All posts by Gary C. Woodward

Finding Common Touchstones

     Mercury Capsule at the Air and Space Museum, Washington

What happens when the media that have been traditional touchstones to the culture no longer matter?  What follows if there is a withering of once common narratives?

When we wonder why we are such talkers and texters, look no further than our natural desire to find meaning in the words and faces of others.  While most communication thinkers would accept that we are islands of consciousness, most also come to the view that our social nature gives us the urge to affiliate with various sorts of tribes. Beyond the family, most Americans seek connections with affinity groups organized around schools, religious institutions, work settings, or various avocations. Beyond that, we count ourselves as members of the same culture: less firmly now, perhaps, but it is still a piece of our identity.

Cultures typically share a language, a political history and sets of foundational stories. They are the common property of all. But what happens if the media that have been the traditional touchstones to our collective selves no longer matter to the society’s newer members?  What happens if there is a withering of our common narratives?  One sign of our weakened sense of affiliation are the 1800 big and small American newspapers that have shut down in the last fifteen years.  Many communities are now news deserts cut of from the nation, and often their own communities.

Concerns like these are frequently raised because, while we have the technical means to easily share our culture, we are less inclined to visit its various precincts.  There are more interesting distractions to pursue.

I’m 72 and my students are mostly south of 20.  And though they are pleasant and easy to work with, it’s increasingly apparent that we come from very different places.  At times it can seem if we both flew in from different countries to spend some time together.  To be sure, we speak the same language, but the forces that have shaped us and and govern our interests are partly alien to each other.

Mine is the older country of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, the civil rights struggle and stunning leaps into space. We expected to meet future spouses in college. Even today our older selves still celebrate great cars, packed bookstores, jazz virtuosos and film and television benchmarks that are more sanguine than dystopian. Many in my generation also seek a daily connection to the national news cycle and, hence, to America’s sagging civil society.

At the same time, my country has also been hell-bent on the dream of affluence. It’s been somewhat less generous toward the young than those of the previous war generation, who gladly built schools, a vast transportation infrastructure for growth, and ways to provide access to college for veterans and the expanding middle class. Our’s is also a generation that votes in larger numbers, keeping a thumb on the government-services scale that favors the old over the young and poor.

 

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have held together the culture.

 

By contrast, the young come from a country freed from many of these old cultural markers and some of the bigotries that went with them.  That’s expected, and a welcome part of the gift of idealism that is the birthright of the young.

Theirs is a nation of ‘digital natives’ organized around screens and represented more by personal media and fragmented video on-demand.  They mostly ignore the more centralized broadcasting of major networks. In addition, for the members of this country, devotion to a marriage partner can wait, while all-consuming devotion to the smartphone comes sooner. The device trades in artifacts of the self rather than the full self. It also feeds off the attractions of celebrity as a measure of self-worth.  This is expressed in terms of media markers, where a phone is a gateway to attention that can attract “followers” at a distance. The effect of the ubiquitous online discourse encourages much more interest in the “now” rather than a delayed-but-better “later.”

Of course I’m generalizing beyond what any individual case would allow. And it would be unfair to conclude that younger Americans don’t value social capital.  Many are generous with their time if asked to work for social justice causes.  But social connections are no longer created around shared discourse about the nation’s political problems.  Looming obstacles of the workplace and an independent adulthood matter more. The hollowing-out of the middle class now feeds a generalized discomfort among the young about finding a secure place that can yield the kinds of comfort levels known by their parents.

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have previously held together the culture. Generational differences are a given.  But the atomizing of experience that is common in peer to peer media shifts our energies toward the personal and away from the political, which is traditionally the realm of core questions about how we should live as a society.  So we have to ask: are we still living in a shared cultural space if we don’t share the same stories?

Voicing Messages

A basic rhetorical principle is that pronouns like “you,” “they” and “them” will open up distance between a source and its intended receivers. 

One of the more subtle effects of messages we send to others is how we “voice” them.  Among other things, voicing involves the use of pronouns and and other words that affect how a receiver understands the source.  A very formal message will probably make assertions or requests with reference to only the receivers of the message.  For example, a memo that from the boss that says “All of you will need to budget more time this week to complete this audit” makes it clear that (1) the manager is seemingly excluding himself from most of the work and that (2) he thinks of himself as distinct from the rest of the group.  The message is voiced as a directive.  If the request was changed to say “All of us will need to budget more time for this work,” the social distance between the staff and the manager would be lessened.

This basic lesson of voicing is obvious but important. The pronouns ” “you,” “they,” and “them” tend to keep distance between the source and the receivers. The use of “us” and “we” do the reverse.  They close the distance with others, suggesting a more inclusive group.  With the example above it’s obvious that a better style of management is exemplified in the second example. Top-down leadership using terms of exclusivity is more likely to feed all kinds of organizational resentments.

The constant use of “I” can also become a particular irritant because it signals a person who appears to be stuck in a self-referential box. Suspect someone of being a narcissist?  Count the “I”s in a segment of their everyday speech.

 

It’s not unusual for advocates to go off the rails, missing their audience’s sensitivities to whether they seem to think of themselves as part of the same community.

 

A famous case of a message unraveling because it was given in the wrong voice happened when independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot was invited to address the NAACP in 1992.  The group’s annual meeting is one of the nation’s important venues for a candidate.  And Perot thought he had a winning message.  His speech sought to build solidarity by referencing his own poverty as a youth growing up in Texas, but Perot kept using the wrong pronoun.  He kept talking about “you folks:” “Now I don’t have to tell you who gets hurt first” in hard times, he began.  “”You people do; your people do.”  Amid a string of “I”s he kept digging himself into a deeper hole of alienation.   Finally someone in the back of the all shouted “Correct it!,” literally asking Perot to place himself inside the same social space with his fellow human beings.  But he remained clueless to the end.  Headlines the next day noted that the candidate “Laid an Egg.” Nothing of substance he said made any difference after his audience registered the simple but consequential mistake of misplaced pronouns.  It was not the language itself that was the problem.  Rather, it was that it signaled an embedded bias that told his audience that he saw them as a different tribe.