Mules, Trojan Horses, Dragons, Princesses, and Flies

The following is a post written by one of the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals being taught this semester at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Mules, Trojan Horses, Dragons, Princesses, and Flies

by Addison Shockley 

Shortly after I arrived at the University of Southern California, to begin working on my doctorate in communication, there was a banquet to welcome the new group of communication and journalism graduate students. There were round tables, and people sat where they liked. At one point, the Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism came up to the table I was sitting at and asked us about our table and what kind of students we were, whether we were journalism students or communication students or a mixture of the two. I spoke up for our table and said, “We all happen to be communication students,” and then added, “It was natural that we all sat together.” He replied, “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good.” Then he had to walk away because he was being called to give the opening speech, and I sat there and felt a little bit foolish.

He was right, though. Natural is not necessarily good. It’s natural for dragons to take princesses captive in their lairs, but it’s not good for princesses to lose their freedom. It’s natural for flies to be drawn to the light, but it’s not good for flies themselves to be electrocuted when the light’s a bug-zapper. Dean Ernest Wilson believed this principle of distinguishing between what’s natural and what’s good—that sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re not—and I believe it too.

This story is a small part of a larger story, the story of my journey of becoming who I am today. When I began my undergraduate education in 2005, I would never have been able to predict that I would be doing a Ph.D. today and examining ideas like rhetoric and the tragedies caused by misunderstanding. When I graduate in a few years, I hope to teach rhetoric in a university and share insights about communication and (mis)understanding with my students, as well as the general public.

It is a commonplace to assert that we are living through a communication revolution, and of course people are studying the ways in which our lives and communication practices are being revolutionized by new technology and new media. This is important work, but I prefer to focus on what I call the “foundational” issues in communication, questions related to what human beings are, and why they should communicate with others in the first place; questions about communicating what we know, and how we know it; questions about values, and how we communicate in line with them, about them; and questions about what it means to communicate purposefully and wisely. These are the questions I believe need to be addressed today alongside the more timely questions about technology, new media, and the ways our world is being transformed by them.

None of our experiences are wasted, or so my mother tells me (and I think she’s right—at least, they don’t have to be wasted). In this post, I share some of my personal history to discuss how it relates to who I have become, and how it has shaped my perspective on a set of real world problems that I’ll share with you.

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Like many college students, I changed my major multiple times, uncertain what I wanted to do with my life. I began in the fall of 2005, studying film as a freshman at Azusa Pacific University, which only lasted a year. I decided to return home to Kansas City, Missouri, having realized the film industry was harder to break into than I thought it was, as well as less appealing than I had imagined it to be in my mind, and I began considering what to do next. I took a year off, so to speak, talking with friends, exploring options, and finally made the decision to transfer to the University of Central Missouri—forty minutes east of my hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri—to begin classes in the fall of 2007 as a mule (the school’s odd choice of a mascot), majoring in—get this—Construction Management.

My dad had been a construction manager at one point, and he really liked it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I began taking classes like “Mechanical Systems of Buildings,” talking about beams and pneumatic nail guns, and wondering why anyone would want their mascot to be a mule. (Okay, secretly, I kind of liked it. Mules are humble, but confident). Three semesters later, with an internship under my belt—shadowing construction managers who built mostly fast-food restaurants and office buildings—I realized this kind of work didn’t appeal to me anymore, at least not enough to make it my bread and butter.

Studying construction had taught me some important things, but I knew it was time for me to move on. I didn’t feel like I was getting the hang of it from the classes, and it seemed I wasn’t a natural at it—not even close. Evidence of that includes my “internship boss” yelling at me the last week of my internship and telling me I had been a failure. He was having a bad day. There was some truth to it, though. I lacked the devotion, preparation, guidance and giftedness to do a good job, simply put. Rather than wanting to read blueprints, I wanted to read novels; rather than daydreaming about building, I wanted to use words to make a difference in society. I had taken enough classes to get a minor in Construction Management, and it taught me how to think about the world concretely, though I was not built for it.

Soon after I lost interest—for good—in construction as a career, I discovered “rhetoric.” The fact of the matter is, I took my first course in rhetoric during my senior year of college, but almost immediately, I knew this was “it.” For the sake of clarifying what I would want you to imagine when I say “rhetoric,” replace whatever comes to mind with this definition of rhetoric from a famous twentieth century scholar of rhetoric, I.A. Richards (from his book The Philosophy of Rhetoric), who defined rhetoric as “the study of misunderstanding and its remedies.” To have a “rhetorical” sort of imagination is to be someone capable of pinpointing instances of misunderstanding and then to know how to work on them in order to undo them.

In rhetoric, as a rather marginalized academic subject these days, I found something I cared about. I liked it so much that I decided I would do two more years of Master’s level coursework mostly in theories of rhetoric at the same school—remaining a humble, yet confident mule. I enjoyed this experience very much and began to see myself studying rhetoric at the doctorate level.

I applied to doctorate programs during the fall of my second year into the Master’s level coursework, and I got accepted at USC in the spring. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles in the following fall to begin the next phase of our lives. I left the mule and started riding a Trojan horse, so to speak.

A few years prior I had left a career in bricks-and-mortar construction—well, a potential career in construction by abandoning my major in Construction Management. I was going to pursue a career in “words-and-ideas” construction—not physical construction, but cultural or, as it is sometimes called, “social construction.”

 

Image A-Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse 1981 (1) It should be clear from events like the historic Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City, Missouri, or from the recent five-story building collapse in Mumbai that construction is risky.

Image B-Mumbai five story building collapse photo 2013

 

Misconstruction can be fatal, whether we are dealing with a physical structure that is literally misconstructed, or figuratively with a faulty idea or mistaken assumption that is used as the basis for further thinking. And it may be an obvious side note, but miscommunication can cause misconstruction, as in when blueprints (poorly designed) are used to communicate building procedures that result in faulty structures.

Today, I tell people that I study misunderstanding and how it messes things up, royally. I am convinced it happens all the time, all around us, sadly without the notice of enough people. Let me explain this phenomenon of “social misconstruction,” and then give some examples of it.

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Rhetoricians care about misunderstanding, which results in the social misconstruction of reality. Wait, social what?

When I say the “social construction of reality,” I’m using a phrase that most academics within the humanities and social sciences have heard of—which can refer to the idea, essentially, that reality isn’t really real, truth isn’t truly true, right isn’t actually righteous, et cetera. Countless interactions among persons in societies result in commonly held assumptions about what exists and how we should respond to it, and these commonly held assumptions create the illusion that there is a single reality because most people seem to agree that, well, this is just the way it is: so it must be so.

There are other versions of this idea of social constructionism, some of which allow that an objective reality exists—and those versions are more convincing to me. But according to this radical version of social constructionism, people “construct” reality through interactions with other members of their culture or society (or world), and in this sense, they “make it up” using language. Rather than discovering reality, and disclosing it with language, they do the reverse, creating reality with language. I agree that ideas of reality are rooted in communities. But I don’t believe that all communities are in touch with reality. I believe that people can’t contain absolute reality in a box or in a system of ideas, but I believe that it exists, despite our limitations in apprehending it fully.

This is obviously a deep subject, one we could read libraries full of books about. I hold the minority perspective—the realist view that, on the one hand, there is reality, and on the other there is unreality. There’s true, and there’s false. Another term that is often used alongside the phrase “the social construction of reality” is the phrase “intersubjective agreement,” which refers to agreements made about what’s what in life, what things mean and don’t mean, what reality is. This term suggests that reality is nothing more than what we agree upon that it is.

But there’s a problem with this idea. Persons under arrest are either guilty or innocent of their alleged offense. I believe in the valuable work of socially constructing one true reality, and in the wasted time spent constructing unrealities. We don’t create reality; we bump into it. Even if we aren’t sure what we’re bumping into, it’s got a personality, and we better learn it. It’s got rules. And it’s got rewards. As one of my friends said, if you break the rules of the universe, they will break you. Denying reality is a slippery slope to some bad back pain.

Most rhetoricians these days don’t believe in “real reality.” They probably wouldn’t tell people they’re interested in misunderstanding, as I do; they’d probably say they’re interested in multiple understandings, and they would probably be uncomfortable with any claims about misunderstanding (after all, can someone be said to misunderstand a world that isn’t real?).

I believe in the metaphysical parallel to physical blindness: the eyes of minds can be distorted in vision, and effectively blind to what is actually happening. Rhetoricians like me care about social misconstruction and misunderstanding, but also about the related issues of miseducation, miscommunication, misassociation, misinformation, disinformation and deceit.

Richard Weaver, another famous rhetorician, taught that “ideas have consequences”—and Kenneth Burke—perhaps the most famous modern writer on rhetoric—taught that words imply attitudes, which suggest actions. For example, naming someone as an “enemy” implies an attitude toward them that encourages certain actions and discourages others, whereas calling them a “friend” would suggest a different attitude, and thus, different actions.

Just to give a few examples of social misconstruction, we can think for a moment about misassociation. We need to cultivate discernment among our citizens so that they can disassociate what has been misassociated, because misassociating things can disserve and harm people in serious ways.

I was eating dinner with some friends the other night, and they shared some disturbing facts with me. One of them works in Uganda, and she told me that social misconstructions of class have led to the malnourishment of children in Uganda because their society has constructed an association of eating vegetables with being poor. Their parents don’t want to feed their children what might be thought of as “poor people’s food.” My other friend from India, who was dining with us, chimed in and added that in India, white rice is associated with a higher-class diet than brown rice (even though brown rice is healthier). These examples, although limited to food, show how any society can contain “misconstructed” meanings and associations, which contribute to the “breaking down” of lives.

To give another example, this time from the United States, we can briefly consider the work of communication scholar George Gerbner to help us see how in the United States, where the average person watches more than four hours of television per day (see footnote for reference), the cumulative effect over time is that representations in television begin to cultivate misperceptions in Americans of social realitFor instance, persons who watch crime shows like Law & Order, or CSI, or Criminal Minds, may perceive that social reality closely matches the depictions in the shows themselves. To give an example of how social misconstructions can emerge from long-term exposure to such shows, consider how CSI, for example, consistently uses unrealistic depictions of the technology available to death investigators.  Or consider how Law & Order messed with popular perceptions of what constituted an adequate quantity of evidence to convict someone of an alleged offense, resulting in U.S. jury trials in which jury members required overwhelming amounts of evidence to be comfortable deciding that a defendant was guilty.

These minor examples address the ways in which, taken together, instances of media content consumed over a long period of time can influence people’s perceptions such that they misassociate, again, say, guiltiness only with overwhelmingly unusual amounts of evidence—more than is typically needed to establish a high enough probability of guilt to declare a person guilty.

Misassociation can take many other forms than this, of course, and much is lost due to mistakes of association. It is the job of the rhetorician to spot them, and zap them with his rhe-gun. We don’t want anyone to keep misassociating what is natural with what is good. (And for further examples of social misconstructions, see the work of Richard Hamilton, who tries to show the mistakenness of a few widely held views in academia: http://www.amazon.com/The-Social-Misconstruction-Reality-Verification/dp/0300063458).

Addison Shockley is a doctoral student studying rhetoric, media, and ethics at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. One of his guiding assumptions is that miscommunication, rooted in deception and/or misunderstanding, causes devastating results, and he is motivated in all of his researching, writing, and teaching by the idea of straightening out socially misconstructed realities. He’s recently started blogging at www.wordscuff.com.