Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Decline of Reasoned Persuasion and the Rise of Intolerance

Civil discourse is dying. Reasoned persuasion is largely absent from politics and from almost any part of the media. "Debate" has degenerated into sound bites and name calling, with the "winner" determined based on the best zinger rather than a clearly reasoned argument. Those making controversial statements are often quickly denounced, vilified, and labeled with epithets that would formerly have been reserved for true criminals.

Why does it matter? It matters because it signals a decline in the quality of thought and reasoning. We live in complicated times with problems that often require complicated solutions. It is difficult to get to a solution by shouting over or at each other. 

It also matters because it leads to polarization. It is hard to remember a time in which our political parties and elected leaders have been so divided for so long. I trace the current division back to the Bush/Gore election of 2000, and, if this is correct, it means that the current period of polarization has lasted for a full 13 years, punctuated only by a brief period of respite after the 9/11 tragedy. Polarization means that nothing gets accomplished, or, if one party is completely in power, legislation gets passed without bipartisan support, which inevitably leads to more polarization.

What are the causes? The causes are complex, and are necessarily rooted in philosophical differences between the left and the right. But there have always been differences, and those differences do not in themselves explain why the quality of discourse has substantially declined while the shrillness has monumentally increased. Although there are undoubtedly many reasons, here are a few somewhat random thoughts on why this is the case.

  • Cable news and the sound bite. Time constraints, commercial interruptions, and perhaps simply a change in journalistic approach mean that in-depth reporting is simply not in vogue. Instead, the quick quip, sound bite or talking point has reigned for many years with pundits aggressively trying to top each other. Both Fox and CNN claim to present "debates," but they almost always devolve into disrespectful shouting matches where nothing intelligent is said.  This approach makes the cable network news almost unwatchable.
  •  Social media. In a very short period of time, a large portion of the population has begun receiving most of their information through Twitter or social media. It is pretty difficult to say anything really intelligent in 140 characters, much less engage in a meaningful discussion.
  • Anonymity. Anonymity is often an aspect of social media and talk radio. It is much easier to ridicule, threaten or demonize another person or another point of view when you do not have to stand up and take responsibility for it.
  • The decline of the newspaper industry. The newspaper industry is in a substantial state of decline. Many communities used to have two papers with differing editorial points of view. Now even larger cities tend to have only one paper, and many are a shadow of what they used to be. Declining advertising revenue means less reporting and less depth, and often the editorial quality suffers as well. Some papers have made the fundamental mistake of embracing a one-sided editorial policy which, in today's environment, is a surefire way of alienating about half of the potential readership.
  • Smart phones can make us dumb. The Blackberry, and then the iPhone and Android may each represent a technological advance, but they haven't done much to advance social interaction. On any campus, city street, or at any restaurant or pub, you can see people staring at their phone, utterly self-absorbed in playing a game or responding to a text. It is the height of irony that a device that was originally designed to let people talk to each other seems to have caused us to converse less. There is also no indication that "smart" phones help us think great thoughts.
  •  It's usually not better in writing. Much of our everyday communication is now reduced to writing in emails or texts. The result is that people, especially young people, do not talk to each other nearly as much as in the past. Learning conversational skills and how to read people is fundamental to having a robust and meaningful exchange of ideas. 
Are there any solutions? Quite frankly, I have no idea, and, on a macro level, there is little room for optimism. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the extent of ignorance of basic political issues by the American populace is pretty astonishing. This ignorance tends to lead politicians -- always focused on retaining office -- to rely on even more sound bites and zingers. The only thing that is certain is that, if there is going to be any change, and that is a big "if," it will not happen overnight. Perhaps the best place to start is small. Here are a few modest ideas.
  • Tune out. The one thing television networks understand is ratings. The ratings of many cable networks are down substantially. Maybe at some point a network will actually try for balanced and meaningful programing on issues of national import (rather than the latest sensational murder trial) in which participants are allowed a reasonable amount of time to state their views, and are expected to respond in a civil and meaningful way. 
  • Read. Even with the decline of the newspaper industry, there are still lots of excellent sources for news. For example, for strongly differing editorial positions in business publications, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are a good start. RSS feeds also allow the aggregation of news in "readers" such as Feedly. Unfortunately, Google pulled the plug on Google Reader earlier this year.
  • Converse. Make an effort actually to converse with your spouse, your co-workers, or your fellow students. It's not that hard; people have been doing it for thousands of years! A few suggestions to get you started: "What do you think about [name a subject]"? "Why?" "Do you think there is another side to that?"  
  • Think before you send that text or email. Would it be better to pick up the phone or even to talk face to face? You will almost certainly communicate more efficiently and you might even make a new friend.
  • Try not to react immediately. We live in a world where an immediate response or reaction is viewed as a norm, even though it rarely leads to anything positive. If someone says something you disagree with, instead of disagreeing, denouncing, or labeling, consider not responding at all. If some response seems necessary, consider asking "why do you think that?" If you disagree after the explanation, perhaps asking a question is a better approach instead of trying to win an argument. For example, instead of making a statement, asking whether "have you thought about [the other side]" may lead to a more meaningful discussion.
  • Be judicious with social media. Social media is here to stay. It can be fun and even useful. However, it is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with 140 characters. And take responsibility for what you put out there. 
And this is the big one: Tolerance should not be reserved only for those who agree with you.  It would be a pretty boring world if there were no differences of opinion.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day 2013: Remembering My Uncle, Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr.

On Memorial Day 2013, we remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have given their lives in service to our country. Although a few of our fallen soldiers are the stuff of legends, most were simply ordinary Americans who served a cause, perhaps reluctantly, and had their lives cut short in the process. Some are remembered with flowers or flags on their graves. Others lie in military cemeteries in foreign lands. For some, the memories have faded away through the sands of time.

Today I am thinking about my uncle, Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr., who died in the Korean War before I was born. My uncle's memory has largely faded into obscurity, but it is important to remember him and others like him. This is my effort, however inadequate it may be, to do so.

Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr. was born in July 1924. My mother always referred to my uncle as "Don," and, although I'm not sure how you get "Don" from "Gilbert N.," I have no reason to doubt what my mother told me. That said, my mother never talked much about Uncle Don (or her family for that matter). Don did seem to be her favorite, and she always seemed to get a little misty eyed when his name was mentioned (and she was a very tough woman). That said, what I have learned about my uncle was mainly pieced together through records that are now available on line, but were of course not easily available when I was growing up.

My mother's family was poor. She was born in Mississippi, but grew up in a small town called Parma in southeastern Missouri. As happened in so many families from that generation, her brothers served in World War II, joining the Marines. My other uncle, Bill, enlisted in the Marines in January 1941. Don joined on December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor. Don would have been just 17. The brothers, were mechanically inclined. Bill was a mechanic for trucks and vehicles. Don ended up working on aircraft.

Don was a Technical Sergeant during World War II. His service records indicate he apparently did not see combat, and was stationed on the west coast. Don stayed in the service after World War II, and was stationed in various locations, ranging from California to Cherry Point, N.C. to Quantico, VA. 

By the time of his death, Don was a Master Sergeant working on helicopters. Don must have been pretty good at what he did: Becoming a Master Sergeant in the Marines from humble beginnings in Parma, Missouri is no small feat. This is about all we have learned about Uncle Don's death, which is taken from the Korean War Veteran's Honor Roll:
Master Sergeant Caudle was a crew member of a HRS-2 Sikorsky Helicopter with Marine Helicopter Transportation Squadron 161, 1st Marine Air Wing. On March 25, 1953, during a test flight from Ascom, South Korea, his helicopter crashed and burned killing its crew of three. Master Sergeant Caudle was awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Through most of my life, I never saw a photograph of Uncle Don. Recently, I found a grainy photograph, apparently his service photograph, posted on line. A link is here. I see a family resemblance to my mother and me.

In doing research for this post, I learned another fact that had been lost to our family through the sands of time. Don was married to a woman named Mary P. Caudle, who died in 2007 in Buffalo, New York. According to her obituary, Mary also worked in aircraft maintenance for the Marines in World War II. I never had any idea that Uncle Don was married, and my mother never spoke of it. Interestingly, my mother's name was also Mary.

Although the records indicate that Don's remains were recovered, I have no idea where he is buried. I have no idea where his service medals were sent, although assume they were sent to his wife Mary. So far as we are aware, Don and Mary had no children.

My uncle must have been a good guy. I wish I had known him. I wish I knew more about him. If anyone reading this happens to know anything more about Uncle Don or his wife Mary, please let me know. In the meantime, we will remember his service, and the service of so many like him who paid the ultimate price for their country.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A New Chapter: Joining Thompson Hine LLP

After spending nearly three years at Barnes & Thornburg's Atlanta office, I have begun a new chapter of my career and have joined the Atlanta office of Thompson Hine LLP as a partner. This is a very exciting and important change for me for two primary reasons.

First, the Atlanta office of Thompson Hine is managed by Russ Rogers. Russ is an old and dear friend who began his career in Atlanta working for me as an associate at Long Aldridge & Norman in the 1990s. Russ was the best lawyer I ever worked with, and we had a great deal of success as he rose through the ranks and made partner. Even after Russ made partner, we continued to work together when possible. After we both concluded several years ago that our careers were better served by joining other firms, we continued to collaborate. Russ and I had always hoped that we could end up practicing under the same roof again, and the stars finally aligned to make that possible.

Second, although a large part of my practice involves advising business clients (many  of which are international companies) on sales contracts, non-disclosure agreements, insurance, risk management and other matters, I continue to concentrate on complex commercial litigation. I began my career as a litigator, and litigation, arbitration, mediation, and dispute resolution are mainstays in my practice. Thompson Hine's Atlanta office has over 15 lawyers who focus on litigation at many different experience levels. For the past several years, I have lacked support from senior associates and junior partners on litigation matters. It is important for clients (and for me) to have reliable back-up. Thompson Hine provides that.

This change should in no way be viewed as a knock on Barnes & Thornburg. It is a great firm, and it has been a great place to work. I have many friends at BT and hope to be able to work with them in the future. It simply boils down to a judgment that, at this point in my career, and given the mix of attorneys at the respective Atlanta offices, Thompson Hine is a better fit for me.

In terms of what I will be doing, the focus should be largely the same: Representing domestic and international companies in business matters, and also focusing on commercial litigation, arbitration, mediation and dispute resolution. My litigation practice will continue to involve disputes involving insurance coverage, trade secrets, municipalities, financial institutions, contracts, corporations, LLCs, shareholders, and other matters.

I do look forward to working with younger attorneys, and serving as a resource for them, while they serve as a resource for my clients and me. Over the years, many younger lawyers I have worked with have matured into really fine attorneys. Playing just a small part in their success is very rewarding. I really look forward to returning to being a teacher and mentor, which is exactly what I should be doing at this stage of my career.

My friend and partner from BT, Roy Hadley, is also joining Thompson Hine. Roy works with some of my clients, and I work with some of his. Roy will be a strong addition to Thompson Hine's corporate and technology teams, and will ensure that my business clients also have support and back-up.

In addition to Russ, I know many of the attorneys in the Thompson Hine office, and all of the people at the firm have been very supportive and welcoming. It already feels like home.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

LinkedIn Endorsements: A Little Sanity, Please!

LinkedIn has become an important tool for professionals, serving as a means for networking, managing contacts, and establishing groups with common interests (and communicating with them). LinkedIn now has a news aggregation service that is very useful for keeping informed. What's not to like?

One "improvement" that LinkedIn added last year is the ability to endorse connections. Although it is nice to receive an endorsement, some people have gone a bit overboard. I have received endorsements from people I know only as a connection on LinkedIn and who have not met with me personally and who have no knowledge of what I do outside of the virtual world. I have also received endorsements in areas that are not part of my practice. Such endorsements are not helpful.

Here are my thoughts on LinkedIn and endorsements: 

(1) I have a pretty low bar for connecting with someone on LinkedIn. If someone has a connection with me or a common interest, I tend to accept connections. To me, it is the virtual equivalent of meeting someone at a Chamber of Commerce networking event and exchanging business cards. (On the other hand, I will not accept connections from someone I do not know unless they have a logical connection to my business or a clearly stated reason for wanting to connect).

(2) If our only connection is in the virtual world, and we have not done business together, have not represented opposing parties in a case or transaction, or otherwise have no other meaningful connection (such as being classmates), then please do not endorse me or expect an endorsement. Again, I think an analogy to the real world is appropriate: If we have just exchanged business cards at a networking event, do you have any basis for recommending me? Do I have any basis for recommending you? The answer is obvious.

(3) For endorsements, less is more. If you endorse everyone, then what is your endorsement really worth? 

LinkedIn does allow you to manage endorsements. (Instructions can be found by accessing help on LinkedIn). This morning, I pruned my endorsements considerably, both as to subject matter and the endorsers. If an endorsement was eliminated, it does not mean that the thought was not appreciated, it just means that it does not fit within the framework outlined above.