Thursday, March 26, 2020

What Kind of Problem is the Coronavirus?

"All problems can be stated as problems of communication." So wrote the philosopher Richard McKeon in a classic essay, "Communication, Truth, and Society" (1957). Notice he didn't claim that all problems ARE problems of communication, only that they "can be stated" as such. Without using the word, in the current jargon of communication theory he was referring to how we "frame" problems, what aspects we select and emphasize as we think and talk about them.

For McKeon, you frame a communication problem by considering "what is said and how what is meant might be influenced by communication." That is, you begin with what people are saying about a situation from their different perspectives and engage them in a deliberative discussion to seek agreement on what is going on and what needs to be done. The communication frame is really a meta-frame because it acknowledges the conflicts among different ways that people are framing a complex problem and the need to resolve those conflicts through communication in order to move forward together.

The current crisis certainly fits that description. The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex problem, really a multitude of problems that that become apparent as you consider the situation from different points of view. In a biological frame, the problem is a new virus that causes illness and death, and to solve that problem we need effective vaccines and medical treatments. In a public health frame, which relates microbiology to social behavior, the more urgent problem is that the virus transmits easily and can only be contained by practices such as social distancing and disinfectant cleaning. By now we've all learned that "flattening the curve" of disease transmission by these means is necessary to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed--a frame that shifts the focus to problems like equipment shortages and overstretched health care providers, and from there to systemic failures that have caused the shortages and left us unprepared for an emergency the medical and public health systems should have anticipated. Shortsighted political leadership let it all happen.

And then ... all the other problems! Cries of pain arise from everywhere. Sick people who can't be tested for the virus because tests are unavailable. "Essential" workers who risk exposure. Homeless people especially vulnerable. Parents needing to self-isolate or work remotely with kids home from school. Kids who can't play with their friends. Slow or no internet. #zoomfails. No carrots or toilet paper at the supermarket. Neighbors worried about joggers who breathe too hard, spewing who-knows-what as they run through the neighborhood (really). Disorientation, anxiety, loneliness, domestic conflict and abuse. Stock markets tanking. Businesses and nonprofits facing ruin. Millions thrown out of work and without health insurance. All of these problems causing still other problems, and so it goes.

"What is said" includes all of that and more. How can we put it together? Meta-frames compete to dominate the discourse. Right now, the public health frame is clearly on top. In that frame, regardless of all other problems, the first thing we must do is to flatten the curve. On the advice of public health experts, governments invoke emergency powers, ordering businesses to shut down and everyone who can to "shelter in place."

Rising to compete with public health is an economic frame in which you can argue that the public health "cure" will be worse than the pandemic disease if it leads to economic collapse, as many fear it will. In a right wing version of this frame, public health solutions carry unacceptable costs in personal and economic freedom, and liberals are using the pandemic--essentially just a really bad flu season that we could weather--as an excuse to expand government regulatory power and social entitlements like universal health care. (The argument strongly resembles right wing climate change skepticism, with public health experts standing in for climate scientists in the role of liberal tools.)

More mainstream versions of the economic frame admit the need for strong public health measures (COVID-19 is NOT the flu!) but look for ways to limit the economic damage. Public health arguments compare short term economic shutdown to cancer chemotherapy or medically induced coma--harsh measures unfortunately necessary to save the live of a patient who will hopefully recover as a result. In the economic frame you worry that short term economic shutdown will impoverish a generation and you look for some compromise to minimize the damage.

Interestingly, it seems to be this moderate economic position that most often pivots to the communication meta-frame: We need to talk about this problem. Public health measures are necessary but we can't let them go too far. We need to find some compromise that saves the economy. This argument is perhaps necessitated by a power equation. Right now, the public health frame rules the discourse. When you don't have the power to dictate a result, you call for "communication." As I write, the United States Congress has communicated in its own peculiar way and come up with a compromise in the form of a huge economic stimulus package that leaves harsh public health measures untouched but answers many economic cries of pain--though not all and probably not very equitably.

The communication meta-frame has some power insofar as it is embedded in democratic political institutions and the culture at large. McKeon noted a cultural shift that was becoming apparent as he wrote in the 1950's, more than six decades ago: a growing tendency to see the problems that we face as problems of communication. McKeon speculated that society's awareness of communication problems had grown "as a result of the invention of instruments of communication and the massive extension of their use" -- a process that has only accelerated in recent times. He argued that we should state our problems as problems of communication in a pluralistic, democratic society that wants to solve problems without suppressing the diversity of viewpoints, and that we need to cultivate the art of deliberative rhetoric as a means to that end.

The alternative would be an authoritarian system that knows the one, officially "right" truth and does the one "right" thing, without discussion. It may be hard to hold on to the communication frame at a time when the one right thing to do seems obvious, as determined by experts, and in truth, problems are not always best stated as problems of communication. We don't need to communicate about a simple math problem. Some problems are like that. Other problems, including most of the real problems that we face, are complex and involve multiple conflicting interests, values and technical capabilities. Those problems need to be stated as problems of communication and we need better ways of talking about them.

Further Reading

McKeon, R. (1957). Communication, truth, and society. Ethics, 67, 89-99.

No comments:

Post a Comment