“To retain social hope, members of such a [modern, literate, secular] society need to be able to tell themselves a story about how things might get better, and to see no insuperable obstacles to this story’s coming true.”
Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity
Human beings seek reason and order. We want to stand on firm ground and find the thread that connects it all. Some days that feels easier than others. As Charlie Warzel wrote in The Atlantic’s Galaxy Brain newsletter, “Living in an environment with more information and more uncertainty seems to be a defining characteristic of being alive in the 2020s.”
The last few of years of COVID and ZoomU and mask mandates and vaccine cards and an insurrection and climate change fueled disasters and business closures and racial reckonings and protests both peaceful and violent and refugee crises around the world and immigration challenges in the US and social media bots and volcanoes and Afghanistan and still COVID and and and, make it seem that explanations may be beyond our grasp. Finding stable ground and something to hang on to can seem harder than ever.
Near the start the of pandemic Kristen Grimm, one of the nation’s leading communication strategists – and a Terker Fellow and adjunct instructor in the School of Media and Public Affairs – wrote, “As people seek meaning in what feels like madness, we will identify heroes, winners, and villains, and use them to describe this challenging and transformative time.” Journalists and advocates find meaning in madness by telling stories. Explaining complex events, helping people make sense of uncertainty and respond to discomfort, is what you’re learning how to do in the School of Media and Public Affairs.
Journalism students are learning to spot the threads that hold our world together and letting us know if the ground on which we are standing is firm. Of all of the things to which we could pay attention, you say “these things matter most.” You tell us the relevant attributes of events, put the events into context, and help us decide what to do next. In making sense, journalists decrease uncertainty and the anxiety that comes with it.
Political communication students are learning how to, in the words of Murray Edelman, “creat[e] meaning: the construction of beliefs about the significance of events, of problems, of crises, of policy changes, and of leaders.” You are learning how to reassure people they are right, and who is to blame when things go wrong. You are learning not just how to reassure people the world makes sense, but also to give them purpose and direction. You create agency. Effective political communication presents the world as it could be if you only voted, donated, protested, or posted. You point to the thread and ask people to pull on it.
All of this assumes there is firm ground on which to stand and there is a thread to find. Some days it seems as if these may be poor assumptions.
The ground on which many of us stand feels shaky. Democracy is not certain. News may not be true. Our routines are routinely disrupted. All of our plans are tentative. Questions are being raised about our collective past, and our future feels uncertain. Our world seems to be, to return to Rorty, contingent. And contingency can be terrifying. Horror movies are fun if you don’t live in an abandoned hotel, The Shining would be a lot less popular if it were a documentary. And the past few years feel a whole like Jack Nicholson is chasing us around in the snow with an ax.
Earlier this semester a colleague told me that she explained to her students “discomfort is the first step of education…” Part of our job as professors is to nudge you out of your premises. To unsettle you a bit, to challenge you to challenge your own beliefs. If we’re doing our jobs right, you are also nudging us back. Uncertainty and discomfort is part of the point of college.
I worry that we have been unsettling you when what you (and we) most need now is the opposite. The ambient anxiety is already pretty high, I’m not sure I should be adding to it. On the other hand, there may have never been firm ground on which to stand. It may be that any certainty I sell is counterfeit. What if Richard Rorty is right that “The universe isn’t trying to tell us anything”? What if contingency is the nature of our existence? Ground and threads are ways to make sense, but may not be anything beyond the sense they make.
Our sense of security may feel false because the concept of security may itself be false. If so, then telling you otherwise would be dishonest (and would do you a disservice, your professors are supposed to be preparing you for the world, not hiding it from you).
As many of you know, I tend to agree with Rorty. We feel uncertain because the world is uncertain. We assert order to help us figure out what to do next, but that doesn’t mean the order is actually there. To draw from Nietzsche, truth may just be something we hide behind a bush and later are surprised to discover.
But this always already recognition of contingency does not diminish the value of making sense of the chaos. Rorty quotes Berlin, quoting Schumpeter, writing “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Our explanations don’t have to be true for us to act as if they are true. Our ground might be rock, or sand, or Jell-O, or just air, but that makes our assertion of stability no less valuable. The thread could be a crack in the lens or gunk in our eye, but it is worth pointing to anyway. Sensemaking – the making of sense – has value because it helps us navigate an uncertain world.
In this light, is my job as your professor of political communication to get you to examine what makes you comfortable and disrupt that a bit? Are we learning how to “surf the uncertainty” together (as a colleague at another university puts it), or am I merely needlessly increasing your anxiety in an anxious time? Should I be pointing out that of which you were certain is just a story as everything is just a story, and then teaching you how to tell an equally compelling, important, and fictional one? Or am I distracting you from the pursuit of a truth beyond our classroom conversations? Predictably, I think the answer is yes.
We are surrounded by people pointing to threads that they say tie everything together. From every corner people are shouting “the ground is firm over here.” There is no end to the parade of sense makers with their floats and novelty balloons.
To my journalism students: Help us make sense of the sensemakers. Interrogate them. Challenge their assumptions. Follow their threads and test their ground. Then help the rest of us understand how they are making sense. Let us know what – and who – is left in and out of their stories. Do their explanations rely on fear of each other or of the unknown? Is their thread woven from blame and hate? Or are their stories, their sensemaking, based in reflection and honesty, humility and hope? Do the stories invite more people into the conversation and build trust? Ask and ask again. Do not surrender to prevarication.
To my political communication students: Make sense of the world in ways that bring us together. Tell stories that are honest. Do not offer us false hope, but help us be hopeful. Help us see threads that bind us together. Unsettle us when we need to be unsettled, but never so much that we go looking for more stable, if less honest, ground (or worse, surrender altogether). We can only get through this global health crisis, the ongoing threats to democracy, and the threats posed by climate change, if we believe we can get through it all together. We need to believe that the future will be better for all of us only if it is better for each of us. And we need to believe that, together, we can create that future.
Things seems pretty weird and stressful now, because they are. Our moment falls outside of our expected explanations. As members of the SMPA community, part of our job is to help each other sort through the weirdness and manage the stress. As a professor, part of my job is to encourage you to be in the weird and stressful and look around, and to find ways to understand and explain it. Part of your job as students is to see what you otherwise might have missed, and notice that what you think you saw might not be there; not being so sure is a virtue. Outside of SMPA, part of your job as journalists and advocates is to tell stories about how we can come together to make things better. Recognize that sense is made, not found. And then make sense that invites, includes, and provides hope.
Have a restful break. Eat too much. Watch bad TV and old movies. Be with loved ones. Know that amidst the chaos you are part of our SMPA community. And know that, as a community, we will make sense in ways that move us all forward together.