Respect and Reconnaissance – The Keys to Effective Communication

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

 – Matthew 7:12 KJV

Thank you for joining us for the first session of the 2023 Logan Preaching Mission. On behalf of us all, I wish to express appreciation to First United Methodist Church and to their pastor, Dr. In-Yong Lee, for the gracious invitation to share a thoughtful time together. Based upon concepts I was first introduced to by insightful teachers and mentors in seminary days, and have found reliable over the decades, it is my plan, during these gatherings, to unfold what I call the R4-C1 Formula (Respect, Reconnaissance, Rationality, Reality, and Corrigibility) for Living Together in Harmony and Hope. In an environment characterized by so much conflict and hopelessness, it seems eminently appropriate to explore this subject and offer some modest suggestions for solutions. Please be patient as these thoughts unfold. Long ago I gave up on the possibility of being original in my thinking; in these presentations I will be satisfied if I can be merely sensible.

First, a droll story. Many years ago a revival minister was invited into the home of a church family to share their evening meal. The husband and wife were getting on in years, particularly the husband, and he had significant difficulty with hearing. As they proceeded through the meal the preacher found himself repeating almost everything he said to the old man. When they were nearly finished the host encouraged his guest to have yet another helping of the main dish. The minister replied rather formally, “No thank you. I’ve had sufficient.” The old man said, “You say you’ve been a fishin’?” The exasperated preacher raised his voice and said, “Thank you. I’ve had plenty.” to which the old man enthusiastically responded, “You say you caught twenty!” Clearly, there was a communication problem here. Was it the minister’s fault for not speaking clearly and distinctly? Or was it the old man’s fault for not listening carefully? Or was it the fact that impediments stood in the way including the minister’s formal tone and the old man’s hearing impairment.

One of the ironies of modern life is that we live in a world dominated by a plethora of communication technologies and tools while, at the same time, living in a cacophony of noise containing very little actual communication. On this basis I suggest that today’s poor communication, making it difficult for us to live together in harmony and hopefulness, is not the fault of one side or the other. Right and left, liberal and conservative, wealthy and impoverished, native born and immigrant, religious, non-religious, and anti-religious share the blame. We are blameworthy because we do not speak clearly. We are blameworthy because we do not listen carefully. And we are blameworthy because we put so many impediments in one another’s way. With this in mind, I plan to suggest five absolutely necessary ingredients for effective communication, particularly when we wish to hear and be heard regarding complex and divisive issues within our culture.

Permit me to describe briefly some components of our present situation. First, many voices are talking, some are screaming, but no one seems to be listening. A monologue, even when conducted in public, is still a monologue. We seem to have lost the fine art of dialogue and replaced it with a myriad of simultaneous monologues. Second, a posture of suspicion has replaced one of trust as the starting point for communication. While it is true that there are unscrupulous, untrustworthy people and movements out there seeking to manipulate us; if our answer is “No” before we hear the question, we shut down both the unscrupulous and the trustworthy at the same time. In our desire to hear nothing but our own thoughts repeated to us we have lost the art, to use a biblical phrase, of “trying the spirits, whether they are of God” (I John 4:1 KJV). Third, there is the matter of unregulated, unfiltered, unbridled speech. I suggest such promiscuous speech is as dangerous as promiscuous, unsafe sex; and in our contemporary culture, harsh, uncontrolled, often vicious rhetoric has become an act of violent verbal rape. I am astounded at how far most of us have come in banning use of the “N-word” in our discourse, while at the same time many are unable to make it through a complete sentence without deploying the “F-word.” So, the question is, “Are there more harmonious and productive ways to communicate with one another about the things that matter to us?” I think there are.

This evening my plan is to introduce my conviction that: Respect and Reconnaissance, the first two R’s of the R4-C1 Formula, are the keys to effective communication, whether the interaction takes place face to face, interest group to interest group, or nation to nation. More than seventy years ago Dwight D. Eisenhower, a person with vast experience at enabling diverse constituencies, both national and international, to work together to achieve common goals said, “This world of ours . . . must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” I think he was, and continues to remain, right on target. While much that is significant has been achieved by the late 20th century’s emphasis upon racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, it seems the accomplishments of such a celebration of diversity have also contributed to the rise of xenophobic, tribalistic angst against that selfsame diversity.

If we wish to live together in harmony and hope it is imperative that we respect and affirm our common humanity. One of our greatest challenges is that of hurling words as weapons when we feel our interests, prejudices, and un-reflected upon presuppositions are threatened. We must return to an understanding that “they” and “them” should be used as collective pronouns affirming our mutual humanity rather than as spitted epithets used to imply that our group is more “human” than theirs. It cannot be overemphasized that to diminish the humanity and dignity of another is to diminish one’s own humanity and dignity. In a world where many decry the ”entitlements” of the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the aged, the racially and gender marginalized, and the infirm, it is essential that we challenge the sense of “entitlement” that characterizes the southern white male, the obscenely wealthy, sports and entertainment figures, career politicians, and showy, seductive cult personalities.

It was Albert Einstein who observed, “Let every [person] be respected as an individual and no [person] idolized.” Among the greatest impediments to living together in harmony and hope is our tendency to idolize some while ignoring the suffering of others. We must remember that America’s descent into idolatrous political/religious, pop-culture personality cults is a denial of the common humanity of us all. And the answer to the self-excusing question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a resounding, thunderous “Yes you are!”

The authentically religious person does not have the luxury simply to piously sing, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” We must also affirm that the LGBTQ, the felon, the social radical, and the mentally and physically impaired are precious in God’s sight as well.

We must not stop with affirming our common humanity; we must also affirm and respect the diversity of our humanity. I suspect at least as many people have been destroyed by attempts to reduce us all to some form of generic humanity (i.e., same value system, same religion, same political philosophy, same position regarding social/cultural issues, etc.) as have perished in all the global pandemics that have plagued us over the millennia. The reason is that such a “cookie cutter” approach demands an archetypal Ur-model for how all persons should be. There has always been an abundance of persons who assert, “If everyone was just like ‘me’ or ‘us’ what a wonderful world it would be.”

In the face of this nonsense I assert that as surely as excessive inbreeding produces reproductive tragedies; excessive social, cultural, religious, ethnic, and intellectual inbreeding produces a progeny of xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, socially impaired offspring who haunt and disrupt the achievement of healthy, harmonious societies where people may live together in harmony and hope.

I spoke earlier about entitlements. Here I maintain that initial respect is a foundational entitlement deserved by all human beings simply because they are human beings. However, a word of caution must be spoken here. There is an important relationship between respect and respectability that must be maintained. One of the catch phrases of contemporary American culture is “Don’t you disrespect me!” The phrase is sometimes hurled by persons whose words and behaviors have evoked understandable and well-deserved challenge and rebuke from others. Instead of claiming that others have no right to question our words and deeds, it is imperative that everyone take care not to forfeit entitlement to basic respect through engaging in speech and behaviors that undermine one’s respectability. The Apostle Paul said, “if we would judge ourselves we should not be judged” (I Cor. 11:31 KJV).

There is a third dimension to this matter of respect as well. If we wish to communicate effectively we must root both our common humanity and our human diversity in respect for our shared environments. By shared environments I  include our natural eco-system. But I maintain that human beings, while living in a planetary environment, also live in ideological, professional, religious, social, and personal environments. To exploit, ravage, and pollute any of these environments is ultimately suicidal. Recently I have seen signs saying, “The planet is not your dumpster.” Indeed! However, to use our brains as storage bins for the effluvia of hate filled ideas, our sense of nationhood as the petri dish for the cultivation and nurture of anti-democratic sentiments and actions, and our religious consciousnesses as the collectors of the flotsam and jetsam of every illegitimate ideological tsunami (i.e. Christian Nationalism) that washes over us is turning our various environments into ecological landfills. Can I get an “Amen”?

Now, let’s catch our breath for a moment before considering the question of reconnaissance, the second “R” of my proposed formula for living together in harmony and hope. I suggest that thoughtful, meaningful, respectful communication cannot be engaged in without doing careful reconnaissance. It is often said, “Knowledge is power.” It is also true that while knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom, for those who rightly use what they know, knowledge is the foundation of wisdom. Therefore, effective reconnaissance begins with ascertaining what we know. The fancy word for the analysis of knowledge is epistemology, or the study of what we know and how we know it. Such an analysis reveals that there are, in fact, many ways of knowing. We know through instinctive reaction to stimuli, we know inductively through scientific, empirical observation, we know deductively through rational reflection, we know emotionally from the depths of our ability to respond, positively or negatively, to the presence of others, and we know and are known by Ultimate Reality through Divine revelation.

While it is evident that there are many ways of knowing, it is also evident that these various ways of knowing work better in some situations than in others. This leads to two important observations. First, failure to use the most appropriate way of knowing in any given situation can lead to disastrous results. Knowledge derived from Divine revelation is not very useful in deciding whether or not to ignore the traffic signals at the intersection of Charlotte Road and College Avenue. Second, the more we use our diverse ways of knowing in combination, the more likely we are to arrive at reliable conclusions regarding the most important things in our individual and collective lives. If some combination of inductive and deductive reason, instinct, emotion, and Divine truth suggest a particular decision or course of action we should pay close attention. Undoubtedly, we must do careful reconnaissance to be sure we really know what we think we know.

Confucius said, “To know what you know, and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.” It is here that we often stumble in the matter of effective communication because we fail to do the reconnaissance necessary to determine the limits of our knowledge about important matters that impact our lives and the lives of others. This often leads to various expressions of pseudo-knowing that frequently lead to miscommunication, conflict, embarrassment, and dogmatic assertions we are unable to support when challenged by others.

Among those expressions of pseudo-knowing I think the most dangerous is the substitution of strong opinion for fact. While I may have strongly held opinions about many things, this is not the same as knowing. Opinions and suppositions may lead to the discovery of facts, but they do not, in and of themselves, constitute facts. And the ascertainment of actual facts often leads to the discovery of the inadequacy of some of our opinions. The fact that I have a strongly held opinion does not make the opinion true; and shouting it loudly and repeatedly doesn’t make it true either.

Another problem is the hubristic refusal to understand that knowing when to say, “I don’t know.” is as important, perhaps more important, than saying “I know.” This is especially important when presuming to understand what motivates another. We have a propensity to believe that we know the mind and heart of another simply because we think we do. This fallacious belief is predicated upon our assumption that everyone else is driven, inspired, motivated by the same concerns that drive, inspire, and motivate us. The truth is that it is impossible to know the mind and heart of another without being willing to open one’s own mind and heart to them and risk discovering that what makes us “tick” is not the same as what makes them “tick.” And such openness is anathema to those unwilling to consider changing their minds when their pseudo-knowing is confronted and challenged by genuine knowledge.

Balanced, informed reconnaissance involves awareness of the positive that should be lauded as well as the negative that must be guarded against. In the realm of human relationships, particularly social, cultural, religious, and political relationships, reconnaissance does not mean a malicious focus upon simply digging up dirt about those with whom one disagrees. Sadly, in a nation obsessed with weaponized congressional investigations and Reality TV exposes, designed not to ascertain the truth but to destroy one’s perceived adversaries, our most popular sports have become “gotcha” and “whataboutism.” We delight in discovering and celebrating the worst aspects of any religion, political party, social position, or moral judgment that differs from our own. It is probably good to keep ourselves reminded of the oft repeated quote, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.” The insistence upon demanding perfection from others while hiding behind the screen of one’s own human fallibility is just plain hypocrisy and should be denounced as such. Authentic reconnaissance is an objective search for truth, not a subjective exercise in simply proving one’s rightness while demonstrating that the other is wrong, or corrupt, or criminal.

As we approach the close of these reflections on reconnaissance it is worthwhile to observe that knowing enough to make good decisions does not require that we know everything there is to know. Over a professional career I have devoted many hours to counseling with college and divinity school students, church members, and others regarding processes for good decision making. There were a number of principles I sought to emphasize in those conversations. First, I suggested they work at making decisions that opened doors rather than closed them. Further, they should make contingent decisions rather than absolute ones; by doing so they had the opportunity to rethink and revise decisions if it became necessary. I think it is essential that we make decisions in faith and trust rather than in suspicion and distrust. Whether you call it “faith” or “risk,” if you want people to accept and trust you, you must take the chance/have faith in them. Human life and interaction do not take place in the realm of the absolute; rather, life is lived, and decisions are made, in the realm of probability. And remember, the desire never to be disappointed by others means we deny ourselves the opportunity to ever be joyfully surprised by others as well.

Like respect, reconnaissance is important in fostering meaningful human relationships that enable us to live together in harmony and hope. It is impossible to do reconnaissance if you choose to go around with your head in the sand. Reconnaissance requires seeing eyes, listening ears, open minds, and the willingness to objectively interpret the knowledge we collect rather than subjectively imposing a preconceived interpretation upon it. Jasper Fforde, tongue in cheek, expresses my point in Shades of Grey when he observes, “Okay, this is wisdom. First, time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. Second, almost anything can be improved with the addition of bacon.”

You are wondering how he plans to ground these thoughts in a meaningful way. Here I suggest the process of relating to others with respect and doing our reconnoitering homework prior to making decisions must be grounded in the integrity of our values. As a Christian I embrace the biblical truth that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10 KJV).

Now, before you mistakenly jump to the conclusion that I am suggesting only Christians are capable of cultivating respect and making good decisions, hear me out. Value systems, positive or negative, have always been ubiquitous in human experience. Some are rooted in divine revelation. Some are rooted in Plato’s supposition of universal ideas or Aristotle’s balanced analysis and search for a “golden mean.” Some find expression in the survival ethics of Thomas Hobbes and in the utilitarian pragmatism of Bacon, Comte, James, and Dewey. And, of course, there is always Nietzsche’s ubermensch (overman/superman) and the “will to power.”

Am I suggesting we pick a value system, any value system? Certainly not. What I am suggesting is that we deliberately fathom the sources and content of our value system(s) to be sure we have embraced values that positively affirm hope,  provide an appropriate balance between self and the other, and foster unity and cooperation rather than fragmentation and anarchy. And one cannot do this effectively by depending upon cultural osmosis to determine the integrity of our values. When we do so, we do not have personally reflected upon values; we are simply absorbing those surrounding us as though we are moral/ethical sponges floating aimlessly in a sea of relational relativism.

One cannot relate respectfully toward others, and intelligently gather the knowledge necessary for good decision making, without being grounded in ultimately enduring values that transcend time, circumstances, and egoistic preoccupation with personal gratification. For this ultimate grounding I embrace the Apostle’s conclusion: “These three remain: faith, hope and agapeistic love. But the greatest of these is agapeistic love” (I Cor. 13:13). Grounded in such love, we will always relate with respect toward others, and we will root our decision making in knowledge derived from caring enough about the world, others, and ourselves that we do our reconnaissance before we speak and act.


Copyright:  D. Larry Gregg, Sr. 2023, All Rights Reserved

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