I have often encouraged journalists to think more directly, deeply, systematically, and from various angles about the many modes of action and effects of their chosen medium of expression — language.
Journalists use many of these modes, but very often without a conscious understanding that they are doing so. As a result, they often aren’t aware of the full range of impact their language is actually having on the people who read, watch, and listen to their stories.
Every piece of journalism, for example, attempts to persuade readers of beliefs and premises at deeper level than the explicit content of the article. Even writers who take pains to keep personal opinions and bias out of their articles still must persuade readers of the accuracy, authenticity, and authority of their reporting. And, they have to persuade readers that their writing springs from a moral standpoint and a world view that is basically compatible with theirs.
This invites a study of reportorial journalism, not only opinion journalism, as rhetoric. The use of poetic techniques and tropes in journalistic writing, even sometimes in straight news reporting, similarly invites a deeper study of journalism as poetry; and journalistic narrative techniques invites a study of journalism as non-fiction literature; and so on.
My brief here is to suggest that journalists and scholars of journalism urgently need to open themselves to a branch of language ethics that to the best of my knowledge remains virgin territory as regards its application to journalism and the media.
That is the study of language as an ethical force in itself, as a bearer of a positive or negative moral charge that transcends any specific language message, and which plays a key role in the development of individual human personality, character, destiny, or even, one might say, of soul.
Plato essentially began this line of inquiry in the Western tradition, and many religious, spiritual and moral figures ranging from Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, St. Augustine, Kabir, Hafiz, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Jaspers have carried it through to the present day.
What is odd is that over the past 200 years the mass media has exploded, vastly deepening the amount and types of impact that it has on individuals and societies. As almost never before in history, a thorough accounting of languages as a means of moral action is needed. Who is doing it?
No longer does language approach us primarily through the spoken language of those people we directly know, plus books and newspapers and television and radio. Now language comes at us in a raging cataract through the Internet, emails, advertising, podcasts, PDAs, wide TV screens hanging in elevators and waiting rooms and restaurants, and seemingly infinite other ways. Increasingly — because it could be no other way — the thoughts and ideas and feelings conveyed through all these omnipresent electronic means become our own personal thoughts and ideas and feelings.
But what is the overall effect of this upon our selves? Our communities? This is very much an extension of the original Socratic, Christian, and Buddhist questions about the moral impact of spoken and written language upon the individual soul and upon society. Again, where is the debate?
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates questions the widespread development of writing, because writing, he argued, would surely weaken the human faculty of memory and therefore harm individual moral character and weaken social bonds. Buddha’s doctrine of Right Speech posits that using language in a moral manner is the first and most important link between the wholesome moral intentions that arise in spiritual meditation, and the positive actions that can lessen suffering in the world.
Conditions in the early 21st century cry out for the application and updating of these moral theories to mass communication practices, chief among them journalism, the one branch of the mass media dedicated to civic aims.
A journalist might object that journalism after all is only a slice, and a tiny slice at that, of the overall mass media that is generating such torrents of language upon individuals and the public, to such as-yet-unknown effects. That is certainly true. Newspapers, radio and television news programs, and news magazines today are increasingly mere dits and dots in the organization charts of giant multinational conglomerates that generate profits mainly from movies, pop music, advertising, merchandising, and the cross-marketing of their entertainment and communication services.
And yet the small size of journalistic organizations within these behemoths is itself an argument for its moral and symbolic importance, as a civic practice serving, at least theoretically, public as opposed to private commercial aims. This charter should theoretically allow journalists, above all workers in today’s media communication fields, to do the deep kind of thinking about language that I am here proposing. And then, experimentally at first perhaps, to begin to apply the conclusions reached from such considerations, to the actual practice of gathering, writing, and publishing the news.
From at least one other angle, besides the unquestioned impact of mass communication on government and civic society and individuals today, it’s truly a mystery why language’s moral essence has never been systematically studied in application to journalism. Because there is such abundant evidence in our daily individual lives of a yawning gap between what we claim we believe are the importance and effects of language upon us, versus the objectively observable effects.
Possibly because language is an ephemeral medium as compared with, say, a hunk of metal or a clump of clay, we tend to discount the impact of language on self and community. ”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we intone as we launch into yet another vicious public debate that leaves all parties more hurt and angry than ever before. We say that such an outcome, and the acute discomfort of such exchanges, is the price we pay for democracy.
It is high time to make a clear-eyed accounting of what exactly we are accepting as the price of our democracy, when we make such a claim. And we need to examine the logic of our defense of free speech of this type, too. Can we really achieve a more perfect union, through the use of language that bitterly and permanently divides? Where does our journalism and our mass media, in terms of tone as well as message, fit into this calculation? Are our means and ends well in accord here?
The daily language that we commonly use to describe the mass media and our use of it, shows that at some level we understand the basic moral relationship of self and society to language, and the very high stakes involved. Generally this language revolves around the metaphor of food.
We speak about ourselves as media ”consumers” who ”ingest” a ”daily diet” of news and entertainment. We face a ”menu” of media choices, ranging perhaps from ”dry” or ”lean” or ”unpalatable” programs at one end, to ”meaty” or ”yummy” or ”rich” programs at the other. Reading gossip magazines is a ”guilty pleasure” like eating ice cream, while watching public affairs programs like The Lehrer News Hour or the BBC news is a matter of civic duty, like ”eating one’s spinach.”
A small amount of reflection on the media-as-food metaphor leads to a terrifically deep mystery, one that is really central to this issue yet one that humanity’s greatest thinkers have yet to plumb.
One could pose the question his way: If a steak and potatoes dinner nourishes the physical body, what kind of ”body invisible” does language feed and enrich, or poison and deplete?
The number of human beings who have ever lived who could credibly claim to answer this question probably is in the few dozens, or even less. One can, of course, look to the explanations of these few, such as the recorded words of Jesus or Buddha. But the problem arises that such explanations of the body invisible always include the caveat that describing the body invisible transcends language itself.
The body invisible, say the great sages, can be known only through direct and personal experience.
”Lift a rock and I am there, split a piece of wood and I am there,” says Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas. This is one way that he describes not only his, but the common human body invisible. This is our inner body that for all its complexity is proportioned roughly the same for us all, just as each of us as individuals has a head, a torso, four limbs and interior organs that we call our ”physical” selves.
But we can never map the body invisible with the same amount of detail as we can the human physical body. Because the body invisible, by definition, cannot be seen. Not only when we look outside at the world do we see as through a glass darkly, but even more so, when we look within.
Charts showing ”chakras” and ”meridians” and ”auras,” the best ones anyway, are perhaps are not as bogus as their detractors say. But even these maps of the body invisible, according to the sages, don’t divulge the deepest understanding. Because the body invisible is essentially one of infinite change, like a confluence of rivers of feeling, thinking, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching that are endlessly surging and mixing and then emptying finally into a infinite ocean.
At the most ultimate level, the sages say, beyond even these rivers of thought and feeling and perception and sensation that we mistakenly take to be ”us,” lies a formless unconditioned void that contains all energy and all forms. Any chart or map is a mere cartoon compared to this.
”Within the fathom-long body, the entire universe may be known,” the Buddha said. We need to begin to understand this statement, and similar ones made by the sages of other traditions, before we can begin to understand the the practical and moral impacts of language on the human soul.
We live usually in a practical, not metaphysical, realm. How does one create a social program that offers guidelines for using language in the media in a way that enriches the body invisible?
To do so successfully is probably not as impossible as it sounds. After all, humanity has advanced a lot in understanding how the physical human body is either nourished or poisoned, and by what types of foods or toxins, and how those foods or toxins pass through various physical and energy states inside the physical human body. All of these are all quite precisely known and even visualized.
We need to begin to understand the body invisible, as much as we have the physical body.
Practical aid can be devised and implemented, even as the ultimate realities remain well beyond our grasp (for most of us, anyway). Understanding the role of language, especially the use and broadcasting of language to masses of people — thereby either nourishing or poisoning the body invisible of those individuals and their masses as may be — is an especially urgent task.
We need to get started.