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The history of mankind and the history of communication are closely related to each other. Since the beginnings of the first communities of the homo sapiens era, communication became indispensable. The need to live with others brings the necessity to interact with them. And to interact with them, you must communicate with them. Without communication, there is no interaction. Without interaction, there is no society. Communication is the sine qua non of mankind (Kaid & Holtz-Bacha, p. 12). The history of communication in the history of mankind. Communication was born and spread the various types of cultures and civilizations throughout the centuries (Boas, p. 20). It is not the topic of this essay to show the importance of communication within human societies or for individual human beings. I just wanted to emphasize the importance that communication has in our world. It can connect people, or it divides people. It can connect nations, or it divides nations. Today there is much speaking about globalization. Nobody can deny the importance of the mass media and its role in “carrying” the message from a person or a group to an extremely large audience. In fact, with nowadays big media corporations the message is virtually sent to every corner of the planet, even to the stars (Kaid & Holtz-Bacha, p. 2). The degree of use of communication, especially the verbal type of communication, is at the highest peak ever for millennia. Researchers and academic figures, like Jurgen Habermas, have pointed out that the use of the “power of communication” is at its highest level. Unfortunately, it is being used more to manipulate the masses for the benefit of special interest groups than it is used for the benefit of the individual. In today’s world, public opinion is under constant pressure by powerful forms of communication like marketing and political rhetoric (Habermas, “The Divided West”, p. 46). By referring to the idea of the “bourgeois public sphere” of Jurgen Habermas I will try to address the present state of communication in the present moment of history. I will try to show how rhetoric, especially political rhetoric has come to dominate the public discourse in today’s world. We will see the triumph of Edward Barney’s idea of the role of public relations and marketing in the modern democratic and consumer society.
First, we must begin by explaining the fundamentals of every cognitive structure of thinking; the worldview. Few peoples have anything approaching an articulate philosophy- at least as epitomized by the great philosophers. Even fewer, I suspect, have a carefully constructed theology. But everyone has a worldview (Sire 16). Let me explain it a little better by giving a definition:
“A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of the world” (Sire, p. 16).
Like many other ideas and theories in social science and humanities, there is not one single universally accepted definition of the worldview. Others may have something to add to this definition or give a completely different one but this will be the definition that we will use in this essay. The next logical question will be how is a worldview born and from where? Simple, it is born out of you and me. Many are the question we pose ourselves and others every day of life. From the simplest (like What I like to eat now?) to the more sophisticated and “philosophical ones” (like: What is my role in this world?). Anyway, the responses we give ourselves and others are based on our worldview. As James Sire puts it:
“It is only the assumption of a worldview- however basic or simple- that allows us to think at all”.
And so when we talk about the present status of communication in the public, we talk about the worldview that has come to dominate the public discourse. It is by these fundamental assumptions that public discourse is “socially constructed”. It is by certain fundamental presuppositions that managers of corporations and companies build their marketing and advertising strategies. I want to demonstrate throughout the essay that the public sphere is the world we live in is dominated by a certain kind of political discourse (mostly the use of rhetoric in politics) and in the more “individual” level by a corporate constructed type of discourse (basically marketing and public relations industry).
Public discourse in today’s historical moment
Since its first publication in 1962 Habermas’s work “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” has been one of the most debated theories about public opinion and public discourse in general. As Carol Gould points out, despite the criticism and controversies about this book, still it remains a good theory in explaining the post-cold war era (162). I believe that this applies to the present day also. Public discourse in today’s world is dominated by rhetorical political communication. The events of September 11, 2001, changed the political communication within the western countries, and especially that within the United States. Today there is much use of metaphorical language in political communication and public discourse in general. Many words can be used metaphorically depending on the situation they are used but nowadays politics is an arena where this happens quite often. Let me cite two examples. By these, I want to demonstrate that public discourse these last years has been dominated by this kind of communication. The first is the metaphorical declaration of the Iranian Head of State, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, about the State of Israel. He spoke rhetorically of “wiping out the state of Israel from the map of the world” (“Clarification about the Declaration over the State of Israel”, par. 1). Now, there have been justificatory attempts regarding this statement but they are not part of this essay. What is more important is that the metaphorical use of this political communication scattered a series of events in the real political and social world. Tensions were created between countries and large groups of people were felt affected by these words. Mr. Ahmadinejad said that this statement should be understood as a metaphor (“Clarification about the Declaration over the State of Israel”, par. 1), just like the “crusade on terror” rhetoric President George W. Bush employed when he made the annual address of the State of the Union to the nation before Congress (“President makes State of the Union address”, par. 3). Many people on the “eastern side” of the planet felt “attacked” by this political speech. There was a reaction especially from the Arab world and this scattered a series of events. As I mentioned above, Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to justify his use of aggressive language as an effect caused by that of President Bush. And this flip-flop has become usual in today’s international political discourse. Kaid and Holtz-Bacha have shown in their research that modern mass media has made it possible for the personal message of a man, or group, to be transmitted, even imposed, to millions of others (4). The video messages of Osama Bin Laden and the replies by the White House on “the axis of evil”, or the “evildoers”, are an example for this. The personal rhetorical messages of the world’s leading terrorists are being exposed to large groups of people by the media. The same is true for the political messages of the “man in charge” at the White House. His metaphors are communicated, through television, the internet, and other media forms, to the entire world. In the words of Jurgen Habermas, at his Kyoto lecture in 2004:
“In today’s media society, the public sphere serves those who have gained prominence as a stage for self-presentation”.
But what would a more responsible approach to the use of rhetoric “look like” in today’s world? First of all, the political leaders or everyone that expresses his, or her, opinion through the media should bear in mind that their message is going to be communicated to far more people than they have ever seen in their life. The other thing to bear in mind is that the world is rich with different cultures and worldviews. A rhetorical, metaphorical, message is not interpreted the same in different worldviews. When the Iranian Head of State justifies his declaration that in the Persian language that metaphor does not have negative coloration (“Clarification about the Declaration over the State of Israel”, par. 4), he is referring to his worldview or that of the group that he represents. On the other hand, other groups of people who have different worldviews do not interpret the metaphoric language the same as Mr. Ahmadinejad. In western countries, this was interpreted as aggressive and offensive. If Mr. Ahmadinejad would have been more responsible in his use of rhetoric he would have been more cautious in using that metaphor. One should not forget that others may interpret his words 180 degrees from the meaning that he had in mind. The same is true for the words of President Bush or any other leader anywhere in the world. A political leader should abstain from doing political rhetoric that groups with different worldviews can interpret as an offense. On the practical level, much tension could be avoided if the leaders and opinion-makers take a more responsible approach to the use of rhetoric. The example of the two political figures mentioned above is clear. If they were shown more responsible much tension would have been avoided and maybe the relations between the countries would have been more “positive”. At least less tensioned.
The Advertising Consumer Culture
After the Second World War, there was a “boom” in economic production and. Most of the population was surrounded by material goods “flooded” the market. In the words of William Leiss, Stephen Kline, and Sut July:
“The developed phase of the market industrial society is the consumer society, where a truly enormous assortment of goods confronts the individual- and where the characteristics of those goods change constantly.”
Before this era, the tradition was that of lauding hard work and production and the consuming was seen as less important. It was seen as a process that “will take care of itself” (Leiss et al., p. 176). In the second part of the twentieth century, this approach began to change. Leading this change were the marketing and public relations industry. The focus was shifted from production toward consumption. As the three authors mentioned above have shown in their work, this was because “Marketing practices had realized that the market-industrial society was becoming a consumer society long before most social commentators did”.
Now we have the shifting from the “production ethic” to the new “consumption ethic”. From that time until nowadays consumption is seen as a positive value. And this was the turning point that allowed corporate marketing and public relations to “dominate” over the personal choices of the individual. This led authors like Habermas to say that the private sphere of the individual was under constant pressure by the marketing industry (Habermas, “Kyoto Lecture”, p. 4). Others, like Jacques Ellul, pretend that at least the western individual has become an “image-oriented person” and “consumer of images”. We are consuming images that are mostly produced by the marketing industry. For Habermas, this is the transformation of the individuals from a “culture-debating to a culture-consuming public” (“The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, p. 159). More recent authors, like Canclini, have shown that the marketing and public relations industry has influenced in shifting the western “worldview values” of the role that an individual should have within the society. The traditional values were that of the role of the individual as an active citizen in the public sphere. This is the tradition of the Illuminist period and goes back to Rousseau and his “Social Contract”. Today’s new values are those of an active consuming individual. And this has led to the “manipulation of the individual’s desires from the corporate public relations & marketing industry” (Canclini, p. 38). That is the present status of marketing communication in western societies according to these authors. What would a more responsible approach look like in this case? It will ease the pressure of marketing over individuals and not emphasize their role as consumers over their duty, and right, as citizens of a democratic society. I think that if this pressure is relieved then the individuals will participate more in the public sphere and this will enhance communication. This will bring cooperation and understanding between different groups within the same society or in different societies. A more active role of the individuals as citizens will make a stronger impact on the way social order is constructed.
- Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. MIT, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991 (paperback edition).
- Habermas, Jürgen. The Divided West. Trans. Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.
- Habermas, Jürgen.” Public Space and Political Public Sphere”. Commemorative Lecture of the 2004 Kyoto Prize Winner.
- Canclini, Nestor Garcia. Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2001.
- Sire, James. The Universe Next Door (Third Edition). England: IVP, 1997.
- Boas, Franz. Race, Language, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.
- Gould, Carol. Diversity and Democracy: Representing Differences. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1996.
- Kaid Lee, Linda & Holtz-Bacha, Christina (ed.). Encyclopedia of Political Communication (Vol. 1&2). USA: SAGE Publications, 2008.
- Leiss, William. Kline, Stephen. Jhally Sut. Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace (Third Edition). Ottawa: Routledge, 2008.
- Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2005.
- President Delivers State of the Union Address. Web.
- “Clarification about the Declaration over the State of Israel”.