Paul Schratz

Our Society clearly has a failure to communicate

Voices Jul 11, 2017

Intolerance and insults are the leading ways people deal with unwanted political rhetoric today, writes Paul Schratz. "As print and broadcast media evolved into social media, the vitriol evolved too." (Designpics)

I got blocked on Twitter for politely disagreeing with someone. It’s ugly out there.

Think back to the last time you had a genuine online discussion, argument, or debate that didn’t devolve into abuse or accusations of hatred. Chances are at some point you’ve been blocked, unfriended, unfollowed, banned, flamed, or silenced.

Maybe it’s true social media isn’t suited to rational dialogue. Marshall McLuhan – “The medium is the message” – is probably looking down on us right now and saying: I told you so. No wonder so many people cloister themselves among the likeminded, or self-censor, avoiding controversial topics entirely.

 Just because it’s more common today to attack the messenger than the message doesn’t mean this is a new path we’re on.  

And yet ... before we pin all the blame on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever digital platform is the flavour of the month, some perspective is in order. Just because it’s more common today to attack the messenger than the message doesn’t mean this is a new path we’re on. Many of us remember being personally maligned rather than civilly debated long before Facebook was a spark in Mark Zuckerberg’s computer.

In one university philosophy course I took, we studied the major logical fallacies used in arguments. Each class, we’d pore over newspaper letters to the editor, evaluating the logical cogency of the views expressed. Even back then, the ad hominem attack –  impugning your opponent rather than his arguments – was one of the most common errors.

Today, ad hominem attacks in political rhetoric aren’t just routine, they’re de rigueur, to some extent due to journalistic malpractice’s embracing the use of ridicule and gotcha quotes in place of observing and reporting.

As print and broadcast media evolved into social media, the vitriol evolved too, becoming a vital component. Today intolerance and invective is the leading tactic for dealing with unwanted political rhetoric.

It’s a sad state of affairs when as a society we vilify people rather than address the points they’re trying to make. It’s also unchristian, as numerous Church documents have pointed out.

Vatican II produced Inter mirifica, a document on social communication that said those who work in the media – today this would include everyone on Facebook or Snapchat – “are in a position to lead the human race to good or to evil by informing or arousing mankind.”

Decades before the arrival of fake news, Inter mirifica said news must be communicated in a way that is “true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity,” and with “full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual.”

I confess not all my Tweets do that.

In 1971, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications released a pastoral instruction on social communication called Communio et progressio. It described the media as “gifts of God, which, in accordance with his providential design, unite men in brotherhood and so help them to co-operate with his plan for their salvation.”

Are all your Facebook posts doing that?

In 2000, years before the dawn of social media, the U.S. Catholic bishops put out a statement called Civility in Media, reminding the faithful not to allow “disagreements on policy to degenerate into personal hostility or ... the ad hominem attack to replace discussion of issues.”

The social order’s breakdown in communications has alarmed Pope Francis enough to make it a key element of his World Communications Day messages. This year he urged people to “engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster a culture of encounter.”

Does that describe any media outlets or social media platforms you’re familiar with?

There’s an adage that you don’t bring up a problem without proposing a solution.

There’s an adage that you don’t bring up a problem without proposing a solution. So here’s my proposed solution, in the form of an appeal to B.C.’s education minister, whoever it might be, as you read this.

Dear Sir/Madam:

It is time for us to make a commitment to future generations by forming them in the lost art of civil discourse.

Our next generation of leaders does not have the ability to debate or disagree without undue hostility or hypersensitivity. Much of our society is retreating into echo chambers of the likeminded, ill-equipped to engage in political dialogue.

To counter this isolationism, it strikes me that a return to the debating clubs and societies of the past would be a step in the right direction. Many public and independent schools have debating groups, as do our major universities.

Since B.C.’s new curriculum is designed to prepare our students for the future, let me suggest that nothing would give our graduates a greater advantage than equipping them for rational discussion.

Minister, a Catholic Church document entitled Communio et progressio contains a profound and relevant quote about communication, which it says “is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. Communication, at its most profound level, is the giving of self in love.”

It’s time we learned to communicate.

Sincerely, Paul Schratz