In Defense of Organizers and Civil Debate

Al Gore was the guest on Tuesday's Fresh Air. He'd been invited on the show to discuss his book The Assault on Reason, which, from what I gathered from Terry Gross' description, is about how Americans' increasing unwillingness (and inability?) to engage in reasoned, thoughtful, civic debate, preferring instead the combative and dismissive Fox News/CNN/Bush Administration model, is ultimately leaving us less informed and less capable of sustaining a healthy democracy.

It was fascinating to hear Gore speak, both for what he had to say and for the way he said it: if ever there's been an aural definition of "reasoned, measured tones," this was it. He spoke calmly and unflappably, with pauses between his words and rarely even a hint of a raised voice. It was as if he were, solely by his tone, defying the yellers and the absolutists to take issue with his message.

Tuesday also happened to be the day that Merlin Mann, whom I respect and admire quite a lot, posted to 43 Folders about the NSGCD and its resources for the chronically disorganized. In describing the NSGCD (short--if barely--for the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization), he referred to it as "primarily a trade group for 'professional organizers'". That's true enough to a certain extent, but I wondered why Merlin had put professional organizers in quotes. So I posted a comment and asked.

Then he posted a reply, and I posted a reply to his reply, and I asked some of my colleagues to read the whole kit and caboodle, and some of them left comments, too. It was all--from my perspective, at least--very Al Gore-ish: no yelling, no flaming, lots of general calmness and well-reasoned attempts to argue varying viewpoints.

But it's interesting: in the wake of the first point/counterpoint Merlin and I had, the message I most wanted to get across was not so much that professional organizers are worthy of a level of respect that quote marks deny, but that his apparent view of what we do--put crap in boxes, go to the Container Store, and try to make things look pretty without doing anything at all to address the underlying issues of overconsumption and unexamined keeping--is way, way off the mark. I said as much in my second comment, as did several people who commented after me, POs and clients alike. Yet what a few of the commenters who didn't identify themselves as either being organizers or working with organizers seemed to latch onto was that initial sense of being taken aback by the quotes.

Let's channel Al Gore, people, and move beyond the punctuation to read the rest of the discussion. It's about having your profession sort of maligned through an inaccurate and incomplete description, and about trying to explain why you take issue with those inaccuracies and incompletes. But beyond a point, there's only so much you can do or say to ask people to read (or hear) and absorb your words. Is it inevitable that, no matter how logical, calm, or well-reasoned the other side's argument might be, we'll always revert to our own bunkers, determined that we're right (or at least not wrong)? Do we ever really have the capacity to bring someone around?

I wish I could convince Merlin Mann that the work I do is no more fluffy, inconsequential, or unimportant than the work he does, and that although professional organizer might be a funny-sounding title, it's a serious profession. I hope he takes me up on my offer to help give him a clearer sense of what POs actually do, and how, in many ways, it's not a far cry from what he does.

But all of that is beyond my control: he's the only one who can choose what he thinks and does. Ditto for the people who can read all the smart, insightful, thoughtful things written in that comments stream and only take away that a bunch of POs have their label makers and binder clips in a snit over nothing more than the use of a bit of punctuation. In this, as in any discussion or debate, all I (or anyone) can ever do is put my words out there in a calm, balanced, and (I somewhat hate this term, but, alas) constructive way and hope that they fall on at least a few appreciative and open pairs of eyes and ears.