Is Everything so Relative There is no Agreed-upon Truth?

In the media, the spin, the scandals, the search
for miscues have eroded our ability to agree upon truth, according to Senator
Barack Obama.

When truth has a thousand faces, how do we find common ground and agree upon anything that approaches truth?

In a media-saturated environment this is the reality we live in. Media frame the stories that shape our perceptions. It’s a subtle and cumulative process that affects how we define meaning or perceived threats. When competing claims are made or conflicting facts are presented, truth eludes us. With fragmented media and thousands of pieces of information, it’s harder today than its ever been to agree upon what is true.

In The Audacity of Hope, Sen. Barrack Obama attributes this dilemma to political spin and the search for scandals and miscues by media. There’s a lot in this description that appeals. However, it isn’t complete either. At least, not from the perspective of one who has been working in communications for many years.

In the circles in which I work communication has been viewed primarily as a set technical skills secondary to the “real” work–that being whatever project or program its advocates can convince others is important, or which even without broad consensus, they believe is a priority. The result is competing claims for funds and support. Is it more important to treat HIV-AIDS or cancer? Pay teachers higher salaries or pave roads? Start new churches or . . . well, you get the point. Each claim tries to establish the truth for its view of reality. And each frames reality around its own particular set of truths. When this happens the measures of progress become narrow, we start to compete with each other and our view of what is really important becomes unmanageable. There is no common ground, and the ground we do claim must be protected against the inroads of others.

This territorial mentality ultimately isolates and divides because it presumes a scarceness of resources. We fight for a limited pot of change.

Couple this with a heightened sense of individual autonomy and you have a recipe for the breakdown of community–a process that has been decried by many social theorists for many years.

Instead of communicating with each other and coming to understand the position of others, we shout at each other, manipulate the data to support our viewpoint and set out to defend ourselves against all comers. Is this not a great part of the polarized environment we experience today? There seems to be no center. There is no common place, nor values that we can agree on and we’re left to defend ourselves, or withdraw into our individual pursuits. The rest of the world be damned.

I’ve been digging into this recently and in the next few posts I will take on the subject of communication and its role in our lives. I think communication is more than a set of support functions, more than content and more than equipment. It’s the conversation through which we develop relationships that give us our voices, allow us to hear others and find common ground to act on those matters that are primary to a functioning social order.

And because I’m part of a community called a mainline religious denomination, I write from that context. It’s a frustrating context because, as I’ve written in this blog before, these groups have abdicated responsibility for communicating in meaningful ways in the public arena. We’ve allowed others to set the agenda and have not aggressively sought to be part of the conversation in public media.

So I’ll be coming back to this and I’m interested in comments from readers about how my analysis compares with yours.

But first, I’ll be traveling the next couple of weeks and don’t know if I’ll be able to connect online. If I can, I will. If not, I’ll be back in two weeks.

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