How not to communicate

Back in the 1990s I was active in a group called the Montana Wilderness Association, since renamed “Wild Montana” and changed from activism to collaboration, an industry front group. Part of my self-initiated volunteer work was to go around Billings, my home town, and speak to various groups. But rather than “speak,” I had an idea. I was dedicated to one purpose only, the preservation of wild lands, and noticed that we had this in common with just about everyone, even our severest critics. However, we had among us misanthropes, and such people tended to be the face of our movement, as cameras tend to pick out the wild ones with dreadlocks and who carry signs and stand on street corners. In truth, the men and women I worked with in MWA were serious and stable. These were some of the best people I’ve ever known, and I look back on those times with warmth and good feelings.

My idea was to speak to disinterested and even opposition groups, and bring love of wild lands to them. I went to the forest service and asked if they had any resources I might use – in fact, they had photographs of just about every lake and mountain in the state, and offered to let me use them. My first engagement was a large gathering with the Gem and Mineral Society, and was well received. All I did, without prepared script, was to show the slides and ask who in the audience recognized the places. They were enthusiastic – they knew the names and were proud of having been there. People in that group knew every place, more than a few having hiked to them.

There is, above the Boulder River Canyon south of Big Timber, Montana, a long and winding uphill (both ways) trail called the Upside Down Trail. Purely by accident in my presentation I came across a slide of a man on horseback (somewhere else), but I had put it in upside down, and when I showed it paused, and then said “That’s the Upside Down Trail.” The audience howled, and I decided to make that joke a permanent feature of the presentation. The next time I showed it I got dead silence. I was no longer spontaneous, and the audience sensed it.

The nice thing about that presentation was that the audience got to participate and be spontaneous, rather than having me talk to them, or down to them. The takeaway: These lands we love are something that all of us have in common, and fighting to preserve them is a good thing. We communicated. Unfortunately, my subgroup, the Eastern Wildlands Chapter of MWA, was given over to new a new leader, a dour woman who resented me (I was not then well-liked anyway, and have never been a good foot soldier), and I never again gave the presentation after she took over. Nor did anyone else. In fact, as Pew Charitable Trust money was rolling in, MWA was itself changing, and within a few years I would resign in disgust. MWA actually wanted that reaction, wanting to get rid of the old guard so they could collaborate and cooperate with industry, their new unstated purpose. They are now rolling in dough, have changed their name to “Wild Montana,” and are now staffed by 23 people who appear in their photos in rugged outdoor clothing with wild lands as a backdrop. I wonder if they ever go to those places. I wonder if they’ve ever done the Beaten Path.*

A staff of 23? When I was there we had three people in Helena, and one each, usually part-time and looking for other work, leading the various chapters. If you ever think about volunteering for such work, there is a sure way to judge the genuineness of an environmental group: They are either broke, or nearly broke. Our friend and writer Steve Kelly dedicates his efforts to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. I would link, but one of its leaders has asked that I not promote them, as they do not want to be associated with some of the wild ideas I put forth. I have to respect that. They need to stay on message, and not be fiddling around with Moondoggies.


Not too long ago I witnessed an exchange between a father and daughter. It was a little heated, but what I noticed was that neither was listening to the other. They were waiting for the other to stop talking so that each could speak again, having not heard a word. I whispered to my wife “It’s like debating a fire hydrant.” I don’t watch much television news, and none of the programs that cover issues. But when exposed to that medium years ago, I noticed that the hosts and guests talked over one another, and that there was not much communication. Maybe that is a prejudiced view on my part, maybe I just do not get out enough, but I do know this: Such programs are heavily censored. No one gets to be there unless it is certain that time bombs are defused, and that viewpoints are sufficiently mainstream.

However, they are ferocious in their presentations. It really appears they are debating, and that there are two sides (no more than two) to every issue. In this manner, that part of the public that thinks about politics is engaged and neutered. That’s at least a small part of how the mainstream is controlled.

There once was (and still is) a show on public TV hosted by William F. Buckley, Jr. called Firing Line. I did not know when I watched those programs that the show at that time was also censorious. I knew nothing of controlled opposition, and when I watched Noam Chomsky and Buckley on the show, did not know that Buckley surely knew of Chomsky’s true nature. The reason I bring this up, however, is demeanor. People on both sides spoke in complete sentences, and listened. There was mutual respect along with serious differences of viewpoint. I remember my mother watching it one day and saying something like “I like to listen to people with good minds.”

“Then there is the conversation where one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view. This is yet another variant of the dominance-hierarchy conversation. During such a conversation, which often tends toward the ideological, the speaker endeavors to (1) denigrate or ridicule the viewpoint of anyone holding a contrary position, (2) use selective evidence while doing so and, finally, (3) impress the listeners (many of whom are already occupying the same ideological space) with the validity of his assertions. The goal is to gain support for a comprehensive, unitary, oversimplified world-view. Thus, the purpose of the conversation is to make the case that not thinking is the correct tack. The person who is speaking in this manner believes that winning the argument makes him right, and that doing so necessarily validates the assumption-structure of the dominance hierarchy he most identifies with. This is often – and unsurprisingly – the hierarchy within which he has achieved the most success, or the one in which he is most temperamentally aligned. Almost all discussions involving politics or economics unfold in this manner with each participant attempting to justify fixed, a priori positions instead of trying to learn something or to adopt a different frame (even for the novelty)”. (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, page 249)

This is, sadly, the way it is done by almost everybody. Jordan Peterson is now all over You Tube, and many of the clips feature titles that use words like “Jordan Peterson embarrasses” or “destroys” or “decimates” his opposition. Even he has been subsumed into the culture. However, I do want to feature one clip here where he, yes, “destroys” his opponents, but in such a way that we all need to hear. He is confronted with identify politics at its worst. It’s very brief.

Peterson is highly critical of universities and radical professors who promote disorderly conduct and interfere with civil exchange. Having long ago completed my college training, I don’t recall seeing any of that, but I was in a small town and a local college, this at a time when major campuses were overrun by antiwar protests and fake and hyped up events like the Kent State shootings. There was indeed an antiwar movement, and the people participating in it were serious, well-groomed, and even though garnering attention (sponsoring “teach-ins”), could hardly be called disruptive. Our Intelligence services knew that the true antiwar movement had to be stopped. Much like the Montana Wilderness Association was stopped in its tracks by impostors assuming leadership positions, so too did false leaders take over the antiwar movement. The Chicago Seven, the Jerry Rueben’s, the Tom Hayden’s and Jane Fonda’s became the face of the movement. Meanwhile, drugs, hippies and long hair became the “norm,” at least as far as news was concerned. Eventually it all ended with the fake Manson affair. That’s how movements are killed.

In today’s culture, those shouting loudest are winning, and reasonable people with opposing viewpoints are “cancelled.” There is no real communication among various ‘isms’, least of all with those promoting Climate Change and feminism, for examples. It is painful to watch those, who Jordan rightly described as narcissistic and uneducated, rule the day. All I can think as I watch what goes around and passes for dialogue is that we are a nation, maybe a world, in steep decline. Our best days are far behind us. Jane Fonda, who once supposedly sat in a gun turret in Hanoi (probably on a Hollywood back lot), is still front and center. Such behavior, then seen as treasonous, still never affected her career.

This ramble started on a happier note, me having no idea where it would land. I am one who thinks with his fingers, and watch words appear on the screen as if unprompted by my mind. Maybe this post is useful, perhaps entertaining. I do want to close with something I wanted to insert, but did not find a place, a quote that I thought came from John Cleese, but is rather one of those clever things that is ‘attributed’ to various people, including Mark Twain:

“College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”

There is a lot of passing of words that do not take up residence in actual brains these days. Has it always been so? I don’t know. Let’s ask Greta.


*The opening photo at the very top is of Impasse Falls in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. It is more or less at the center of a 26-mile hike known as the “Beaten Path,” not longer much beaten by current generations. If ever you have a chance, go there, do it! It is real, and spectacular. My then-girlfriend and now-wife and I sat on the trail above these falls, and she was impressed. So in a shameless act of ingratiation I gave them to her. She owns them to this day, but freely gives permission for others to view them.

9 thoughts on “How not to communicate

  1. Coincidentally enough, I’ve been trying to find out more of what’s being studied in the realm of data vs. information vs. knowledge vs. wisdom. Most of what I’ve found is linear, excessively material, and computer-modeled as some mechanical function. We humans are now considered by researchers as some life-form lower than lab rats and other animals caged and tortured and dumped in the local landfill when no longer useful as study subjects. Data and data manipulation distorts information, which distorts understanding. Back to the fish not knowing about water, we swim in propaganda.

    “The globe has become on one hand a community of learning, and at the same time, with regard to the tightness of its inter-relationships, the globe has become a tiny village. Patterns of human association based on slower media have become overnight not only irrelevant and obsolete, but a threat to continued existence and to sanity. “(Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960)

    Problem: The insane can hardly be bothered with their continued existence. Ergo, mass suicide becomes “a thing.” I’m working on developing an effective method that can be employed to conduct mass secular exorcisms. Any ideas are most appreciated.


  2. “…campuses were overrun by antiwar protests…”

    Yes, anti-war demonstrations were real to us. As teenagers, we found out about fear and brotherhood while engaging a churning phalanx of police; who previously arrived in buses parked at the university fieldhouse. Each bus, a bullet of screaming cops fired up by their team leader– all in preparation to face us on the street. Our methods were peaceable so we quickly learned how to spot agent provocateurs, as most of the ruckus was coming from them. We also learned about how tear gas feels and how wrong we were about its effects. (being young studs we thought it would be no problem. Wrong). We stood our ground sweaty and bruised for our version of peace. A real experience in the real world, much different than gaming thirsty for mountain dew. We grew and knew about engaging life; and continue to spend time figuring out how things actually work around here…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting comment, and thank you. I am curious about tear gas. I wonder if its effects linger, and that if later you suffer “colds and flu” as your body detoxifies. These days they call it covid, but that is crap. I have had two minor surgeries, each with anesthesia, and am now enjoying sniffles, powerful sneezes, non-productive coughing. It has been going on for three days now. I am clearly in detox. Do not know why.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ty. lingering effects? Couple of hours later, little. However, another time in a surprise gassing (indoors) of the student union canteen, the detox effects persisted for over a day (were we 19)…sounds like your system is protecting you well…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Despite our vehement disagreement on a particular subject, Mark, I always enjoy your thoughtful posts and on this occasion I especially liked the romantic story attached to your photo.

    I am certainly guilty of screeching at people and talking over them – embarrassingly so – but I had an insight yesterday after screeching at someone about the covid scam which was that while I’ve done due diligence on my beliefs – I’ve checked out both sides as thoroughly as I can – often those disagreeing with me have not looked into the opposing argument in the slightest and what they do is simply throw up completely unthought-out objections based on absolutely no evidence which simply infuriates me. So I’ve decided that in future I will attempt first to ask the person what due diligence they’ve done in looking at the opposing hypothesis and then when they say they haven’t done any (presumably) I’ll ask them who they think should listen to whom first.


    1. Early on in my involvement with MWA, a single man with an eye out, I noticed a very attractive woman who was actively involved, and encountering her one day after first meeting her at an MWA gathering, she was carrying a placard (circumstances are not clear, memories old) noticed that she was belligerent and pissed at the world, not someone I wanted to date. I was so fresh out of a bad marriage that I did not see that she was a 4-year-old as in Peterson’s video. In real life I tend to be laid back. I only rarely engage others with truth, and then understanding Paul Simon’s poetry, The Sound of Silence.


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