The danger of adopting a title like this is that it may sound as if my starting point is an assumed incompatibility between truth-telling and the professional disciplines of journalism or PR. Of course I do not think the two are mutually exclusive . But if we are to speak truthfully we have to be prepared to confront the deep confusions and distortions of our own media, as well as their boundless possibilities.
Part of the challenge lies in the pejorative way Christians who live outside the media environment are apt to view what those who operate within it do. As someone said in an earlier part of this meeting of the Council on Church and Media, “I’m really marketing and selling, but my job description doesn’t say that and I’m cautious about putting it in those terms. There is a lot of negativity about promoting and pushing what we have to offer.”
That kind of reaction misses the point. Human communication is, per se, about advertising ideas, making things known, getting a point across – and responding to others who are doing the same. The real question is about how what we communicate shapes the world, what it rules in and what it rules out, what kind of human community it contributes toward. The activity itself, though far from value free, is capable of many construals.
So it goes without saying that Public Relations work can indeed serve truth, open up doors, make resources available and tell stories that would otherwise be lost in the Babel of the modern media circus.
But we would be foolish to forget that, at the same time, Public Relations as an industry was heavily shaped in the US in the earlier part of the twentieth century by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He shared with Freud a pessimistic view of human beings as a seething mass of barely contained destructive urges. People’s desires therefore had to be shaped and molded positively. For Bernays, who was particularly active in the 1950s, business corporations knew best. Their interests were those of freedom versus chaos.
Bernays engineered the expansion of tobacco products among women by imaging smoking in public as female emancipation. Cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’. Similarly he worked to stop the Guatemalan government (which wanted to better workers’ conditions and direct investment towards social programs) from restricting the economic operations of United Fruits. He did this by portraying capital restrictions as a denial of liberty and the American way.
In both cases Bernays employed what became known as Focus Groups to find out how the human sub-conscious might respond to certain stimuli and associations, and how persuasive messages could be tailored to these inclinations. He then used mass advertising to get the appropriate associations across. His approach became part of a PR battle to create individuals who would serve corporate interests by becoming consumers and by identifying themselves with the consumer system. The story of how this happened is told by a powerful recent BBC television documentary series titled ‘The Century of the Self.’ (1)
This reminds us that behind all our technologies of communication lies the psychological will and power to persuade. Truth is something contested and shaped in public discourse. As different communities, lobbies and institutions enter the marketplace of ideas and images, the issue for Christians is this: which ways of seeing and telling, which narratives, lead us to the place where a Gospel of healing and communion begins to make sense? Because in many situations today it simply does not. It often feels as if we are communicating into an abyss; that what we might want to say – about peace and reconciliation, for example, makes no sense at all.
Therefore we are constantly challenged to consider what is distinctive about forms of communication shaped by the Gospel. Notice that I put it that way, rather than talking about ‘Christian communication’, which is in danger of sounding like an inwardly-focussed factional activity concerned with the interests of only one group of people. By contrast, I understand the Gospel to be about hope and healing for all, and about extending the gifts that reside in one community to others for the sake of mutual transformation.
I have no monopoly of wisdom in this area, but I would suggest that truth and communication for followers of Jesus Christ has at least four characteristics.
1. It is PERSONAL. At its heart lies a concern for persons – their joys and sorrows, needs and contents. This means that it is in line with the Word made flesh, the Word in history, the living Word behind the text. It is personally vulnerable. God’s means are not those of ‘knock-down truth’. Our over-preoccupations with being right and being in control are not reflected in God’s communication in Christ.
But the personal is not purely individual. It is ready to face down the corporate challenge of ‘institutional truth’ (John Kenneth Galbraith), the kind of truth that bypasses people to serve the dominant interests of a system or ideology. Institutional truth is a partiality that determines which bits of reality are more convenient than others, and to whom. It is precisely the logic that says ‘don’t let nuances spoil a good story.’
This illustrates the uncomfortable way in which truth telling can become extremely difficult when we get close to centers of power. So we rely upon other communicators and upon mutual responsibilities to call us to account. Of course it does not follow at all that being at the edges provides those who are safely distant from power with a monopoly of truth. But the moral question about how communication is effecting those with fewest chances and resources is a massively important corrective from the perspective of the Gospel.
2. It is UNARMED. For those who live under the shadow of the Cross and in the hope of Christ’s risen life the way we treat enemies and those who are ‘other’ is crucial. Communication designed to obliterate and denigrate cannot bring wholeness. But the fact that we do not take recourse to arms, actual or metaphorical, does not mean that we are without power. On the contrary, we need to be reminded that ‘there is tremendous power in the words and images we create’ (Dan Charles, US National Public Radio).
By ‘unarmed’ I also mean to say that communication shaped by the Gospel starts with the concerns of the defenseless, those whom the great Indian theologian M. M. Thomas described as ‘the last, the least and the lost’. The people especially loved by Jesus come into focus when our communication evokes a challenge to traditional power relations and to the violence that is often involved in maintaining them.
3. It is UNFINISHED. Maybe that sounds strange. Isn’t one of the first rules of good communication that we should finish sentences and round off images? Yes, but even then they are only ever part of the story, part of an incomplete narrative. Communication that recognizes its own incompleteness is able to evoke more truth, make space for a response, open up more possibilities.
By making space for the other it becomes possible to recognize that (as in the current Israel-Palestine tragedy) there are two wounded parties, not just one. By contrast, ‘half truth cuts dialogue’ (Darryl Byler, Mennonite Central Committee, Washington Office).
Unfinished communication acknowledges that God’s ways with us are not finished and totalised. There is a sense of deferral involved in faith that expects more.
4. Last but not least, it is RELATIONAL. Good communication is constitutive of memory, which is what holds together a community, a Body – as in the Body of Christ. This is particularly important because we live in a forgetful age, one that sometimes values the fleeting attraction of the image over the more difficult relationship or truth that might sustain us when it has waned. So we need to be reminded. In my Anglican tradition communication is (or should be) Eucharistic. We speak and act out of a memory of Jesus, we are a broken body seeking healing, longing to be re-membered. Similarly, ‘evangelism’ worthy of the name is a word in search of relationships with people, speech that seeks to redeem and reconnect rather than to provoke or justify.
I will make the last word not mine but those of Archbishop Rowan Williams, writing on the quality of divine communication. Not long after September 11 Williams produced a profound but simple meditation, having been close to the events. He was at the Episcopal Church of Trinity Wall Street, just down the road from the World Trade Center, when the planes struck. Surveying all the conflict and suffering involved, he says:
“Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.
“I’m not sure, but perhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way. Who is being punished, the man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt. …
“What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence. We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.” (2)
May this loving attention to the other be so for us in our communications.
(1) Broadcast in Britain in March/April 2002. I have expanded this section of my talk in the written version to accommodate subsequent questions from the audience.
(2) From Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11 September and its aftermath (Hodder & Stoughton, London, UK, 2002), excerpted from pp. 73-76. Emphases are the author’s. Used with grateful acknowledgement.