Pot Shots: They’re So Easy

It’s been 15 years since I moved out of Paris, and three and a half since I stopped going there regularly to work. And still, I find myself feeling that the recent assault in the French capital was an assault on “my” city. It was also an assault on human dignity.

As I think about it, and grieve, I am also struck by how much this issue hinges on questions of communication.

Radical Islamist sites denounce Western “idolatry” and speak of people who simply want to sit on a café terrace with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee as somehow “depraved.” Same message for those who want to listen to music of their choice at a concert. Western media are quick to denounce this as rabid insanity, the product of “enemies who are out to destroy our way of life” and such like.

But when Christian fundamentalists physically attack, and in some cases, murder health care workers because they work in abortion clinics, which they denounce as “Godless,” are our media ready to make the same judgement?

What’s the media spin on people who are acquitted of murder or manslaughter on the basis of “stand your ground” statutes, where wearing a hoody makes someone the equivalent of a genetically crazed, incurable criminal?

Why do (especially U.S.) politicians talk with almost religious fervour about how we must curtail or limit freedoms “in order to preserve our precious liberty,” using the word liberty as if they were preachers referring to the divine nature of the deity while planning to undermine it?

How is it that after the attacks in Paris last January, Donald Trump’s idea of humanity was to post this tweet?

It says,
Donald Trump’s Post after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January, 2015

It would be tempting to refer to the number of in-school and on-campus shoot-em-ups that have taken place this year in USA-land versus terrorist attacks in France, but that would be as cheap a shot as Trump’s tweet.

The communication issue goes much deeper, and deserves much more serious analysis than exchanges of cheap pot shots.

Communication and Social Contract

We are, these days, inundated with messages of all political and ideological colours via traditional media and new media alike. We are incapable of digesting it all, so we tend to favour the sources that we perceive as “fair and balanced,” which usually means they lean toward our own points of view, or to those that quite openly take the same stand that we do, and promote it as “the truth.”

The questions of information control and bias in the media are not new, have always been with us, and always will be. But in a world that is increasingly globalized, the media also have a duty of due diligence to represent that world from a global viewpoint, and not solely from a single cultural bias or local interest.

Unfortunately, our media world wide are not up to this task, and they succumb too easily to the whims or political agendas of their owners – or of polemic that they think will increase sales, or clicks, or whatever it is they are in search of for economic gain.

Larry Kunz, in a recent post, used a quote from the American journalist of the 1920’s, H.L. Mencken to point out how most people think only with their guts, and respond to only the most elemental parts of a message. In addition, in Western democracies, most electorates no longer trust the political classes, which have become totally professionalized and obsessed with maintaining power, rather than serving the people.

The result is polarized discourse that functions on a purely visceral level (you don’t agree with me, therefore you’re not only a bad person, you must be a traitor to your country…). This is most flagrant in the United States, but the differences in other countries that I know are largely of degree, not of substance.

The truth is, we no longer trust politicians, or each other, for that matter. And that means that there is a total lack of social contract. Social contract is that aspect of community that enables us to exist together as a society. For example, in most restaurants, it would be very easy to get up and leave without paying your cheque, and for the most part, people would not notice until after you were gone. However, if most customers did that, there would soon be no more restaurants. We don’t pay our restaurant bills because we have to, or that it would be illegal not to. We pay them because that’s how society works.

If, suddenly, there is no more trust – and so, every restaurant places an armed guard at each table to ensure that you pay your bill, and you spend half an hour adding up the tab to be sure you’ve not been cheated by the restauranteur, the pleasure of dining out is just as suddenly destroyed, no?

In this kind of environment, it would also be easy for someone to start a rumour on the internet that some restauranteur was also bugging the tables, and eavesdropping on conversations, with the intent of eventually robbing the clients who reveal indications of wealth. Suddenly, that restaurant might be boycotted by would-be diners, and go out of business, without anyone ever really knowing if the allegation were true.

In this manner, the mistrust of politicians, their adherence to special interests and economic or ideological lobbies, and their total inaccessibility for the average voter, leads people to grab any quick solution that is offered – radical religion, sects, radical political ideologies, closed communities, violent action, anything that lets lost, disillusioned, anxious people find some measure of confidence, direction, identity, and sense in life. Easy peasy.

It strikes me that our problem is not to try and control, or censor, these radical communications – a move that would probably only increase their attractiveness to the mistrustful and the paranoid. Rather, it is to improve the communication of what we often tout as “fundamental values” of our society, but which few of us practice in reality. We are too individualist, we let the community drown. As a result, our actions belie our words, and our words are hollow and carry no force.

All the same, words are important and we would be wise to understand that if we don’t want more attacks in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Montréal, New Delhi or New York, we need to change our discourse, and that means changing our attitudes and our actions. All of us.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (www.transformationsociety.net), a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium (www.information4zero.org) and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

2 thoughts on “Pot Shots: They’re So Easy”

  1. Thank you for this, Ray. You’ve put your finger on the real issues and provided some much-needed perspective.

    Whenever something happens like this weekend’s attacks in Paris, we see people expressing solidarity with the community through the makeshift memorials that spring up: bouquets, candles, written notes. This time there was a man who drove to Paris to fish in the Seine. He said, “I usually don’t fish here in the city. But I wanted to express my solidarity.”

    However, after those first instinctual gestures, I think we struggle with how to go on. You say we need to change the discourse, and I think you’re right. But how do we do that? Part of the answer is obvious: refrain from divisive talk, from fearmongering, from attacking people rather than attacking ideas. But if those are the “thou shalt nots,” it’s not clear what the “thou shalts” are. Especially in an age of social media where everyone has a voice but it’s hard to be heard above the din of the crowd.

  2. Larry, I am late in thanking you for your cogent remarks. Indeed, the “thous shalts” are the key, and difficult to find. Sadly, France is going the way of the U.S. after 9/11 – a 3-month state of emergency, suggestions that elements of this “state of exception” be incorporated into regular law, even into the constitution, all to assuage the anxieties of voters.

    There are regional elections in France – two rounds, December 6 and 13, and the extreme right Front National looks poised to win at least two regions. This was the case before the attacks, and recent events just help them out. The result: everyone, left, right, and centre, is rushing to make declarations about security, to promote the idea of a “Patriot Act à la Francaise,” etc.

    What these people are worried about is their personal political position – long-term solutions that go to the fundamentals be damned. What Mencken referred to as the “Booboisie” wins again.

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