Communication Ethics Literacy and Difference: Dialogic Learning


This chapter begins with two points that I think make a lot of sense. As a conservative, libertarian, whatever amorphous description actually belongs to me, or is put upon me by the Other (Liberal, Progressive, Compassionate), I have a feeling that the other thinks these two points are most pertinent for me to learn, when I think they more often than not are the ones paying mere lipservice to them.

So what am I talking about? Let me delineate.

Remember, per the authors, we are in an age of difference, which doesn’t have common norms, but rather disagreements. Therefore, practically, there are two points we should keep in mind:

Point One: Ethics should not be a weapon. Someone who disagrees with us should not instantly be seen as unethical.

Point Two: Realize learning from diverse ethical positions is a necessity. Learning does not mean agreement. We can learn without agreeing with another position.

These two points logically lead to two practical steps:

Step One: Learn about the alien.

Step Two: Use discernment to create the interplay of our own position and the alien we are learning.

Learning and Discernment create a natural dialectic that allows us to check our own assumptions, while preventing us from unreflective agreement with the new just because it is new.

As usual, the authors structure the chapter around metaphors of communication ethics praxis, three this time:

  • Pragmatic
  • Crisis Communication
  • Communication Ethics Literacy

In the pragmatic metaphor, the authors talk emphasize that dialogue is able to unite this learning, discernment and difference, enabling us to understand our own position better through the view we gain of others. They say that modernity saw the new as better, while postmodernity gives no advantage to the new: only this dialectic of learning and discernment have advantage.

Postmodernity finds definition in difference and incommensurability of views of the good. Keeping the conversation going in such an era begins with meeting what we do not know, which permits learning and, ironically, sheds more clarity on the ground or position upon which we stand. In essence, communication ethics takes on pragmatic currency; we must learn about other views of the good with recognition that, like it or not, multiple views of the good exist and contend for attention in the ongoing postmodern marketplace of ideas.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 4144-4147). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

I find this an interesting position. I think I generally agree with their points about learning more about ourselves through learning about others. But I read G.K. Chesterton from the early 20th century, and see him already thanking those who disagreed with Christianity with teaching him more about Christianity. So this idea of learning from difference isn’t new, or something unique to postmodernity. And if the people I see today are really practicing postmodernity, many of the disciples of diversity and difference out there seem to have just as much “chronological snobbery” as C.S. Lewis saw in his day, the day of modernity, in the mid-20th century. While their principles may be good, I think the authors themselves have certain blinders in their “worship” of the age of postmodernity.

All this difference creates the need for something the authors call Crisis Communication.

Pragmatically, ever-increasing differences invite crisis in contention over the good. It is our position that increasing commonality of ongoing crises generated by competing views of the good makes communication ethics literacy a pragmatic necessity.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 4172-4174). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Crisis Communication works within the contention of goods that invade the public arena. We can ask the other to understand our good, but we can no longer count on agreement or endorsement.

The authors mention the benefit of narrative theory, as espoused by Walter Fisher. Our lives have stories that we tell and live.  We Fisher calls us to enter those stories reflectively and thoughtfully, not blindly. Since Postmodernity has no metanarrative, it becomes more important to discuss the multiple narratives around us.

Yes, that might be true. But I also wonder if this idea of difference in the postmodern era might itself be a form of metanarrative that pulls the narrative ground out from other views that have a more universal perspective. Sort of like the question of the person whose philosophy is: there are no absolutes. Which they don’t believe, since the principle upon which their philosophy stands is an absolute.

The authors bring in an actual metaphor: that of glasses. We need special lenses to understand these issues of seeing multiple goods. The wrong lenses can make things less clear. Glasses can make the focal center better, but lose peripheral vision.

The introduction to theory in communication ethics requires a stress upon the good that finds protection and promotion in a given communicative environment. This book has examined theories that act as “eyeglasses”: democratic; universal-humanitarian; codes, procedures, and standards; contextual; narrative; and dialogic communication ethics. The differences in the good protected and promoted finds definition through the looking or the theory engaged. We privilege a dialogic communication ethic for this historical moment— an appropriate prescription for seeing in a postmodern age of difference and multiplicity. The goal is to learn from alterity, from that which is outside us, outside what we expect to understand within conventional expectations.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 4264-4269). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Finally landing on the third metaphor of Communication Ethics Literacy, the authors define this as a “responsibility to learn and discern.” This is an active, not passive commitment.

Contrariwise, unethical communication is defined by the arrogance that “I know it all” or that what I don’t know isn’t worth knowing.

There is a question by the authors of how being confident of one’s own position leave space for dialogue? They see this as a crucial emphasis of our time. In reading on, I am not sure I really understand how they came to an answer.

I see C.S. Lewis and the socratic club as one answer. I think more confidence in ones position, but willing to put it up for examination by the other, unafraid, not “defensive” but defending, is one option. This pressuposes the original two principles the authors gave at the beginning of the chapter.

The authors do realize that after learning from difference, we still need to choose on which side to land. Relativism isn’t the answer, nor is indecision.

We learn, then we do our best, and perhaps, in the model of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we take temporal conviction into human life with its restless companion, doubt. A commitment to learning never permits the smugness of assurance to eclipse the necessity of learning and the possibility of new insight to offer a corrective. Such commitment reminds us of a basic communication ethics conviction in an age of narrative and virtue contention— learn from difference, and, as one chooses, do not lose the pragmatic necessity of doubt and “maybe” in a time of change and recognized difference.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 4463-4467). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

And so we get to our example from Les Miserables.

Valjean is our example. He takes pragmatic action again and again to protect and promote the goods of others. He uses crisis communication. He engages dialogue of what is before him, rather than what he might want, attempting to learn from the narrative of his life.

Thus they end the book.


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