Communicating in a Time of Transition

It’s a fair question to ask why a
communicator would give attention to issues that are in the province of
specialists and the general public and are beyond the technical skills of
communications specialists. Here’s a start toward my answer to this
question.

It’s fair to ask why a communicator like me would give attention to a wide range of issues that go beyond the technical skills that communicators are supposed to master. I want to write about this in a series of posts as I also try to address the connection between communication and global issues, specifically health-related issues and the development of peoples.

First, I write from a context. It is the context of inquiry informed by the theology of the Methodist movement. I understand this to mean that it’s necessary, even beneficial, to ask questions and engage in dialogue about them, even when it’s uncomfortable and unsettling. Besides my Methodist roots, I suspect that the Native American practice of elders teaching by asking questions is as sound a practice for getting at balanced understanding of life’s questions as any I know. In that I have learned that as we seek answers and engage in dialogue with those who differ, and if we remain open to the process, we are changed. Better answers surface than would surface were we to not hear diverse points of view. That gives an individual, a community and a whole society strength and unity.

My dismay at the strident, absolutist claims of fundamentalism results as much from this closing off of dialogue as it is from differences about theology, although, theological differences are central, of course. But if we can talk about why we believe as we do and how this shapes our approach to important life concerns, at the very least, we could understand each other a bit better and perhaps come to a form of acceptable accommodation. But fundamentalists who demand absolute acceptance of their beliefs shut the door to this possibility. That’s dismaying.

Communication can help to frame the conversation and make the issues clearer and more accessible to those who want to engage in an open dialogue. When communicators do this, they make an important contribution to the forward movement of the public conversation. This is one reason I find communications to be such an interesting and energizing role. When we preserve this approach to dialogue, we make the society stronger.

Where this kind of dialogue is not possible, societies slip into totalitarianism, corruption and stagnation. I’ve travelled in roughly fifty countries writing about development issues, poverty, health and humanitarian concerns, and in places where totalitarianism is in control, the conditions under which people live are awful.

The ability to write and speak freely is an indicator of health in a society, much as the proverbial canary in the mine. If the air is clear the conversation can fly. The human spirit will soar. If not, that spirit will be weighed down with oppression and life becomes a daily struggle to survive.

Therefore, we can’t relegate communications skills merely to techniques about writing, producing video or taking photographs. While communications skills are technical, the solutions to our most vexing problems are often not to be found merely in the application of technical skills. They require more than the application of technical measures.
For example, if I have a cold I can take a pain reliever and wait for it to pass. That’s an easy technical fix for treating my symptoms.

But if I have a more complex problem that requires diagnosis and decisions about treatment, technical skills alone won’t get the job done. For this more complex matter I need access to the health care system and once I’ve gotten access I will need to trust the physician, engage in understanding the condition, educate myself about my options, weigh the choices–or lack of them–about what to do about a basic life concern.

The deeply human drama of the big issues we face does not lend itself to technical solutions alone nor to absolutist answers. The big issues are more multifaceted. And that’s why I think it’s vital that we preserve the capacity to talk with each other and to avoid the scape-goating, name-calling and personalizing that has marked too much of our public conversation in the past few years.

What is at stake is the quality of our lives together. That demands communication practices that allow a wide range of voices to be heard and respected. And it is, in part, the role of communicators, among many others, to ensure that the many voices are heard, that diverting practices are not allowed to sidetrack us and to ensure that competing claims are assessed and exposed for broad evaluation.

This requires judgment as well as technical skill and this is, in part, why I think it’s important for us to view the wide range of issues that we face as a human community and as a faith community, and talk about them in an open and caring way.

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