It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/08/2021 (485 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
THERE is much to read between the lines as the premier has attempted to explain and then offer an apology for his comments disregarding the intent of residential schools and the aims of colonialism. This public dialogue is not lost on Manitoba’s citizens, who use effective literacy skills to interpret and experience communication.
Diligent readers recognize both what is written and unwritten in a text. In Manitoba’s public schools, skilled teachers teach students to infer — in other words, “read between the lines.” In the case of dialogue, “listen between the lines.”
When pressed to explain his comments on the events that occurred at Canada Day protests — “The people who came here to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything, they came here to build” — the premier asked that we “look at the interview, read the text and ask yourself if the remarks are justified or not.”
When asked to apologize, he waited nearly a month, then insisted his “words were misunderstood and caused hurt.”
It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it.
Communication is a complex phenomenon, a constantly reimagined and recursive shared construct made up of words, syntax, tone, position, relationship, understanding, prior experience, trauma, body language, power, privilege, and more. Understanding is simultaneously personal and public; meaning is reshaped as understanding moves between past, present and future.
Conversationalists invoke particular places and people. Most importantly, dialogue values the viewpoint of the hearer. According to American educator and philosopher Nel Noddings, “Perhaps most significantly of all we are aware that our partners in conversation are more important than the topic.”
“Colonial. I never — I have not used that phrase or word.” If the premier would earnestly seek to understand why so many have recognized that he has been speaking of settler colonialism without saying the word, he might reference Manitoba’s English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, which explains that language is not simply a system or code – grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, etc.
This seems to be what the premier meant when asking us to “read the text.” However, effective listeners also make sense of language – connecting to lived experience, asking questions and “reading between the lines.” We explore – analyzing and considering alternatives. Perhaps most importantly, language is power and agency. We interrogate, recognizing bias and inaccuracies.
The message is far more than the text. It’s not what one says or doesn’t say. It’s what is deeply understood by hearers that is justified.
In restitution, a discussion precedes an apology. When I apologize sincerely, I take responsibility for my actions instead of laying the responsibility on the experience of the other, as if misunderstanding puts the other at fault for the harm of my comments.
The premier could begin to make it right by:
1. Seeking to hear and understand what people who disagree with him are experiencing. In this case, especially, residential school survivors and their allies. Offer a sincere and timely acknowledgement and apology.
2. Seeking to understand how communication is a complex, shared construct. Appreciate alternative perspectives. A suggested resource could be a skilled Manitoba public school teacher.
3. Knowingly striving to be an antiracist. According to author/activist Ibram X. Kendi, “We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
According to Noddings, “Dialogue is the means through which we learn what the other wants and needs, and it is also the means by which we monitor the effects of our acts.” Taking responsibility for our words, our dialogue, our communication means acknowledging the listener’s viewpoint – in other words, empathy.
Responding to the premier’s explanation, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas offered his own perspective: “I’m tired of talking to Pallister. I give him every opportunity to have meaningful dialogue. We bring forward meaningful solutions to work together, hand in hand, to move forward. But he’d rather talk at me.”
The premier should ask himself if these remarks are justified.
Ross Meacham is the principal at Riverbend Community School.