In 2003, comedian Jeff Foxworthy released his second compilation of comedy bits, called “Double Wide, Single Minded.” As a Yankee growing up in rural Central Florida, with a critical and ironic eye towards my neighbors, I long appreciated the self-effacing humor of Jeff Foxworthy. Jeff Foxworthy himself, it should be noted, is a very intelligent man, not only savvy enough to have his own small media empire as the host of Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader, The American Bible Challenge, and a longrunning radio show, and gracious enough to encourage the careers of other regional comedians through efforts like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but savvy enough to have studied at Georgia Tech, which is no place for dummies. Yet Foxworthy’s humor is based on the fact that rural Southerners sound stupid to people from the rest of the United States, which creates a certain space for people to demonstrate their intelligence by playing to the prejudices of their audience. This is a long-established tradition within comedy, allowing people to profit by making fun of themselves while showing themselves more clever than those who look down on them. Whether one thinks of the court jester in medieval Europe, or Uncle Remus in Song of the South, or the reality television careers of Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton, or regional comedians like Foxworthy whose trade is in portraying themselves as ignorant rednecks, the dynamic is the same, in that there are multiple messages being sent at the same time—I will profit off of your prejudices, and you can laugh about how much smarter you are than my people, but I will laugh all the way to the bank. A wise person does not look down on others, but recognizes that wisdom can come in all kinds of packages, but most people are not wise and enjoy looking down on groups of people to make themselves feel better.
Last night at Spokesmen’s Club, I gave a speech  to fulfill the requirement for the World News Analysis speech, according to the guidelines set forth in the 1990 Graduate Club Manual published by the Worldwide Church of God. Page 18 of that manual, when discussing this speech, has the following comment about the preparation for that speech: “You should be able to answer most questions that members of your audience ask at the conclusion of your speech—and you should open the floor to two or three questions after you finish.” When I, at the end of the speech, asked the surprised and nonplussed members of the club if they had any questions in accordance with the rules of this speech, I could see two of our speaking deacons, who sat next to each other, furiously looking in the manual to understand what I was about. After answering two questions from the audience, which took at least a couple of minutes, since they are not used to asking questions to speakers, not even speakers who relish question and answer like I do, as I walked back to my seat, one of the speaking deacons, a man known for his sarcastic wit, commented that I took the statement in the Graduate Club Manual literally, to which I replied, “Of course I did.” How else is one supposed to take a manual? If the rules of a speech say to open the floor two questions after a speech is finished, that is what I will do. Manuals are not written to be taken merely allegorically or symbolically, but are meant to be taken literally, completely at face value. After all, they are practical texts, and when you are trying to learn how to do something, the task of education is considered sufficiently difficult that manuals are not written to mystify or tease the reader, but rather to give earnest and straightforward instruction on how to go about a task. Otherwise, they would completely fail as manuals given the conventions of their genre.
The issue of genre is an important one. A few years ago, I was in a discussion with someone, in which my interlocutor commented in a rather unfriendly manner that I was not a person who understood figurative language, but that I was too literal-minded. I found this comment in some respects to be entirely off-base—I have a fond appreciation of symbolic language, imagery, and routinely use deliberate under-emphasis in deadpan and dry humor for effect, besides a fairly openly acknowledged love of witty wordplay. My sense of humor may be extremely restrained, like most aspects of my face-to-face communication, but it does not lack appreciation for figurative language. Yet this comment had at its base a truth that I reflect on often, and that is a single-minded devotion both to seeking to understand what other people are trying to communicate in their texts, and to seeking to communicate thoughts, feelings, and observations in my own texts. Each genre has its own conventions, to be sure, but communication is a difficult task, and such a task is undertaken with a clear desire to communicate something. If someone deliberately seeks to deceive, they are not to be praised for the artful nature of their obfuscation and misdirection, but they are to be condemned as deceivers. Nevertheless, if the conventions of a particular genre of a text are meant to convey a truth that is not literal, such a charge need not be laid, as understanding the conventions of a genre allows a text to be understood properly and clearly, without misunderstanding.
An example of this is reading the texts of the ancient Near East. When one reads in Joshua 11:16-20, for example, that: “Thus Joshua took all this land: the mountain country, all the South, all the land of Goshen, the lowland, and the Jordan plain—the mountains of Israel and its lowlands, from Mount Halak and the ascent to Seir, even as far as Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings, and struck them down and killed them. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. All the others they took in battle. For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the Eternal had commanded Moses,” we are not to take the survival of some Canaanites as a contradiction. Rather, we are to recognize this text as an ancient Near East conquest narrative, similar to parallel references found among the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and others, that tells of us the successful military exploits of leaders, with a certain amount of exaggeration to be expected, just as if someone spoke of a particularly lopsided football game  as a massacre or a slaughter, we need not assume that anyone was actually butchered, but we ought to understand the military language of sportswriting to reflect the prosaic truth that the game was not close, and to recognize and perhaps smile at the conventional exaggeration. That said, even where the conventions of a given genre include certain stereotypical language, characteristic expressions, and frequently encountered imagery and exaggeration, they are clearly designed to communicate a particular point, and those who are knowledgeable about the rules of a game, whether they have acquired that knowledge through formal study of language codes or through the implicit study of such codes by the reading of many works within a given genre, can understand the point that is being made without confusion so long as an author properly follows or openly plays with the rules of the game. Indeed, the use or clever playing with those rules is a large part of the enjoyment in reading genre literature.
In many ways, as is to be expected, my own intense struggles with communication greatly influence my view of communication as a whole. I find writing by hand to often be an immensely painful task given my own arthritic joints, which produce a painfully cramped writing that is difficult for others to read. Given my own intense anxieties and the general lack of appropriate regard that my communications are taken with, I tend to view communication as a task fraught with preoccupation and concern, and yet the seriousness of the heavy burdens that I live under make such communication absolutely necessary for survival with any degree of sanity. So much time and mental effort is taken to correctly understand the signals sent by the world around me and other people, and to signal to others accurately what is going on inside of me that there is no time or energy left to torment others through deliberate misdirection or uncharitable teasing. Honest communication and accurate understanding of the communication of others is sufficiently difficult and of vital importance to take up all of my concern and attention. To be sure, not everyone acts this way, but when I look at the texts created by others, whether in terms of art or literature, of personal writings, of nonfiction reportage, I see the same widespread desire on the part of people to communicate essential truths about themselves and their perspectives and observations based upon the conventions of their time and place and the contexts in which they live. At times there are ironic meanings meant as a way of poking fun of prejudices, at other times there is deliberate restraint in the face of unsafe surroundings, at other times many layers of meaning are intended in a text, while at other times there is deliberate dishonesty for propaganda value, but one sees texts of all kinds of genres as possessing a desire to communicate something. Writing, painting, sculpture, photography, music, and other such arts take too much time and effort to be undertaken without any kind of communication value meant. The question is only: What is this person trying to tell me? Then, what remains is to agree or disagree, or research the accuracy of the quote, or to acknowledge the perspective of the author of the text, and to grow in understanding and empathy of others, and an expansion of one’s own emotional and intellectual range.
At the end of Spokesmen’s Club last night, our director, who is also the local pastor of our congregation, gave some examples of some of the notable speeches of Abraham Lincoln . He urged us to read famous and notable speeches and to adapt the same structure but change the topic of discussion, whether one is doing a speech or giving a sermonette message, or engaging in personal research. The goal, of course, is to immerse oneself in great writing and speaking so that our own writings and speeches are bettered as a result. This is self-education in a particularly excellent and practical sense—seeking to improve one’s own knowledge through an intimate acquaintance with great texts, so that one can act according to models and templates that have been of enduring success and renown, in the hope that we may eventually become so adept at writing and speaking that we unconsciously and automatically begin to speak and write according to what makes speaking and writing great. By learning greatness, sitting at the feet of masters and gaining instruction, we eventually develop the mastery of written and spoken communication, so that we in turn can be an example for others, providing texts that others can learn from even as we have learned from those who came before us. I wonder how many people hear such messages, or understand their importance, or who take the development of their talents and abilities seriously enough to engage in diligent study and practice. Or do we complacently believe that we are good enough at present to communicate to others our thoughts, feelings, and belief system? There is much profit that we can obtain from paying attention to what others say, and from heeding the instruction we are given, especially when someone has taken the time and effort to seek to communicate honestly and openly with us. I would hope for the same respect for my own written and spoken communication that I give to others, after all.
 See, for example: