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On Communication

By Arthur J Miller

One of the problems I have seen in many movements for social change has been in the area of communication. In my view, the problem of communication is one of the major things which prevents us from reaching far more people than we do.

The higher education system teaches people to speak and write in the 3rd person and places a higher value on abstract theoretical philosophy than it does on direct experience.

Among the general population, people tend to speak or write in the 1st person based on their direct experience or the direct experiences of others. I have had the opportunity to listen to people from many different communities and cultures over the years, and the one thing they all seemed to have in common was the way they communicated with each other.

One example comes from the food/supply runs I use to do for the Big Mountain Dineh. In 15 trips I went on, among all the people I traveled there with, the one person who was able to just sit down and talk to the Dineh the easiest was a striking worker who had never been to college. The reason, I believe, was that they communicated in the same manner.

Some among the more "educated" (that is educated by the system) may not see this as a major problem. But I see this problem all the time because I am on the other side of it. I never went to college, I had to drop out of high school to go to work. So I was never trained to speak or write as the 'educated' folks do. But most every time I get involved with 'educated' folks I find that I have a communication problem.

Sometimes I even feel oppressed by some as they complain about how I speak. Like most people among the 'uneducated' my ideas and beliefs are based upon my experiences; and thus I tend to speak and write in the 1st person. Even in this writing, I would be unable to communicate my views if I had to do it in the 3rd person.

There is a general tendency in this society to view those who come out of the institutions of 'higher learning' as somehow more knowledgeable than or superior to others. Here is a little reality check for you. If you need to get your car fixed, would you take it to someone who could explain in theory how each part functions, but had no direct experience in fixing a car? Or would you take it to someone who had direct experience in fixing cars? In that case experience is more important than theory, if you want a running car, that is.

I do not seek to place one class of people above or below any other class. What I am trying to do is to create some understanding so that we all can learn to communicate our ideas to everyone. You can, as many people have, write up a great manifesto with the best ideas of the world and then go out and give it to the people. Then you are left wondering why most of them ignore it. The fact is that most people do not like missionaries of any type, no matter what their message. But if you go out to the communities that you wish to address and listen and learn from their direct experiences before communicating your ideas (as an equal and not as a superior missionary) then you will find that far more people will be willing to hear what you have to say. As one old time Wobbly once told me, a good organizer does more with their ears than they do with their mouth.

Please don't view what I have said as asking you to talk down to people. Communication is not a statement of who is better than anyone else. Communication is the means of conveying ideas and knowledge. And theory is not superior to experience. And speaking from experience is not, as some view it, bragging. For ALL of our experiences are important to draw upon.