Thursday, October 7, 2021

Reflections on public discourse

There is a serious problem with the manner in which public discourse is devolving into "hot-button" words that really distort the shared goals of addressing social and cultural malaise.

Even this specific issue is irreducible to another simplistic and glib diagnosis.
When much communication across our cultural landscape comes through 240 digits on twitter or in the form of a sensational headline, the broad term of societal literacy is threatened.

Issues frequently are captioned in a single word with obvious and eager opposition. That opposition seems determined to deconstruct and decimate the "charge" or the perceived radioactivity of the word.
For example, headlines that social media is filled with and exacerbates "disinformation," while literally true, is only a part of the problem. Political propaganda, for example, has been and continues to be the stock-in-trade even of political parties and practitioners in what are considered "democracies".

 Exaggeration and distortion of the views of political opponents are considered "normal" and "conventional" and such words and statements have dogged the practice of politics for centuries.
Inflation of the importance of an idea of which a candidate is an advocate is another of the multiple vernacular lenses that "paint" a picture designed to sway voters.

A similar exaggeration, linked directly and often inconspicuously to omission of significant details is the stock-in-trade of the massive advertising industry. That sector is also appended to the public relations industry, another designed to put a "good face" on, in many cases, deplorable evidence of corporate culpability.

This week, we heard from U.S. Congressional representatives that social media is having its "tobacco moment" in reference to the public and legal acknowledgement that tobacco kills. This truth was denied by tobacco companies for decades. The whistle-blower from Facebook testified to incontrovertible evidence that her former employer consciously and deliberately values excess profit over client protection, even young children.

We cannot "contain" the implications of the unregulated several social media platforms to a diagnosis of "disinformation". Like an objective clinical diagnosis of cancer, it fails to embrace the full complexities of the disease of which there are a plethora of complexities and even families of cancers.
It is our penchant for a clinical and  "hygienic" single word or short phrase to express complications that invariably and inevitably flood over the  parameters of the conventional buzzword that tend to entrap public discourse and comprehension of the full overtones of the file.

Another example of misleading and dangerous phrases is "systemic racism". Designed to expand the public consciousness of the depth and the breadth of racism, it conversely puts the emphasis and the responsibility for racial bigotry  on the system...that impersonal amorphous faceless and thereby unidentifiable "thing" called the system.

Racism is a personal belief/attitude
/expression of contempt for another based on their ethnicity or religion or
identity such as sexual identity. The target  of racism is a real person and while the culmination of multiple examples of hatred targetting a specific demographic group warrants the term "systemic racism".The hatred and its wounds, serious and even potentially lethal, depend more on the transformation of individual attitudes than on some "training" in racial equality.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has found a receptive and sizeable discipleship in a culture reduced to transactionality.

However, transformation is not reducible to even a mountain of evidence of single transactions. Indeed, such evidence could easily lead to a public minimization of the size and danger of racism and an inevitable disassociation from responsibility for racist attitudes and beliefs and actions.
Words do indeed matter and a public discourse that collapses the language into hot-buttons or euphemisms renders participants in that discourse to potentially simple antagonists in a binary battle for supremacy in the moment.

Unfortunately, our shared reality does not and will not succumb to that game...nor will a full, open, transparent and both informed and nuanced discourse emerge from such a game.


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