Sunday, May 2, 2010

Miscommunication and Freedom: The Connection

At the root of all communication lies the individual. It is through each individual that communication styles emerge, and it is through understanding oneself that each person can improve their communication styles. Through psychological freedom, or the freedom contained within oneself and free-will, we can begin to know ourselves. Freedom enables us to express ourselves, and in communication with others freedom to express ourselves is imperative. For what is communication if not the expression of our ideas and thoughts? Professor Mortimer J. Adler (2000), states that “psychological freedom is the fundamental freedom underlying both social and moral freedom” (p. 164). Freedom, whether people realize it or not, has profound effects on communication. Taking steps in understanding the various concepts of freedom in relation to the world around you can improve communication styles. Adler (2000) also stated that “the essence of freedom requires us to understand two terms: self and other” (p. 167), these two terms, according to Ronald C. Arnett, comprise Martin Buber’s concept of narrow ridge communication. According to Buber (1986), “narrow ridge is a communication style that genuinely takes into account both self and other” (p. 36), “which must become part of one’s decision-making process” (p. 35). Narrow ridge communication is essential in all relationships in society today.

In observing conflicts in the human community, we must consider that a portion of the problem, if not the entire problem, lies in miscommunication. Problems in communication can be associated with the lack of freedom a person feels morally, socially and psychologically, due to barriers imposed upon them, such as stereotyping and prejudice. By being prejudice or stereotypical, a person’s individual identity is ripped away from them. Generalizing people, in essence, conveys to a person that “this” is the only way they will be accepted, “this” is the only way they should feel; therefore the way we think they are is the only way they should be. Generalization demeans people and thereby denies them their social freedom.

When I visited my grandmother last year, she mentioned that there were a lot of families from a certain cultural background moving into the area. My grandmother began telling me about how “they” have drinking problems and are causing problems in the community. She lives in a very small town in which my uncle is a law officer. The information she receives about these people come from my uncle, whose primary exposure to anyone happens to be in negative circumstances related to the law. The more I thought about it, the more I had a problem with what she said. I began to imagine the difficulties in making friends and communicating with others for those who didn’t have drinking problems, but were being generalized in their community.

Many have said that freedom lies in knowledge. Categorizing people into preconceived generalities and stereotypes is a show of ignorance. “We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free” (Epictetus -Wisdom Quotes). In Arnett’s summary of “Buber’s narration about educated people” Arnett (1986) states that [an] educated person [is one] one who knows the rules, regulations, and tradition, but can violate them when necessary” (p. 126). It is not unreasonable to believe that educated people are more free, but you can only attain freedom if you understand the world surrounding you. By having compassion for differences, we can respect each other for our individual differences and thereby give people social freedom.

Social freedom or freedom that is experienced in social roles and action between members of a society has an impact on the community. Social freedom can simply be described as freedom to be who you are as an individual in society. People who claim there is no freedom don’t realize that it exists only by granting freedom and equal rights to others. By being free, we understand that there are moral limitations to that freedom.

As Arnett (1986) states, “there is no set formula for a guarantee of an individual’s freedom within a community. Freedom is more complex than just being able to do whatever one wants in community” (p. 111). One person’s freedom should not, in return, restrict the freedom of another, or as Thomas Jefferson once said, “no man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another” (Wisdom Quotes).

In history, miscommunication has arisen in instances where a group’s freedom has been restricted or extinguished. These problems arise due to one group of people adopting an ethnocentric attitude that is to say that “they feel their group’s way is the best and only way” (Schwarzwalter, April 20,2004, Lecture). An example of this is the current debate concerning marriage and the gay community. Members of this community are asking that they have equal rights, legally, in marriage unions as does the straight community. In a country that is supposed to have a separation of church and state, it is wrong that the only true element keeping them from their freedom is based on the traditions of religious communities.

The religious right believes that heterosexual marriage should be the only construct of marriage recognized by the laws of the United States. Denying gays this right based on an ethnocentric view is in breech of the constitution, which grants equality to all and does not restrict those rights based on race, age, sex, or sexual orientation. In fact, if President George W. Bush get his way and the constitution is amended, this will mark the first time in the history of the constitution in which a freedom was restricted from a specific group of people.

Granting freedom should not be based on the ethnocentrism of one group of people. Ethnocentrism, according to Jessica Stowell, “leads to rejection of richness and knowledge of another group of people, which impedes communication by excluding other point of views” (Schwarzwalter, April 20, 2004, Lecture). Ethnocentrism breeds polarized communication. Polarized Communication, according to Arnett (1986), is “the inability to believe or seriously consider one’s own view as wrong and the others opinion as truth [and is] the major problem within our human community” (p. 15). By excluding people’s ideas, we are taking away their freedom. In order to overcome problems such as these, we must heed the advice of Jessica Stowell, who says that for communication barriers to be overcome, openness, tolerance and acceptance must be exercised.

It is those brave enough to step out and exercise their freedom, those not afraid of challenging and shifting the paradigms of a community, who will make the differences in our world. By definition, a paradigm is a set of rules and regulations dictating the process of how we do things, (Schwarzwalter, February 17, 2004, Lecture). This action must take place in order for there to be a balance of freedom and openness in communication styles. Arnett (1986) tells that Buber recognized the “need for courage on the part of the solitary person [because without it] a totalitarian collective, not a community, is nourished” (p. 83). Those who are not afraid of the shifting of paradigms are those courageous enough to adopt the narrow ridges of communication. According to Arnett (1986) “…we need to be open to events and people in order for new combinations of ideas and actions to emerge” (p. 121).

It all sounds easy, but Gladwell spoke of social pressures and their effects on decision making. Gladwell (2000) claims that
when people are asked to consider evidence or make decisions in a group, they come to very different conclusions than when they are asked the same questions by themselves. Once we’re part of a group we’re all susceptible to peer pressure and social norms and any other kinds of influences (p. 171).
Peer pressure becomes a problem in human relations because “many […] are prevented from acting by fear of the consequence” (Adler, 2000, p. 168). An equally dangerous outcome is marginalization, in which the voice of an individual “is limited by placing that person on the outskirts of the group […] [and] is excluded from the decision-making center of the group” (Arnett, 1986, p. 23). Fear of marginalization and other consequences, such as being ostracized, rejected and ridiculed, therefore extinguishes the freedom in communication.

In my own life, I can honestly say that peer pressure used to hold a lot of power, especially peer pressure related to wanting to “belong.” I thought I had never been exposed to what I had always thought peer pressure was. Those old commercials where a friend offers a joint, and then attempts to verbally persuade the other person to “join in,” are the most obvious forms of what people consider to be peer pressure. I think the feeling of wanting to belong to a group is stronger, and in most adolescence experiences, goes beyond words. Nobody offered me my first cigarette, I chose to smoke because, I thought a certain person would like me more. As an adult, I realize that we should surround ourselves with friends who accept us as we are, people who do not pressure us and with whom we can have the freedom to share our thoughts and feelings and in doing so, experience positive communication styles.

Some may claim that true freedom exists only in the confines of our minds because that is the only place you have complete control. I tend to agree with this statement. In my mind, I can think anything I want, I can do anything I want, the power of imagination is endless. It is only by releasing my thoughts, feelings and/or desires to others that freedom is at a risk. Until someone tells me I cannot do, say, write or feel one thing or another, I am completely free to experience those feelings at will It is by “playing a non-judgmental role with others in order to promote their self-actualization,” (Arnett, 1986, p.69) that freedom is granted and communication can become open. Self-actualization, roughly defined by Arnett (1986) is “full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc.” (p. 69). In order to promote self-actualization, one must posses it themselves, because it is the self-actualized person that is free.

One might argue that if you do have an outlet from which to safely share your feelings beyond yourself, then there really is no freedom. Unless the right to be you is granted, it is indeed lack of freedom. It is through an understanding of psychological freedom, the freedom within one’s self, that self actualization is given birth and in turn, by embracing your own self-actualization you can be free to “grant” others the same right. You cannot give something you do not have.

“Freedom is […] the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them --- and then, the opportunity to choose” (C. Wright Mills - Wisdom Quotes). Choosing an opportunity or an attitude is an exercise in the fundamental of freedom that every person is entitled to. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says that if you let circumstances dictate your action, then you are suppressing your freedom. When one suppresses their freedom, they choose not to take responsibility for their action, which has a profound effect on the environment surrounding a person. If we refused to take responsibility, we would be liable to do anything. When we take responsibility, “freedom then becomes an act of the person changing events, while simultaneously being willing to be changed by them” (Arnett, 1986, p. 122). Decision making, the fact that we can choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is proof of free will. Arnett (1986) says that “[free] will[…]is the transaction of the call of the situation and our response to it” (p. 122) “and the call is nothing if not responded to by the individual” (p. 121). It is in that simple response that freedom arises. One can see the desire to refuse freedom because if you feel you have responded to the wrong choice, you are less likely to take responsibility, but when the decision turns out to be favorable, we are more inclined to believe we were responsible. It is a very basic principle of psychology called locus of control wherein a person believes his or her fate is dependent on either internal or external forces. The healthier version of this is the external locus of control in which we are willing to take responsibility for our actions.

Rollo May (1986) says that “will is the capacity to organize one’s self so that movement in a certain direction or towards a certain goal may take place” (p. 119). “Will,” according to Arnett (1986), is a “constructive rule that govern[s] […] behavior” (p. 121). You must consciously chose to exercise your free-will while mutually considering the effects of your actions on those around you in order to accomplish that which you desire. We must heed caution because feeling a lack of freedom will lead to compulsiveness decision making, having negative consequences on the individual and the environment surrounding them.

Sartre (1966) believes “human reality perpetually tries to refuse to recognize its freedom” (p. 37), and Buber (1986) says that “life lived in freedom is personal responsibility or pathetic farce…as we ‘become free’ this leaning on something is more and more denied us, and our responsibility must become personal and solitary” (p. 115). In analyzing these two statements, I have come to believe that people who refuse to recognize the existence of freedom simply do not want to own up to their responsibilities. Sartre (1966) said that men are “responsible for [their] very desire of fleeing responsibility” (p. 97). Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand and therein lies the problem. By giving into the notion that there is no such thing as freedom or free will “we admit that circumstances decide for [us]” and in doing so “suppress all freedom” (Sartre, 1966, p. 41).

By understanding that “the absence of freedom consists in being subject to the power of the other” (Adler, 2000, p. 167), the other being a coercer, an authority figure, say a parent, a wife or a law officer, we can begin to understand processes in maintaining our freedom. Tannen comments:
being on the lookout for threats to independence makes sense in the framework of an agnostic world, where life is a series of contests and that test a mans skill and force him to struggle against others who are trying to bend his will to theirs. If a man experiences life as a fight for freedom, he is naturally inclined to resist attempts to control him and determine his behavior (Tannen, 1990, p. 152)
There can be no doubt that resisting authority can have negative consequences, such as arrest and fines.

Arnett (1986) claims that “even in civil disobedience and protest, one does not have total freedom. In exercising freedom against the tradition, we are limited even within a dissenting group” (p. 114). I do not agree with this statement, I believe that in understanding ourselves we can fight tradition if we are compelled to. It is our inherent right because “everything can be taken from a man but […] the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude on any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way” (Victor Frankl - Wisdom Quotes). “Personal responsibility is a response grounded in training and tradition that bends, alters, or changes the acceptable laws that govern the general situation in order to meet the specific requirements of the moment” (Arnett, 1986, p. 89), and this is the attitude each individual should approach when faced with a circumstance in which they must make a decision.

We may conclude that the danger to losing our freedom lies in the hands of the authority but we may be wrong, we just need the appropriate authority. According to Mortimer Adler (2000), “we need authority, an authority we willingly submit to rather than a force we are compelled to accept, if we are going to remain free” (p. 39). Without authority, there would be social chaos, we must know when to submit to authority and when to take our freedom, or as stated earlier by Buber (1986), we must “know the rules, regulations, and tradition, […and…] violate them when necessary” (p. 126).

According to James Baldwin “freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be” (Wisdom Quotes). Sartre’s philosophy coincides with that of Baldwin, Sartre claimed that if you say you are free, then you are free and if you claim not to be free, then you are not free. The decision is yours and within the constructs of the narrow ridge community you are free.
The danger in relation to authority, or leaders and freedom, is extrapolation about ‘group - think,’ in which a group adopts a mind-set or a particular view…not only might the leaders manifest autocratic dispositions towards new ideas, but if enough members of a community assume such a stance it can become the style of a community” (Arnett, 2000, p. 102).
To combat group-think philosophies we need to practice shifting of paradigms and understand that “dissent is essential if we are to keep a democratic institution strong […] every organization needs a questioner who does not permit the organization to run too smoothly” (Arnett, 1986, p. 100).

When evaluating communication patterns and freedom in intimate relationships, Deborah Tannen’s philosophy on understanding the differences between the sexes can lead to better communication. Tannen (1990) claims that “desire for freedom and independence becomes more of an issue for many men in relationships” (p. 40), and this can be confirmed by men’s consistent statements regarding feelings of being “smothered” or “confined” in relationships. In fact, men whose freedom feels more restricted are increasingly likely to have affairs. This can be confirmed by the mere fact that miscommunication in relationships is causing increased divorce and infidelity rates throughout our communities. When “men focus on their freedom from others’ control” (Tannen, 1990, p. 42), which is a natural reaction, the woman in their life becomes the control that they focus on fleeing from.

My significant other and I had fought for months with each other, and we could not figure out what lay at the root of our problems. After much exploration, we realized that there were things that we were keeping from each other. These things were nothing big, just general feelings that we felt we could not share. The turning point came when one of us opened up and shared our feelings. Our relationship began to take on a whole new form. Now there is nothing we cannot share because we know we have the freedom to be open with each other.

This is not to say that freedom of openness will not occasionally come with some repercussions, but open communication should be worth the risk and not come with a fear of consequences for being honest. Without mutual freedom to be open with each other, relationships cannot be happy or healthy. In a relationship, “…seeing a pattern against which to evaluate individual differences provides a starting point to develop not only self-understanding but also flexibility” (Tannen, 1990, p. 294). A relationship that does not meet these requirements is dangerous not only to the people involved, but also to society. Lack of freedom at home leaks into communication styles with others in the human community because one comes to the public already feeling they are not free.

The best road to take lies in the basis of friendship; in friendships there is rarely anything that you feel you have to hide from the other person. Acceptance, tolerance and understanding, all foundations of love, are the most important things in overcoming miscommunication in relationships with everyone.

Arnett (1986) says that “if one comes [to the communication table] with a closed mind, no new possibilities or freedom will be discovered - for freedom involves the discovery of new possibilities whether they be practical or attitudinal” (p. 123). Equally important to understand is that “freedom is contingent on our attitudinal approach to the world” (116). Just like it is the small things in life that really make life worth it, “[a] person [must] realize that freedom can be discovered in everyday activit[ies]” (p. 116), and through this realization we can be truly free and open in communication. Gladwell (2000) has the best idea in bringing about change, he says:
If you want to bring about a fundamental change in peoples beliefs and behaviors, a change in that would persist and serve as an example to others, you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs could be practiced and expressed and nurtured (pg. 173).
Freedom binds us together as a community and begins “in the heart of relationship, […] which connects us and is the essence of human life” (Arnett, 1986, p. 123 - 125). Peyton Conway March said that there are “three things we crave most in life -- happiness, freedom and peace of mind -- [and they] are always attainable by giving them to someone else” (Wisdom Quotes). People have philosophized for hundreds and thousands of years about what it means to be free. We may never understand it to its full extent; all we can hope to do it understand it as best as possible and be open to others in all aspects of communication.

The major questions I am left with lie in the loopholes of freedom that revolve around the varying individual perceptions of what freedom is. Why does freedom have such an obvious impact on communication? How do we actually overcome these preconceived ideas and shift our paradigms? How do we get other people to realize their freedom? It proves to be a different method for each person, there is no easy way to teach a person what freedom means or how to improve communication without them being open to the idea. What does freedom really mean and represent?

---- Works Cited ----
Adler, M (2000). How to Think About : The Great Ideas From the Great Books of Western Civilization. Chicago and LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Company.

Arnett, R. (1986). Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Gladwell, M (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Big DifferenceBoston, New York, London: Little, Brown and Company. National Constitution Center. The Constitution of the United States. Philadelphia, PA.

Sartre, J (1966). Of Human Freedom. New York: Philosophical Library Inc.

Schwarzwalter, L. Speech Instructor. (Class Lecture, 2004, February 17; 2004, April 20)

Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men In Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wisdom Quotes. Retrieved April 13, 2004, from the World Wide Web:   

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