01 November 2010

Communication: Owning Your Feelings and The Public Eye

In my Feelings are Facts post, I talked about how to communicate feelings. You say, "I feel frightened when you yell." It puts a simple fact on the table that nobody can dispute or find fault with.

Now, I find myself in a position to modify a part of that. It is absolutely the right thing to say still, but you need to make sure that your audience is at a point where they can hear the truth.

There were two incidents recently where this played out.

Juan Williams of NPR

Juan Williams was employed as a commentator by both National Public Radio (NPR) and Fox News. Being interviewed on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, he said, "If I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." A clip of the interview is here.

This was part of a larger conversation where Williams was in fact speaking against demonizing an entire religion because of the actions of a relative few. He was actually pointing out that his feelings were not rational and not a basis for any kind of policy.

Regardless, his statement was decried as bigoted and he was promptly fired by NPR. (Don't cry for him though, Fox offered him a $2 million contract).

E4E Take on Williams

So was it bigoted? If he had said "Muslims are evil," then I would agree he was being bigoted and not speaking factually. Demonstrably there are non-evil Muslims. His words however were clean.

He used the word "get" in place of "feel," but I think it's the same. He may be pre-judging the part about their identification, but he simply said that he is nervous around these people who dress differently. He didn't speak badly of them, he owned his feelings.

Bottom Line is that NPR was out to get him and just waiting for him to slip. It's too bad because it closes off an avenue for public rational discourse. This goes beyond political correctness.

Maura Kelly of Marie Claire

Kelly wrote an article about overweight people on TV. Much of the article was fine, she said that our country's obsession with physical perfection is unhealthy, and at the same time, it's probably not good to be glorifying obesity. So far so good.

Then she dropped the bomb.

"So anyway, yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other ... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.

"Now, don't go getting the wrong impression: I have a few friends who could be called plump. I'm not some size-ist jerk. And I also know how tough it can be for truly heavy people to psych themselves up for the long process of slimming down. (For instance, the overweight maintenance guy at my gym has talked to me a little bit about how it seems worthless for him to even try working out, because he's been heavy for as long as he can remember.)

"But ... I think obesity is something that most people have a ton of control over. It's something they can change, if only they put their minds to it."

She received megabytes of hate mail and issued an apology.

E4E take on Kelly
First of all, she is young (30s), beautiful, single, thin, never had kids, and by her own admission, has never been in love. So, I think it is safe to say that she is a self-absorbed person who can't relate to people who have families.

She expressed feelings adequately. In her first paragraph she said she'd "...be grossed out..." and "...find it aesthetically displeasing...", and "...find it distressing..." So she is expressing feelings of displeasure, distress, and disgust. So from a communication standpoint, what she said is defensible.

What she lacks completely is empathy. I'm sure she works hard to maintain her weight and has time to go to the gym and not have responsibilities for others in her life.  She lives and works in the fashion world bubble and, based on her writing, seems to have no idea of what real life is.

Her weight loss message sounds fine. She goes on to say, "...eat more fresh and unprocessed foods, read labels and avoid foods with any kind of processed sweetener in them whether it's cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, increase the amount of fiber you're getting, get some kind of exercise for 30 minutes at least five times a week, and do everything you can to stand up more — even while using your computer — and walk more."

You can't argue with that (although it needs more specifics to actually be useful), but it is what millions of people try to do and fail at.

--on soapbox-- It's not because of an epidemic of sloth and gluttony. Rather, it is because so many people's metabolisms have been perturbed by the standard American diet, which has been promoted by the USDA (food pyramid), doctors and congress. People living according to those guidelines are becoming diabetic and succumbing to the symptoms of the metabolic syndrome in increasing numbers. It's good for the grain and pharmaceutical industries though. When obese people try to get help they get the old calories in - calories out pep talk. Yes, most people can overcome obesity, but at a societal level, there is a tremendous amount of education that needs to be done in order to effect significant change. It starts with knowledge.--off soapbox=--

Bottom Line on Kelly is that although her words are fine, she is horribly insensitive to people who have been misled by our culture, our scientists, and our leaders. She owned her feelings, then went on to blame the victims. She chastises them by her false opinion about how easy it is to change. She also has her own body image issues an they spilled over into her writing. Please check out the Single Dad Laughing blog for a more sympathetic perspective of Ms. Kelly.


I am not defending either of these two people's opinions or feelings. I do not feel scared of Muslims, and I do not feel the same repulsion of large people. But, they owned their own feelings. Being public figures associated with the media, they both should have known better. The emotional intelligence of the American people is not very high, and Williams was probably on the bubble anyway with NPR.

I have no problem with political correctness in the way that I think about it. It boils down to speaking the truth objectively. People who complained were unprepared to hear the truth from these two folks. They wanted or expected them to be perfect, bland people devoid of human emotions, and if they had them to not share those emotions.

We all have to be careful with our words. They matter in many ways. Both of the journalists have a great opportunity to learn that simply saying something right does not mean that it is the right thing to say.

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