Hot Button Issues and the “Media”

The controversy around Da Vinci Code is as
important as a representation of institutional mistrust as it is important
because it is historically inaccurate.

Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, said the “hot button” issues are diversions from more serious policy issues. Thomas de Zengotita says in Mediated: How the Media Shapes your world and the Way You Live in It we are buffeted by images and messages that point to something else. We live in a world of representation that distorts, and masquerades as reality. In fact, he makes the case that we don’t even consider the real from the representational because we’re immersed in web of media in which every message refers to something else. In the end, these messages and images come to represent reality.

Fr. Jim McDermott of the Jesuit magazine, America told a workshop of Catholic communicators in Nashville that when he began teaching about the Da Vinci Code, he approached the audience as if it were desirable to clarify inaccuracies in the novel.

But, he noted, this “let the air out of the room,” and discussion ceased. He came to understand that people wanted to talk and be heard. This was more important than the actual content of the book and movie. They told him they didn’t want a lecture, they wanted conversation.

The learning here seems to be that media events such as the Da Vinci Code and (perhaps) other hot button issues touch a deeper nerve. They represent unspoken, unrecognized issues, that lie below the surface for many people. In the Code the fictional storyline and inaccuracies of fact do upset many people, but these alone don’t create interest. The fictionalized conspiracy becomes more plausible in light of clergy sexual abuse and the break in trust it represents. The plausibility of the church withholding important information becomes easier to believe in the wake of misrepresentation by corporate leaders (Enron) and politicians (WMDs). The major institutions that influence our lives have manipulated information and deceived us. And we want to say something about that.

Combine these liabilities with antipathy toward reason and scholarship–such as historical and textual criticism of the Bible–and the confusion of fiction with reality becomes more understandable.

De Zengotita adds another important consideration. In a mediated society the telling of the story becomes part of the story, and eventually absorbs it. He asks the reader to consider how the traveling media motorcade shaped the telling of the story of OJ on the freeway. At what point does media intervention impinge upon reality?

If de Zengotita is correct, the question doesn’t matter because we passed that point long ago and now we’re in a media-influenced wonderland that fuses reality and representation. The distinction is lost. We can’t have reality without an accompanying storyline.

Viewed from this perspective the issues aren’t as important as being heard in the clamor because we are all participants in media events, even if we’re only playing the role of spectator. In this role, what is important is our interpretation of the story and how it affects us individually. Thus, it’s not about external facts rooted in history and practice. It’s about me, says de Zengotita.

We’ve arrived at the ultimate state of individualism and deconstruction. In this state, reality is what each of us makes it by picking and choosing from snippets of the multitude of storylines that cascade before us every day.

But this bubble bursts when harsh reality pricks its thin skin. We discover that we’re not really as privileged as we’re led to believe. Cancer happens. Death comes to a loved one. Calamity strikes. We’re helpless and the storyline can’t be manipulated. Then we face reality in a way that is terrifying and gives us perspective unlike the mediated reality of daily life.

I agree with de Zengotita that the elevation of the individual to a performer in the ongoing storylines is behind some of the reaction we see in hot button issues. Whether we can claim grounding in historical truth and experience in this mediated environment remains one of the most telling challenges of the Da Vinci Code and other similar media-driven experiences.
But as a person of faith, I would go further. The arrogation of the individual to define reality is hubris writ large. It’s at the core of the biblical teaching of the relationship of humans to God. In fact, a good theologian (which I’m not) could make a strong case for the effects of the mediated environment being blasphemy and the arrogation of individuals as idolatry. Jesus called disciples to be self-giving, to humble themselves and become as a servant. Christian discipleship is fundamentally at odds with this mediated version of reality. That’s a real hot button issue.

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