Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Medum is the Message

Here's the saddest thing about the discussion I prompted over at Echidne's place: the acceptance that PR, be it in the form of press releases or press conferences or public announcements or appearances on TV, provides valuable and useful information that is otherwise unavailable. It's the assumption that PR really matters.

But when all is said and done, PR is just PR.

Press releases and press appearances and even press conferences are no substitute for real information, but we seem to assume that they are, that PR is not only truly valuable, but the only thing of value. How else to interpret this comment at olvzl's post:

The complaint is that these individuals and organizations don't get heard. The question is not who's responsible for the information, the one purveying it or the one consuming it. The issue is a practical one about perception. Most people are lazy when it comes to researching the world around them. This puts the practical onus on the entity with something to say.

It's not that centrist or liberal Xian organizations don't exist, it's that they don't get heard. That's their own fault and it's to their own detriment. They should not be merely issuing press releases or official statements. They should be shouting down, making loud and angry sermons about how an irresponsible minority is making them look downright evil. They should be forming coalitions to approach media outlets, corporations and political organizations and insisting that their voice be heard. They should be holding large protests and scrambling for media coverage.
But why is any of that information of any value in the first place? Pat Robertson offers no real pastoral counseling through a television camera. Joel Osteen does not conduct theological seminars. James Dobson doesn't discuss the complexities of family dynamics to a radio audience. What they do is advertise themselves, and what they have to sell. Which is fine, but that's all they do and all they are: they are in the advertising business, and what they have to sell are a few hoary cliches and well-worn ideas as smooth and inoffensive, if less decorative and functional, as river stones. The only riposte to them are the hoary cliches that, say, Jim Wallis pedals. There is nothing of value that can be said in even a 10 minute interview with Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart, much less that can be condensed into soundbite suitable for the evening news or a bumper sticker.

It's not, of course, an entirely new question.

Every time I look at you
I don't understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You'd have managed better
If you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
There is a reason Jesus came as the son of a peasant (a carpenter, if that's what Joseph was, was not a middle class figure and member of a union. Carpenters were tradesman, which meant they didn't even own land and livestock. They had to provide for their family from what they could make, on commission. There was no market as we imagine it today. Almost all trade was done by connection to a patron, not by contract and capital. If Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus grew up miserably poor.), and it had to do with his message. There is a reason Jesus spoke primarily to Jews, and only rarely spoke directly to Gentiles. There is a reason Jesus didn't seek any of the methods of "mass communication" which were available in 4th century Rome: because those means were the same means we have today, and they served the same purpose. As Dom Crossan explains it:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.
How did Rome do this? Simple imagery, mainly:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....
Crossan also discusses Roman public art, which reinforced the military superiority and moral virtue of Rome, as well as the domestic pieties which defined Roman civilization and justified the nature of its existence as preferred by the gods. That's what mass communication is for: reinforcement of conventional wisdom and accepted opinions which serve to reinforce the power structure that prevails. It is, to be fair, something the church has participated in, and in which is still participates; which is why I resent ad campaigns and public pronouncements by church judicatories, especially since the opinions expressed may not be the opinions of all persons sitting in the pews, and then that raises another question: who is the church?

A proper question, because the emphasis in "mass communication" is on the "mass," not on the "communication." Whatever goes down smoothly, easily, in anodyne form, is best. I know it is outrageous when political conservatives take to the public airwaves and spout blatant if unimportant lies, but they are merely turning the tactics of left blogistan against the bloggers. That is, they are engaged in the mass dissemination of facts. But facts, and their facts? They may not be entitled to "their" facts, but complaining about the distortions of mass communication does not correct those distortions, any more than more "mass communication' does. Where all that matters is who has the megaphone and how repititious they are, facts never get in the way of a good idea. The mass dissemination of false information is still "mass communication;" it's just not the communication you might want it to be. Or, as the old adage has it: "A lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots." And more mass communication doesn't stop that, or even block it.

Consider this, for one example: did Christian churches begin to recognize that gays and lesbians and the transgendered were their brethren because of "mass communication," or because of personal communications? Because the idea spread on cable TeeVee and talk radio, or because it spread from person to person?

How is the truth, and wisdom, and the values of true religion, spread? By mass movements? By advertisements or 10 minute interviews where half that time is spent asking questions and none of it spent listening to the answers? Or by changing one heart, which learns those values and truth and wisdom, from another heart?

As Jesus said: "Those who have ears had better listen." And he didn't say it into a microphone.


  1. RMJ, as I said, what prompted me to use your previous post was what you said in response to my warning that liberal Christians had to speak out in their own defense if they wanted to counter the new atheist blog lies tying them to fundamentalism. In the course of that discussion “margaret” said,

    So it's up to me to google every denomination on the planet to see for myself where each and every flavor of each and every superstition stands on Ugandan xians who want to slaughter people for being gay? Come on. The onus is on them to inform me!

    My general purpose in the post at Echidne’s was against false stereotyping based in false information and the universal responsibility to not bear false witness, if you will. Which is a basic responsibility of both reason and morality, one which the new atheists and other, assorted anti-Christian voices have exempted themselves from. Just as “saved” “christians” do.

    I understand your point about whether or not it’s the churches primary work to send out press releases, etc. making clear their stands on issues of justice. While it might not be the primary work of Christians to do that it could certainly be analogous to what Paul and Jesus did, they certainly preached to large numbers of people. I’m sure Paul knew his letters would be read to assembled communities, copied and passed on. Clearly the gospels and other books of the second testament, and the first, were meant to announce stands, convince the unconvinced, promote programs of action. They didn’t have the middle man of the “press” to release them to so it was communication direct to the interested community but what was Paul’s career if it wasn’t to convince non-Jews? Conversion to act justly doesn’t just happen, people have to hear the news, they don’t just happen to find these ideas entirely on their own.

    The corruption of intention, the seduction of small scale glamor such that even a relatively well intentioned religious person can fall into when they get a little bit of positive attention is a danger - a danger I would seem to be in little risk of running. A fact in which I force myself to take comfort. - But the price of avoiding that risk is to stop talking.

    I agree with the quote from St. Francis about only resorting to words in preaching the gospel, while taking into full notice that he and his closest followers were certainly not silent. The saint I’m named for was not a silent Franciscan. Maybe it’s in the balance of direct, getting your hands dirty, service, that provides a measure of protection against the seductive distraction of the PR machines. Though, as in the case of Mother Teresa, that can be turned into PR garbage too. But maybe another one is to maintain watchfulness on our own minds and conduct to prevent it happening. For some reason, I think of Fred Rogers who always seemed to me to maintain his authenticity even though he was very famous. My dentist knew him in Pittsburgh and said that everyone in his actual neighborhood knew he was exactly the same in daily life as he was in public, that if he was talking to you he was fully engaged with you and not for anyone who was watching and that he was invariably kind and caring.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. cont. It’s a risk anyone who advocates for these issues takes, the possibility of getting it wrong, somehow. Of becoming what you oppose, of turning into an insipid, inactive, figurehead. Or something else. An alternative is to act on a very small scale, which is certainly valuable and can be the essence of a good life. But as the examples of Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, etc. show, risking the dangers of being tempted to gain some world and losing your soul isn’t something that should necessarily be avoided. Jesus was tempted early in Mark and still went on to his public mission. Maybe there’s something in that chronology.

    I hadn't thought of it until just now but the second post I did on Sunday might be related, the mass media is, for worse, unfortunately, the major material out of which the collective American culture is constructed. Ignoring that might help individuals to save their own sanity and morals but it doesn't seem responsible to me to not face up to that horrible situation and try to find ways to ameliorate or even cope with the consequences. Fred Rogers tried that, to limited success. I don't think that the right conclusion is that it's necessarily impossible, I think it's that there aren't enough Fred Rogers to really change things. There may never be but I can't fault people who keep trying to deal with the reality in which they find themselves. Though I respect people of integrity who try to take another way.

    Anthony McCarthy

  3. While it might not be the primary work of Christians to do that it could certainly be analogous to what Paul and Jesus did, they certainly preached to large numbers of people.

    I haven't read all of your comments, but it's clear we disagree on the fundamental issue (which is fine; I'm not trying to draw sides and defend boundaries), but let me just point out the error here. Neither Paul nor Jesus spoke to large crowds, the gospel accounts of the "feeding of the 5000" or the stories of Acts notwithstanding.

    Paul's "churches" were "house churches," formed entirely of extended families and their servants. Rarely, if ever, were they congregations equivalent to a Jewish synagogue of the day, or what we could consider a congregation today. And Jesus never spoke to large crowds. Matthew says in the "Sermon on the Mount" that Jesus spoke from a hilltop, but imagine the poor acoustics of such a setting. Luke gives us the same sermon, but has Jesus seated, speaking only to his disciples.

    The very idea of speaking to a crowd without some kind of enclosed setting or a natural amphitheater really doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Which is only by way of saying we have to let go of some of our ideas if we are going to understand critically. The second issue, and the one I was getting at (which belatedly gives my post a title) is that the medium is the message.

    And that's a wholly separate problem.

  4. Well, large crowds is a relative issue. The instruction to preach the truth would tend to indicate that they advocated eventually large numbers of people would hear what they had to say.

    You have to remember, I'm trained as a classical musician. Three hundred people would be a sell-out audience to me.

  5. I still quibble over the "large numbers of people." Maybe it's the Kierkegaard in me, but there's nothing in the gospels to indicate crowds were the purpose. Teaching was the purpose. Those who listened, listened. Those who didn't, didn't.

    There's something inescapable about shaping the message to fit the megaphone, rather than the mouth. That's a point I'll elaborate, and I'm glad you make it clear I need to. I'm quite a radical on the subject (it's the result of my seminary training, I know), because I'm convinced one cannot shape the message to meet the needs of the world, without re-shaping the message to be one the world already knows.

    As I said in the original post, there's a reason Jesus came to Palestine in the 4th century. He really never got beyond a backwater town in the back end of the Empire. That his message ever spread says more about his message, and something against any medium of "mass communication." So I'm glad you're pointing that out to me. One more reason to go on writing.