yet again, Alda issues a warning against jargon: “the insidious thing…is that we know how beautifully it expresses precisely what we want to say, and…the person we’re talking to doesn’t have a clue as to what we’re talking about” (190). Over the course of the book, Alda cautions against the dangers of jargon, explains its benefits, and acknowledges the persistence of its presence. His failure to resolve this apparent conflict, or at least adequately explain that jargon might be a dilemma with no resolution, leaves readers on a cliffhanger, asking themselves now what?

A point of agreement between myself and Alda is that empathy can be used as a strategic tool in writing. Alda describes this tactic as “reading the mind of the reader,” where, by reinforcing a writer’s ability to focus on another person, the better they are at expressing themselves “with words that land on the reader with clarity” (134). Not only does this process improve the written communication for the audience, but, as we noted earlier, writing with empathy has reciprocal benefits. We become stronger writers when we compose arguments by reading the mind of our audience, or put otherwise, by anticipating what they might be thinking. Not only does it ease our writing process, but it also makes the reader more susceptible to our persuasion.

The field of politics would benefit from individuals implementing empathy, whether it be in the form of responsible communication or reading the mind of the audience. More so than other disciplines, politics is speaker-centric, and far too little do we listen well. Aside from his ineffective treatment of jargon, Alda’s book is empowering for how he elevates the importance of listening. He effectively shifts the power structure that traditionally exists, where the speaker sits higher than the listener. In doing so, Alda grants the speaker and the listener control. While they may have different roles in the conversation, they have a shared responsibility to understand and be understood. Both now in the classroom and in a future career, may I remember to speak for clarity, listen to make people feel heard, and write with my audience in mind.