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Why bother about trying to communicate?

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It is unfortunate that World Communications Day is celebrated in the middle of an election campaign. Most of us are thoroughly weary of public communications. We have seen the worst of partisan media coverage, of shouting as a preferred form of communication, of endless experts promising Armageddon if the result is not to their taste, of commentators peering into lapses of memory and miniscule poll shifts like Roman priests into a bird’s entrails, of bipartisan neglect of major issues facing Australia. If we include social media, with its reflex negativity, we may become even more dyspeptic.

And yet we have also seen the best of media informing us of the issues that concern people in different parts of Australia, checking the claims and promises of politicians, and clarifying the arguments for and against particular policies. Without such public communication, for all its defects and excesses, our society would be the poorer. We have also seen more scepticism about political communications. People ask in whose interest claims and stories are being told, and are increasingly asking for something genuine.

World Communications Day invites us to leave the heat of electoral exchanges and to ask deeper questions. Why does communication matter, and what should it be like? We can do worse than beginning with a typically startling throwaway line of St Augustine, who said that the only reason why we communicate is to make one another better. As a statement of what communication should be like, it is powerful. But as a statement of fact it may seem fanciful. If we tease out what Augustine means by making one another better, however, and include being better informed, more aligned with what is true, more encouraged, more amused, having prejudices challenged, and ultimately more richly human, then it makes good sense. The test of good communication at election and other times is certainly whether it respects human beings and builds a good society.

Augustine’s aphorism has the merit of seeing communication as a relationship between speaker and listener. It is easy to consider it only from the point of view of the person who speaks or writes. We focus exclusively on the best ways to address our audience. We see the Media as voices that command our attention, neglecting the part that listeners play in communication. In reality it is a two-way process, involving a speaker and a listener. Communication is effective when each partner is offered and accepts the opportunity both to speak and to listen.

When we focus on listening rather than speaking we notice things that might otherwise escape us. We recognise how universal and real is the desire to be listened to and understood. In his message for World Communications Sunday this year Pope Francis looks at communication from the perspective of the person who is addressed. He speaks of the universal and ‘boundless desire to be heard’. This passionate desire explains in part why people find social media so appealing, and how destructive its effects can be. It gives ordinary people who would otherwise never find people to listen to them the opportunity to speak and be heard. Unfortunately, they will often find themselves, not listened to, but judged, mocked and condemned without a hearing.

 

'Good communication will encourage listening. The mass media does this well when they allow us to see the faces and hear the voices of people whom we would not ordinarily meet.' 

 

In public conversation the harshness of social media can deter us from communicating and encourage shouting. As a result we will then confine our communication to people with whom we agree. We will not seek the truth but spruik our own version of it.

Good communication will encourage listening. The mass media does this well when they allow us to see the faces and hear the voices of people whom we would not ordinarily meet. They do it less well when they turn discussion of difficult issues into debates in which people try to crush their opponents and their positions. In our homes as well as in public conversation in Parliament, newspapers and on television, communication can degenerate into serial monologues in which no one listens and everyone goes away dissatisfied. Taking it in turns to speak does not guarantee that people will listen to one another.

The world Day of Communication also reminds us of how technological advances have expanded the possibilities of communication. The telephone, the radio, television, satellites, computers, the internet and microchips have allowed people to communicate at a distance, to stay in contact when moving, to receive messages, photographs and news from around the world in real time. The possibilities for individuals, groups and societies to benefit from these opportunities are enormous.

Such large changes in communication also change the ways in which people respond to the world. The move from an oral to a literate society changed the way in which its stories, laws and traditions and agreements were preserved. From being handed on from mouth to mouth they were preserved in written documents. The wise person who held the history and the laws of the tribe became superfluous. The invention of printing made possible popular literacy and the distribution of news.

It remains to be seen what will be the lasting effects of changes in communication over the last century. But already we might surmise that they will include less emphasis on personal memory and more on recoverable stored memory. As Adam Bandt famously replied to a pedantic reporter wanting to test his scientific knowledge, ‘Google it, mate!’  The most popular forms of communication, require a shorter attention span. This privileges simplicity over complexity at a time when questions of policy are increasingly complex. It also privileges the instrumental over the deliberative use of intelligence. The attention span is further limited by the proliferation of advertisements on on-line platforms.

Such movements may be transitory. But they emphasise the importance of cultivating wonder and reflectiveness. To make one another better at a deeply human level we need to speak and listen from within a cultivated silence. 

 

 


 

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  Journalists listen as Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to media during a press conference in the Blue Room at Parliament House on March 03, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. (Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Media, Communication, AusPol, Election, AusVotes2022

 

 

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Existing comments

When you talk of communication, Andy, I am reminded of the Harry Nilsson song Everybody's Talkin'. I find it sensible, to-the-point and spiritual in an extremely deep sense. It basically sums up my philosophy of life.


Edward Fido | 22 May 2022  

Lovely to read your silken words, Andy, but saddened that some of it, doubtless owing to financial exigency, is hidden behind a paywall. I hope it works.

Might it also mean that the advent of paid subscribers imposes a mercantile element that unintentionally jeopardises the once fearlessly sacrosanct and 'open communication' reputation that ES has built up over three decades of publishing?


Michael Furtado | 08 June 2022