Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Cultivating Communication Practices


"Cultivating Communication Practices" was the theme of a small academic conference I recently attended in Boulder, Colorado. Organized by University of Colorado colleagues David Boromisza-Habashi, Natasha Shrikant, and Leah Sprain, the three-day summer event brought CU faculty and grad students together with researchers from several other US and European universities in the beautiful setting of Boulder's historic Chautauqua Park, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Thanks to Donal Carbaugh for tweeting the photo below. (For the record, I'm third from the right.)

I was pretty excited about the conference theme, because the idea of cultivating communication practices has been at the heart of my work on communication theory for many years. In my view, an essential purpose of academic communication studies is to improve communication practices to better address the problems we face as individuals and as a society (Craig, 2018). Broadly speaking, we pursue that goal by developing expert knowledge about communication and disseminating it by various means including classroom teaching, professional training, and media (this blog a tiny piece of that). That's how we contribute to the ongoing "metadiscourse" (communication about communication) that shapes the understanding and practice of communication in society.  

An obvious way to develop better practices would be to invent forms of communication, such as group facilitation techniques or media literacy practices, and do research to prove that they work as intended. That might seem straightforward enough, but it's not what most communication scholars actually do. In reality, various kinds of research and critical-analytical work go on in the background to develop the  knowledge that informs our thinking about communication practices. Broad philosophies and theories of communication deepen our understanding of issues and suggest different ways of approaching practical problems. Historical and cultural studies show how communication practices have evolved in particular cultures, how they can express deeply felt beliefs and values, and how they can also unconsciously serve to perpetuate social injustice. Empirical research reveals general causes and effects of communication behavior. Applied research shows how communication works or doesn't in particular situations. These and other kinds of academic studies inform our understanding of communication problems. They create the knowledge base for whatever cultural authority communication scholars can claim for offering advice about how to improve communication practices. 

So, in my view, there is no single methodology for "cultivating communication practices," but many kinds of research can be useful in different ways. However, I still believe we can learn a lot by systematically thinking through what is involved in cultivating communication practices and tailoring methods for that purpose. This is what Karen Tracy and I have tried to do in our work on Grounded Practical Theory (GPT), which is an approach to studying communication practices to conceptualize key problems, techniques for managing those problems, and philosophies of the practice that can guide the use of techniques (see Craig & Tracy, 2021). 

Communication practices often encounter dilemmas because people pursue multiple goals that may compete for priority. For example, Heidi Muller's (2014) GPT study of teacher-led classroom discussions found that teachers face a dilemma between getting students to engage with each other and getting them to engage with the course material. Both goals are important, but they are not always easy to combine. Lively discussion tends to drift away from the course material but focusing narrowly on the material can kill the discussion. The different techniques that teachers use to manage this dilemma can be justified by different pedagogical philosophies. GPT aims to cultivate the practice of classroom discussion by articulating dilemmas, techniques, and implicit philosophies of the practice, thus providing relevant ideas in moments when teachers find themselves reflecting on how to manage the problems that they face in the classroom. 

In my talk in the opening session, I explained my enthusiasm for the conference theme and that I would be listening to the other presenters both to learn about their different approaches to cultivating communication practices and to generate questions and insights about their projects from a GPT perspective. The conference presentations and discussions were as fascinating as they were informative, and they did leave me with a lot to think about in the following weeks. Here are three takeaways from my thinking so far.   

1. Cultural awareness is essential and complicated.  All communication practices are cultural: they develop in a culture and can only be understood in that context. "Cultivating" a practice means somehow contributing to the culture that nurtures it. Many of the conference presenters were trained ethnographers of communication, and their research illuminated diverse communication practices ranging across professional matchmaking in Los Angeles (Sunny Lie Owens), refugees telling their stories through a refugee speakers bureau (Michelle Brown and Natasha Shrikant), discourses of queer, trans and nonbinary identities in American Muslim communities (Emaan Salim), and much more. How can ethnographic studies cultivate communication practices? This raises complicated questions about how ethnographers relate to the cultural communities that they study. Conference discussions turned repeatedly to questions of who gets to define a practice and address its problems. Traditionally, the ethnographer is an outside observer who only describes and interprets a culture, primarily for an audience of other outsiders including researchers and students. Now it is increasingly common for cultural researchers to identify with the communities they study and to direct their work toward critical discussions of practices within or with respect to those communities. Such critical studies can cultivate communication practices in relatively direct ways, but more often they do so indirectly by contributing to the general awareness in society of practices in different communities. A second takeaway is an insight about how that indirect kind of cultivation can work.  

2. We cultivate practices by noticing things that spark deep conversations about them. This idea was voiced by conference participant Joanne Marras Tate in a discussion of her very interesting research on stories about unusual animal sightings during Covid lockdowns in Brazil and the US. The online discussions about animal sightings revealed assumptions and opened dialogues about the place of humans in the natural world. Research that brings those stories to a wider audience can spark more conversation on environmental issues. The larger point is that most communication research doesn't cultivate practices by directly offering advice on practical problems, but interesting research that gets  people thinking and talking about their practices can influence practices indirectly. Just by spreading awareness of a practice like modern matchmaking, for example, research could spark conversations that contribute to cultivating the practice. 

3. Dilemmas are everywhere! Maybe one good way to spark conversation about a practice is to point out problems that people experience but that they haven't necessarily noticed or thought about in that way. This is the approach we take in GPT research, often looking first to uncover the dilemmas of a practice as a starting point for problem solving. Most of the presentations at the Boulder conference were not GPT studies, yet I was especially struck by the fact that most of them pointed out some dilemma in a communication practice. Media fact-checking in Asian communities faces a dilemma between providing information versus taking a stance (Natasha Shrikant). Communication training faces a dilemma between providing concrete prescriptions that don't always work versus general concepts that can't be enacted (Cindy H. White). Scientists participating in the public sphere face a dilemma between having input as expert authorities versus becoming activists (Menno Reijven). Participants in dialogue groups face a dilemma between the norm that they should speak only for themselves versus the necessity to speak for others to accomplish inclusion (Elisa Varela). Community collaboration across political divisions in a conflict zone faces a dilemma between advancing the community versus perceived disloyalty to a side (Blessed E. Ngoe). Forging an identity in a context of systemic racism, African Americans face a dilemma between being African and being American (Danielle Hodge). I hope my nutshell statements of these dilemmas haven't done too much violence to what the presenters intended. My point is just that practical dilemmas are everywhere in communication, and noticing interesting dilemmas be a great way for communication research to spark the conversations that cultivate communication practices. 

Further Reading

Craig, R. T. (2018). For a practical discipline. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 289-297.  

Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (2021). Grounded practical theory: Investigating communication problems. Cognella. 

Muller, H. L. (2014). A grounded practical theory reconstruction of the communication practice of instructor-facilitated collegiate classroom discussion. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42(3), 325-342. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

What Does a Mask Communicate?

a medical face mask on the floor

I started writing this post two years ago and left it unfinished. I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make with it, and then I got distracted from blogging by, well, let's blame it on the pandemic and the general craziness of 2020, which for me and my wife included downsizing and moving from our home of 30 years in Boulder, Colorado, to a condo in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (It was a happy move for us, but the timing during a pandemic was awkward.) Then there was the general craziness of 2021, and now, ta-da!, the general craziness of 2022. Through it all, some of the craziness has involved tensions around masks and mask-wearing, and I've been wanting to get back to reflecting on masks as a communication problem. So, two years later and for what it's worth, here we go. 

One way to state the problem (maybe not the best way, but I'm going with it for purposes of this post) is: "What does a mask communicate?" In communication theory, this question can be approached from the tradition of semiotics, the theory of signs and meaning. From a semiotic point of view, a mask communicates when it it means something to someone—that is, when it functions as a sign. Semiotic theory gives us concepts that are useful for breaking down the complex ways that a sign can have meaning. 

In this post I'm going to explore a little of that complexity of meaning, but first I'd like to open a tiny time capsule from 2020, found in my first draft of this post, a vignette of mask-wearing and meaning in the early months of the pandemic, which I then bring up to date with a brief note on the present:

Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 2020:  As I run to the barbershop, the heavy rain lets up and I pull back my jacket hood, revealing three months growth of shaggy gray hair. Just reopened under new public health rules after weeks of lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the shop has announced that customers must wait outside and in order to be admitted must use hand sanitizer and wear a... OH, SHIT! I FORGOT MY MASK! "Sorry," I say to the casual young guy behind a small table that partially blocks the shop entrance, "I left my mask in the car. I guess I was distracted by the thunderstorm. I can run back and get it..." No problem," he says while spraying sanitizer on my outstretched hands, "we'll lend you a mask." 

Half hour later: Looking good on top and grateful for it, I add a big tip to the bill, drop my borrowed cloth mask in the hamper by the door, and step into the bright sunshine and fresh air of a spring afternoon in my Colorado town. As I walk the two blocks to my car I'm self-conscious of not wearing a mask, which we're now officially required to do in public. I pass people on the sidewalk, some with masks and some not, and exchange glances with several. One man (also not wearing a mask, I notice) veers briskly into the street to avoid me. Safely back in my car, I say to myself, "Okay, this is what we are dealing with now. Don't forget that mask again!"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2022: On my daily walk through the city and along the Schuylkill River, I see maybe 1 out of 25 people wearing a mask, plus a few carrying one hanging from an arm, at the ready. I still carry a mask in my back pocket, just in case. Masks are no longer required in public, even indoors. However, with Covid-19 recently surging yet again (the sixth wave?) I've been thinking I should wear the mask more often in crowded indoor places. 

Through the last couple of years, wearing a mask has communicated a lot of different things to different people in different contexts, yet with some core of meaning that remains much the same. Ironically, the basic function of wearing a mask these days is mostly about not communicating something, namely the "communicable" disease of Covid-19!  But, while we may avoid communicating a virus by wearing a  mask, we cannot avoid communicating some meaning, however vague or unknowable it may be. It's an axiom of communication theory that "you cannot not communicate." That is, when you are in the presence of others, anything noticeable about you or your actions potentially "says" something to somebody, regardless of your intentions. Efforts to avoid communication, for example by avoiding eye contact, merely communicate that you are trying not to communicate. Wearing a mask is no exception. It's very noticeable, especially so because because it hides the face, which is normally a main focus of attention when we interact. So, wearing a mask in the presence of others (or not wearing one when others do) is definitely communicating, but what exactly it is communicating in a given situation can be hard to know. Yet there is, as I said, a core of meaning that remains much the same.  

A couple of recent academic articles by semiotic theorists are helpful for thinking about this problem. The Italian semiotician Massimo Leone (2021) points out that in any situation the meaning of wearing a mask "is threefold, like the meaning of any communicative device: (1) what I mean by wearing a mask; (2) what is meant to people by wearing a mask; and (3) what is meant by the mask itself."    

Not wearing a mask can communicate just as well as wearing one, and just as unintentionally. On that spring afternoon in Boulder in 2020, I was clearly nervous about not wearing a mask, I think for at least two reasons: (1) I was worried about disease transmission; and (2) I was worried that other people, not knowing I was mask-less by mistake, would assume I was cavalierly putting them in danger by resisting the public health order to wear masks. That was not the person I wanted to be or the message I wanted to be sending in that situation. I may have tried to correct the misimpression by screwing up my face in frustration, to what effect will never be known.  

Leone argues that the core meaning of the mask itself is inseparable from its essential protective function. These are medical masks, quite different from the more decorative or symbolic kinds of masks worn around the world for traditional religious rituals or carnivalesque events like Mardi Gras. Prior to the pandemic, protective masks were mainly associated with doctors and nurses in hospital settings or with workers needing protection from contaminated air in places like mines and construction sites. Such masks can be colorful or otherwise decorative, even fashionable, but the primary reason for wearing them is still for protection. In this they differ, says Leone, from hats and sunglasses, which also have a protective function but often are worn primarily for reasons of self expression and style. In the absence of a pandemic, masks are unlikely to persist as a popular fashion accessory. It's possible, however, that the practice of wearing masks for protection from disease or air pollution, which was already common in some Asian countries before the pandemic, will continue to some extent in Western countries.  

Beyond the core meaning derived from the mask's function, what is communicated by wearing a mask depends a lot on context and has shifted over time. Very early in the pandemic, if you saw someone wearing a mask you might have assumed they were sick and should be avoided. Advice from public health authorities in the winter and spring of 2020 was inconsistent and confusing for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effectiveness of masks for preventing it. There was also, initially, a worldwide shortage of masks, and some messaging discouraged us from wearing them unless we were sick, to preserve the existing supply for health care workers who absolutely did need them.  

As the public health case in favor of mask-wearing became clearer in the spring of 2020, efforts to increase the supply of masks multiplied and the meaning of wearing a mask shifted.  Another recent article about the semiotics of mask-wearing by Mickey Vallee (2022), a Canadian media scholar, discusses how a "global mask-making cottage industry," which he associates with the anti-consumerist DIY movement, emerged along with messaging that promoted mask-wearing as "a caring gesture" that we do collectively to protect each other (not just ourselves) and to "flatten the curve" of virus transmission. 

Mask-wearing as a symbol of social solidarity was already common in Asian societies where masking during public health emergencies was an established practice. Interestingly, the now-familiar protective mask was invented in China during an early twentieth century pandemic, and in that cultural context the mask acquired connotations of medical modernity and pride in China as an advanced nation. With the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, masking became a world-wide practice.

Even then, however, public health orders that required masking stirred political controversy in the US, and the meaning of the mask was caught up in some of our cultural contradictions. On the one hand, "we're all in this together" is a slogan that appeals to many Americans. On the other hand, many Americans don't like being told what to do, especially by elite authorities such as public health officers. 
In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic. (
Similarities to the US situation in 2020 and 2021 were not unnoticed by observers. As the pandemic wore on, right-wing populists gathered cultural strands of rugged individualism and anti-intellectualism to create a backlash against masks and public health restrictions on freedom in general. Still our malevolently clownish president through 2020, Donald Trump sowed confusion and sparked conflict in his own party by officially endorsing the public health advice to wear masks while also pandering to the right-wing resistance by mocking mask-wearers and declaring that he himself would not wear one. 

In an increasingly polarized environment, not wearing a mask in some American places clearly communicated that one was loyal conservative Republican, while wearing a mask equally clearly communicated that one was not. As an anti-Trump liberal Democrat, I felt that wearing a mask signaled my solidarity with like-minded others. This semiotic logic would obviously pose a problem for right-wingers who wanted to wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19 yet didn't want to be mistaken for gutless un-American liberals. Masks like the one pictured below offered a solution to this problem. 

Semiotic theory says the mask is polysemic, meaning that it can have a lot of different meanings, some of which are highly contested. As public health orders have receded since 2021, the political heat around masks has gone down, yet differences remain. Searching Twitter a few minutes ago for the phrase "wearing a mask means" turned up numerous comments, including the following;

Kim Burrell should be ashamed of herself for peddling anti-mask and anti-vaxx nonsense when it's Black folks who've been hardest hit by Covid. To imply that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask means you don't "believe enough" is the same backwards mentality that keeps Black folks from seeking therapy. (@FountainPenDiva)

I take a medication that makes me exceptionally scent-sensitive. Wearing a mask means fewer migraines. (@dewsterling)

Wearing a mask means you've died.
Spiritually. (@johnsville14)

In Vietnam, wearing a mask means you love your Country. (@Sinh_MD)

Not wearing a mask means you're a selfish entitled git. (@Margo1hand)

Not wearing a mask means that you choose a stalled, unhealthy, selfish society. (@GalNooks)

At least wearing a mask means that people won't mistake me for a conservative. 🙃 (@salmliam)

We were pummeled with terror for 2 years. For the first year it was QUITE scary for sure! Then we were also told that wearing a mask means you're a good person and showing your face means you're not. The messaging purposefully divided and othered. They don't want to be the other. (@DrJamesOlsson)

Or maybe wearing a mask means he can assess risk? Or maybe he has a health condition? Or maybe a close relative is in a high risk group? I know it's hard for you to believe that someone might wear a mask bc they care about someone other than themself. (@BabblnBostonian)

Lol all that wearing a mask means is that you probably aren’t a little bitch. No need to ascribe grandeur, just means basic courtesy and respect for life. Actual pro-life. (@SullySparks1)

Wearing a mask means you get to inhale your own essence and who doesn’t want that? 🥰 (@_BlurtBobain)

He'll, if I'd have known that wearing a mask means I "don't trust" the Invisible Man in the Sky, I'd be wearing a mask 24/7. (@file_49)

Angry woman asked me why I'm "wearing that piece of garbage on my face" and I said "because I love you and want you to be ok".  It turns out telling angry strangers you love them makes them quiet.  Mental note to self. (@tamalama67)

At what point did people start assuming wearing a mask means you're sick, as opposed to wanting to prevent sickness lol  (@StrewthQueen)

Further Reading

Leone, M. (2021). The semiotics of the anti-COVID-19 mask. Social Semiotics, 1-7. 

Vallee, M. (2022). A mask between you and me. Media, Culture & Society, 44(5), 903-921. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement" by Amardo Rodriguez (Public Square Press, 2022)

Book cover
Image source:

A new book by Amardo Rodriguez, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, is well worth reading for the outside-the-ideological-boxes, communication-based argument that it makes against campus speech codes that ban the use of certain words, such as the N-word (his prime example). 

In the history of American education, conservatives have traditionally been the most vociferous advocates for banning things -- books, ideas, words, or people -- that they regarded as indecent, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or otherwise dangerous to society. The tradition continues with current efforts to ban teaching that promotes what is misleadingly called "Critical Race Theory" or that normalizes nontraditional sexual and gender identities. (A law recently enacted in Florida was dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.)

However, the impulse to ban things has never been a monopoly of the political right. Ideological censorship, surveillance, and purges of "class enemies" and dissidents have been staple policies of left-authoritarian regimes in other countries, and conservatives have lately complained that something similar has been going on in American universities that are dominated by left-leaning faculty and students. The specific target of these complaints is often campus speech codes that ban "hate speech" or language regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise injurious to traditionally oppressed and underrepresented groups. 

Conservatives ironically find themselves opposing campus speech codes with the same "freedom of speech" arguments that liberals traditionally used against conservative bans. Now it is political progressives who defend restrictions on the freedom to speak in socially harmful ways. 

Conservative polemics on the subject bristle with horror stories about speakers being shouted down on campuses and professors being investigated, "cancelled" or disciplined for using banned language in the classroom. In one case, a professor was fired when he insisted on quoting the N-word as it appeared in appellate court opinions covered in a law class that he taught. He clearly was not using the N-word either casually or hostilely as a racial epithet. He was reading it from legal opinions in which it was used factually by judges ruling on legal cases about the word's use. Nevertheless, students in the professor's class were outraged and demanded action against him for racist speech. Campus administrators sided with the students, and he was ultimately fired. 

Rodriguez cites this and similar examples in his book, "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement," but his argument against banning words on campus escapes the polarized ideological dynamics of conservative versus progressive. Instead, he uses communication theory to argue that banning words relies on false assumptions about language and communication that can only serve to stunt our development as human beings. 

"At the foundation of this new trend of banning words on college campuses," he argues, "is the assumption that words and symbols form the foundation of communication" (p. 97), that words have certain definite meanings regardless of context or intent, and that "because words can allegedly inflict harm, just like how a weapon can harm, restrictions are necessary" (p. 13). In contrast to this "transmission model of communication," Rodriguez explains,

Communication theory has long rejected the notion that human beings are empty receptacles who can be filled up with messages. It now uses a model that stresses transaction rather than transmission... that human beings are always filtering and processing everything. Consequently, how one person perceives, experiences, and makes sense of something can be very different from how another person does. Communication is about recognizing, navigating, and transacting our different meanings of things. (p. 73)

Speech bans are intended to support campus "diversity" policies, but "for advocates of hate speech laws and codes, diversity resides in boxes and groupings" (p. 93). For Rodriguez, these policies actually deny and repress diversity, rather than support it:    

No doubt, human diversity is about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. But human diversity is also about our different temperaments, backgrounds, circumstances, sentiments, ambitions, resources, prejudices, values, beliefs, fears, ethics, politics, and tribulations. It is also about our different rationalities, sensibilities, spiritualities, modalities, pedagogies, ideologies, and epistemologies. (p. 87)

And human diversity in this fuller sense is essentially related to dialogical forms of communication:

Diversity makes communication possible and valuable. Communication has meaning only to the extent that speaker and listener have different thoughts. Communication is about recognizing and engaging another perspective. In other words, in limiting and diminishing communication, these new bans limit and diminish diversity. The flourishing of diversity is bound with the flourishing of communication. Only through communication can our full diversity appear in all its fecundity and possibility. Rules and regulations will always diminish diversity. Both do so by strangling communication. For with rules and regulations, nothing is open for negotiation and deliberation. There is only submission. Finally, that diversity is bound up with communication means that communication demands vulnerability—owning the limits of what we can understand. That we are physically incapable of understanding most things completely and absolutely means that we must always allow for the possibility of a view or position that is different to our own. These new bans end this possibility. We are to assume that there is only one correct course of action when dealing with certain words. Communication is unnecessary. In this way, these bans make for less diversity by making for less communication. (p. 93)

Rodriguez acknowledges the essential place of power in communication, which is important because the rationale for campus speech codes relies on the idea that they are needed to counteract the power to dominate and demean others that has traditionally accrued to whiteness, maleness, and other socially privileged identities. But instead of empowering members of traditionally oppressed groups, he argues, speech bans actually disempower them by casting them as helpless victims who are unable to control and negotiate the meaning of their own experience, and who therefore require institutional protection from harmful speech. 

Indeed, he argues, speech bans only serve to strengthen the institutional power of "the neoliberal 'all-administrative university'" (p. 80), which is inherently hostile to diversity despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "The reality," he writes, "is that no institution can genuinely promote diversity and remain an institution" (p. 129). What institutions require is not diversity but conformity to rules. As an exercise of institutional power, speech bans ultimately depend on violence to enforce conformity:

Hate speech laws and codes represent an order that impedes human development. By imposing this order under the threat of sanction, communication becomes impossible. We must submit and conform, or else face the consequences. (p. 82)

Here Rodriguez emphasizes how institutional power stifles communication, but elsewhere he is clear that communication always has a political dimension:

Then I discuss how language is political. We are always fighting over language, as in who can use what language, what language is appropriate in what context, what language belongs to whom, what language should govern the public square, what language best describes a situation, and so forth. Because language is always political, it is always about power—as in, who decides whether to call a person a terrorist or a freedom fighter? (p. 134)

In this light, speech bans are more than an expression of institutional power. They express the rising power of historically oppressed groups to control language via institutional rules:
[The N-word] is about power. It is about Black folks, after 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, finally having any power to impact how White folks use language. For this reason, many Black folks have no intention of giving up this newfound power. (p. 134)
I think the author's point is that this power comes at a cost because it produces mere outward conformity in speech that fails to express what people actually think and feel. Thus it prevents "the kind of honest and difficult communication" (p. 67), the genuine dialogue about race, that is arguably needed to produce social change. 

The power that Rodriguez refers to is real and reflects clearly recognizable norms of language use. As a notable example, Rodriquez, a Black man, uses the N-word in his book freely and without apology, whereas I, a white man, have avoided it in this review, substituting the euphemistic "N-word" even when quoting his book. You could say this is merely performative on my part, or you could say it follows a rule of etiquette, and, as such, counts as an expression of respect. I have no problem with following a formal rule that requires me to show respect for people who have always deserved it but have long been denied it. 

The communication theory of genuine dialogue teaches that the "honest and difficult communication" that is the gold standard of human relationship, if we achieve it at all, is only possible in brief moments and cannot be expected all the time. For the most part we have no choice but to rely on routine communication practices, including formal etiquette, to get along. But social routines are always about power, as Rodriguez points out, and the struggle for social change plays out in ongoing fights about what is appropriate. 

Institutional rules, such as bans on words, are not the same as social norms, but they are justified in terms of social norms, they influence social norms, and in some ways they are easier to fight about than social norms, just because they are clearly explicit and enforceable. In that regard, they may have the potential to serve as instruments of social change, even granting the strong, thought-provoking case that Rodriguez makes against them. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Empathize ... or Fight?

a woman's fist

Under the headline, "I’m Pro-Choice. But I Don’t Think Pro-Lifers Are Bad People," the linguist and New York Times opinion writer John McWhorter explains how his experience years ago as a graduate student eating meals with a group of Republican law students and listening to the talk that went on among them changed his attitude toward Republicans:

But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense....These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.

Referring to the current flare-up of the abortion issue as the US Supreme Court seems about to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, McWhorter's point is that those who stand with him on the pro-choice side of the issue should not demonize those on the pro-life side. These are not ignorant or bad people; they are earnest, intelligent people who process the world through a different lens than ours, and who sincerely believe that the right to life of a fetus outweighs a woman's right to reproductive freedom. So, we should empathize with their strong feelings on the issue, even while continuing to disagree with their priorities as we process the world through our own, different lens. 

I don't question the validity of McWhorter's point, taken on its own as a matter of principle, but he has little to say about what it means in practice in our current situation. In my head, I can empathize with McWhorter's empathy for anti-abortion activists, but then I hear another voice warning, in response, that yes, we should assume that our opponents are mostly earnest, intelligent people--and for that, that they are all the more dangerous in battle!

And battles there are. On the day McWhorter's column appeared, The New York Times editorial board declared: "Americans are about to lose a constitutional right. It’s worth fighting for." The editorial points out that if the Supreme Court rules as expected, the abortion fight will go on in state courts and legislatures across the country. With abortion bans already passed in many states and proposed in others, abortions could be illegal in more than half of the states in a few months, and "the anti-abortion movement isn't stopping there" but will be pressing for a national ban. There will be legal disputes between conservative states trying to restrict abortions outside their borders and liberal states trying to provide access for women from states where abortions are banned. "For the foreseeable future, the real battle for reproductive freedom will be fought in the states, by regular Americans, and their state and local representatives, who are trying to protect this fundamental right while they still can."

The editorial doesn't demonize abortion opponents but neither does it make a point of empathizing with them. It focuses on their apparent goals and strategies, the policies they are pushing for, and legislative strategies for opposing them. The communication practices of the pro-choice side are framed entirely in terms of "pushing," "fighting," and "battle." Despite their metaphorical violence, we can assume these terms refer to the usual political communication practices of organizing, fundraising, campaigning, protesting, petitioning, lobbying, and legal advocacy. Part of what is required is mobilizing large numbers of people and motivating them to act for the cause. Anger can be a great motivator, and demonizing the other side can be a great way of arousing anger (on both sides though, but the other side is angry anyway). So, is McWhorter telling us not to do that?

Not explicitly. He doesn't really say anything about political communication strategy. He's apparently talking about how we should personally feel toward people we disagree with. One communication model would argue that if we can empathize with people on the other side (and they with us, a big "if" in this case), as McWhorter feels we should, we all may be more willing to engage in a communication process that addresses the legitimate concerns of both sides through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. This approach is always worth trying in moments when it seems possible, but despite evidence that the broader public would be open to compromise on the abortion issue, the anti-abortion movement, with major victories now in sight, clearly is not.  

Like it or not, then, we find ourselves in a "battle," and the battle frame entails a different communication model in which empathy for the other side has smaller and more instrumental roles to play. The current war in Ukraine may be a far-fetched analogy, but one function of empathy in that situation is illustrated by Thomas Friedman's argument that the US should avoid "boasting" about our indirect contribution to Russian military losses because of the unpredictable reaction it might provoke from a "humiliated" Russian president Putin. Friedman's empathy for Putin's vulnerability to humiliation is meant to inform a communication strategy against him, not to soften our feelings toward him. 

Are there ways of engaging in political "battle" while still honoring the validity of McWhorter's admonishment against demonizing those who disagree with us? McWhorter is right, after all. Demonizing the other side may be a convenient rhetorical strategy for mobilizing our own side for battle, but it is seldom an honest expression of the truth about our opponents, most of whom are probably earnest, intelligent people. Our anger toward them may be perfectly justifiable as well as motivationally useful in the current situation, but there should be limits on how it is expressed. Even in war, there are rules. 

A rule that is often proposed for political conflict is "civility," but critics have argued that the norm of civility is inappropriately used to stifle legitimate expressions of anger in public discourse. "The expression of anger is essential to public life," argues Karen Tracy in Challenges of Ordinary Democracy (Penn State Press, 2010). Rather than civility, Tracy proposes "reasonable hostility" as "a defensible ideal of communicative conduct" that "take[s] seriously the need for passionate, angry expression as well as the importance of respectful expression" (p. 202). 

Not so much a matter of how we personally feel toward our opponents, reasonable hostility is a matter of how we talk to them and about them, with tokens of respect even in the expression of passionate anger. There are probably many good techniques for striking this balance in discourse, and a useful job for communication researchers is to identify them and cultivate their use. Two techniques that Tracy mentions are using formal names and terms of address, and using "argument metalanguage"--terms from argumentation theory such as issue, claim, reason, argument, and assumption--to describe what both sides are saying. 

These are not ways of empathizing; they are ways of fighting while conveying the basic respect for opponents that empathy demands.