Communitarianism:
The Sweetness and Light of a Postmodern World
March 8, 2001

            Communitarianism is a philosophy of active communal participation and reflection in the daily affairs of life, which seems to make it flexible enough to deal with both the particular and the general opportunities and consequences of living for the individual and the social group of which he or she is a part.  Dialogic in character, Communitarianism seeks intertextual narratives of individuals not framed by, but indelibly part of, their communal experience.  In the development of a system of communication, Communitarianism avoids all perceived constructs of domination by focusing on pluralism of experience, language, culture and identity.  Not setting the agenda for particular modes of discourse but recognizing that each comprises a thread of the fabric of societal existence strengthens the bonds of community and creates greater cohesion between otherwise fragmented enclaves of ethnicity and class.  Majid Tehranian posits that "the communitarian school of 'another development' has called for the media to be employed instead as instruments for endogenous rather than exogenous development by focusing on:

(1) participatory modes of communication and development relying on both traditional and modern media; (2) horizontal rather than vertical communication channels; (3) appropriate technology rather than costly and complex high technology; (4) rural rather than urban biased programming; (5) preservation of indigenous cultural and national identity and pride.  (302) 

I think these are exactly the ideas that require implementation in today's world, and what I hope to accomplish in this second integration essay is a defense of Communitarianism as a philosophy of hope for humankind's communicative relationships with one another on the local and the global levels of perceived and applied consciousness.

            The idea of Communitarianism grants a certain cohesion to the body of these texts that deal with paradigms of domination and social discourse. Tehranian argues that the post-Cold War, postmodern world has been conceptually recast in terms of its development process as the distinctions between first, second and third world countries are replaced by the ethnic, regional and class divisions within each country (274).  American society, therefore, can no longer be seen as "developed" in comparison with Kenyan society, for instance, but as comprised of elements that are also underdeveloped and developing.  A failure to act on this realization has led the United States to embrace the idea of creating a global village, the making of which Ang demonstrates "can be rewritten as the transformation, or domestication, of non-Western Others in the name of capitalist modernity, the civilization which was presumed to be the universal destiny of humankind: global spatial integration is equated with global social and cultural integration" (195).  Given this, I feel that we do need a new model of communication to replace the transmission model of dominance and to account for disparities we can no longer afford to ignore under the previous models of global domination that pitted the first world against the second in competition over the third.  The rural worker in Kansas has more in common with his counterpart in Botswana than he does, for example, with the urban businessman in New York.  Recognizing that fact, there is no reason why the particular interests of any given person should not transcend the political, cultural and linguistic boundaries of any given state or nation in order to maximize efforts to achieve authenticity in personhood.  According to Tehranian,

If we define discourse as the symbolic processes of exchange of meaning to negotiate reality, the coding and decoding systems in this process assume a central position in developmental processes.  Public discourse, whether mediated or unmediated, may thus be viewed as the social struggle for the definitions of reality and hegemonic interventions to replicate, reform, or transform it.  (300-1) 

The greatest hegemony, of course, is that which does not oppress the dispossessed but works within its own paradigm to maximize the benefits of a given culture so that everyone has equal access in the furtherance of what must necessarily become social goals.  Counterhegemonic struggles will cease once the dispossessed are possessed of the same fruits of the vine as enjoyed by the elite and the elite will profit by the social stability this engenders.  Call me naïve…

            That there are indeed forces capable of working to prevent the dispossessed from achieving the benefits of their own society is evidenced by the way in which the popular media can be used to manipulate public opinion, meaning the opinion not of the elite but of the masses.  Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw demonstrated what they called agenda-setting in a 1972 content analysis of the written and visual media in place during the 1968 presidential election.  Following their analysis, they conducted a survey of or 100 undecided voters in Nixon's second presidential campaign and found "an almost perfect correlation" between the issues the media emphasized and the opinion of the people surveyed (Zhu 88).  I would not go so far as to attribute blame to the media itself as the media is often funded and directed by its sponsors.  It is the corporate world, then, that decides what issues should be addressed and what other issues should not be through its alliance with the political infrastructure.  That which is good for business, then, is portrayed as good for America, and it is that which is bad for American corporate interests becomes problematized in the media.  Zhu and Blood carry this point further by stating that "the media accomplish th[eir] agenda-setting function not by directly telling the public that one issue is more important than another, which has proven to be ineffective; instead, the media signal the importance of certain issues by giving these issues preferential treatment, such as more frequent coverage and more prominent positions" (90).  Following the logic of Ellsworth Toohey in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, the media assume that if they just told the public what it should believe, the public might not believe them, but if they control the limited resources of space and time in print and programming, they can demonstrate the public concern by the amount of attention they assign to it and the lack of attention other concerns end up receiving thereby.

            In a world of limited media resources some voices cannot be heard while others are heard disproportionately. Van Dijk explains that

dominant groups, or elites can be defined by their special access to a wider variety of public or otherwise influential discourses than less powerful groups.  That is, elites have more active and better controlled access to the discourses of politics, the media, scholarship, education or the judiciary.  They may determine the time, place, circumstances, presence and role of participants, topics, style and audience of such discourses.  Also, as a form of 'topical access', elites are the preferred actors represented in public discourse, for instance in news reports.  This means that elites also have more chances to have access to the minds of others, and hence to exercise persuasive power.  (109) 

The elites, conveying their interests through a transmission model of communication, which places the authority in the mouth of the sender, end up dictating their interests and goals to the masses.  The dispossessed or unheard masses come to accept as their worldview that which they perceive through the voices that they do hear.  However, this should not be.  McQuail notes that

the media are widely expected to serve the 'public interest' or 'general welfare', whether by design or not.  This means, in practice, that mass media are not the same as any other business or service industry, but often carry out some tasks which contribute to the wider and longer term benefit of society as a whole, especially in cultural and political matters, over and above their own ostensible organizational goals.  For this reason, the media can legitimately be held accountable for what they do, or fail to do, even against their own free choice.  (241-2) 

This being the case, the media have a responsibility to aid in the resolution of societal disparities, since that is most securely within the realm of what would be considered the public interest or general welfare.  To maintain a system that thrives off a vertical hierarchy governed by its elite that expects those in subordinate positions within the hierarchy to wait patiently for its benefits to trickle down to the dispossessed is an injustice not only to the welfare of the poor, but also to the humanity of the rich.  Capitalism, properly so called, relies on human capital as the means by which its achieves economic ascendancy.  That the interests of its human resources are not being met by the system of which they are the determining factor is counterproductive.  Ang advances this point by declaring that "the global village, as the site of the culture of capitalist postmodernity, is a thoroughly paradoxical place, unified yet multiple, totalized yet deeply unstable, closed and open-ended at the same time…capitalist postmodernity [i]s a chaotic system, where uncertainty is a built-in feature" (194).  If complacency engenders inertia, then uncertainty and unrest must engender its opposite, which is revolution, or an incessant counter-hegemonic struggle against the forces that keep it from resting.  What prevents this revolution is the normalization of the status quo through media archetypes constructed to make the day laborer in East St. Louis think that one day he (or she), too, will own a piece of America. 

What the media sells the public, then, is not the American dream, but a pipe dream, that an employee's earning six dollars an hour making shoes that he or she will not then be able to afford at the end of the shift is the same as owning a piece of America.  The media's concerning itself with maintaining the interests of the status quo in a postmodern society is, thus, the same as blinding itself to the global realities illustrated earlier by Tehranian, who views communication "as the process of exchange of meaning by verbal and non-verbal signs operating through cosmologies, cultures, contents, and conduits" and development "as the process of increasing capacity of a social system to fulfil its own perceived needs at progressively higher levels of material and cultural well-being" (276).  Under these definitions, a developing nation is not one that rises in hostile economic competition against both its own people and its neighbors, but one that caters to the needs of its people through, to extrapolate, first listening to the voices of which those people are comprised. These voices are at the least an indelible part of a common human culture; yet, it is culture, as such, that is failing under the weight of its inability to be understood.  "It is the failure of communication that we should emphasize," states Ang, "if we are to understand contemporary culture.  That is to say, what needs to be stressed is the fundamental uncertainty that necessarily goes with the process of constructing a meaningful order, the fact that communicative practices do not necessarily arrive at common meanings at all" (198).  These common meanings are the true foundations of democracy, which Tehranian argues, "is government by discussion and consensus-building" (277), not government by fiat and oppressive colonization of its peoples' minds.  Communitarianism provides us with an answer of how to change the system to meet our personal goals and still have the opportunity to achieve our national aims by generating an interdependent community based on the progressive needs of its constituent cultures through a focus on the emancipation of its discourse practices.  In short, we need to learn to love one another.

            What is needed in this new model of communication, then, is universal access to a plurality of previously unheard voices that will train the public on how to hear them.  Meyrowitz argues that "everyday behaviour is susceptible to change by new media of communication because social roles are inextricably tied into social communication.  Social identity does not rest in people, but in a network of social relations.  When social networks are altered, social identities will change," for, "in any given social period, roles are shaped as much by patterns of access to social information as by the content of information" (58-9).  I think that the Internet is among one of the first new ways to provide both access and multiperspectival content for those who can afford to interest themselves in its use.  This does not mean, of course, that interpersonal face-to-face communication will be damaged through its first being filtered through cyberspace.  Thompson contributes to and qualifies this argument in stating that

the historical rise of mediated interaction and quasi-interaction has not necessarily been at the expense of face-to-face interaction.  Indeed, in some cases, the diffusion of media products has provided a stimulus for interaction in face-to-face situations in the way, for instance, that books in early modern Europe were commonly read aloud to individuals who had gathered together to hear the written word, or in the way that television programmes today can serve as a focal point for discussions among family or friends.  But the growing importance of mediated interaction and quasi-interaction does mean that social life in the modern world is increasingly made up of forms of interaction which are not face-to-face in character.  (37) 

I would add further that they at first do not have to be and that mediated forms of communication can serve as bridges across natural cultural and linguistic barriers.  We are moving into an age where universal access to multiperspective content is becoming increasingly possible, but the digital divide is becoming with the same rapidity increasingly greater. McQuail adds to this concern that such "worldwide conglomeration leads to fears of loss of creative independence and of cultural diversity.  It may make it more difficult for a society to choose and implement a media policy of its own" (241).  These points indicate what will become more apparent in the next decade as the elite and the masses try to find ways in which to 'hear' one another through the layers of distance that lie between them.  Humankind is a palimpsest upon which there is still much to write but beneath which so much has already been written as to shroud its meaning from itself.  Tehranian explains, "the processes of human communication may be thus viewed as a series of multiple, interlocking, layers of consciousness, rationality, narratives, and communication genres that can be correlated with the discursive practices as [monitoring of action, rationalizing of action, de/constructing of action, and inter-acting]" (293-4).  A communitarian approach is one way to begin the process of removing those layers and restoring humankind to its common dignity and, to its namesake, humanity.

Bibliography

Ang, Ien.  "In the Realm of Uncertainty: The Global Village and Capitalist Postmodernity." Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 193-213. 

McQuail, Denis.  "Mass Communication and the Public Interest: Towards Social Theory for Media Structure and Performance." Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 235-53. 

Meyrowitz, Joshua.  "Medium Theory." Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 50-77. 

Tehranian, Majid.  "Communication and Development." Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 274-306. 

Thompson, John B.  “Social Theory and the Media.” Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 27-49. 

Van Dijk, Teun A. "Discourse and Cognition in Society" Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 107-26.  

Zhu, Jian-Hua and Deborah Blood.  “Media Agenda-Setting Theory: Telling the Public What to Think About.” Emerging Theories of Human Communication. Ed. by Branislov Kovacic.  New York: State University Press, 1997: 88-114.