As we enter a new millennium, methods of communication continue to change. The influence of the media, the rise of the Internet, and the emergence of new technology make exchanging information faster, easier, and more visual. Has the medium become the message, as Marshall McLuhan once proclaimed? Does the form of communication (oral, print, or electronic) affect its content, transmission, and consequences?
Westmont’s three communication studies professors attempt to answer questions like these. While courses focus on theory, students learn to think, speak, and write better. In addition to teaching and spending time with students, faculty conduct scholarly research. Seeking to apply their Christian faith, they examine the morality of communication, the impact of the media on society, and study issues such as rhetorical theory, public discourse, and communication within organizations.
Back to the Basics
Although technology has certainly changed communication, classical thinkers faced many of the issues we grapple with today. Dr. Greg Spencer, who chairs the communication studies department, draws on their definitions in his study of rhetorical theory and religious rhetoric. Quintilian described rhetoric as “a good person speaking well.” The great orator Cicero, who lamented the separation of the tongue and the brain, believed in combining eloquence with wisdom. “We tend to think of rhetoric as manipulative or bombastic speech,” Greg notes. “But it really refers to the art of discourse or any attempt to persuade, such as advertisements, architecture, and music videos. The Romans included a sense of ethical responsibility in their definition because they thought that both the character of the speaker and the content of the speech mattered. As a Christian, I look at rhetoric as “loving appropriately through speech.”
Greg also incorporates biblical perspectives in his research. “Currently, I’m considering how three characteristics of the incarnation (temporary abdication of power, identification, and service) apply to communication. For example, if we want to serve others as Christ did, we must identify with them, and that may require us to give up some power in order to communicate in a way they understand,” he says.
Making Sense of the Media
The communication studies curriculum include a critical examination of the media and its messages.
Dr. Mike Giuliano explores the issue of truth-telling and deception in movies and television programs. Research clearly shows that we question inaccuracies in films much less than misstatements in any other medium—the “camera never lies.” So when movies that claim to present historical truth take dramatic license with the facts, we tend to accept the inaccurate versions uncritically. Mike discusses this problem in a case study (“Reel History”) he contributed to a book on media ethics and moral reasoning, arguing that Oliver Stone’s film “Nixon” is seductively deceptive.
Mike worries that Christians hold too low a view of truth-telling, a problem the media exacerbates. When appealing, sympathetic characters tell lies to protect themselves or others, we can uncritically accept such deception without recognizing its destructiveness. “Don’t underestimate how a film can influence your thinking,” Mike warns. “Each one presents a distinct world view, and it is very easy to let that perspective affect you.
“We demand so much more of literature or speech than we do of the visual argument a film makes,” Mike continues. “We’ll dismiss a lack of character development, plot, or moral content by saying, ‘It’s only a movie.’ We don’t understand the impact it can make.”
While he laments the superficiality of films that feature elaborate visual displays, Mike is more concerned about the brilliant, artistic movies that present a coherent plot and characters but tell morally troubling stories, such as “The Bridges of Madison County.”
“Does technical excellence justify viewing such films?” Greg asks. “Does a work of art ever merit out attention simply because it is well done?” He and Mike encourage students to put aside their naivete when confronting such issues. “Scripture tells us to be fools for Christ,” Greg says. “Sometimes we prefer being ‘cool’ for Christ and uncritically accepting what our culture values.”
While filmmakers and television producers may alter the truth for artistic or ideological reasons, the news media may simply overlook it in the rush to cover a breaking story. “The system conspires against ethical news reporting,” Greg contends. “The need to meet a deadline, keep up with the competition, and produce news that sells leaves little time for a nuanced, reflective telling of the truth in television, newspapers, or radio. Reporters often put the story above all else, including its moral implications.”
Even more insidious is advertising that pushes the edge of respectability to get noticed. Calvin Klein ads have long been criticized for their youthful eroticism. Greg finds a new approach equally offensive: making models up to look like heroin addicts. He believes that Christians must resist the trend toward greater levels of indecency in the media. Without a critical eye, we can fall into the trap of gradually accepting what we once condemned.
Mike believes the media encourages us to pick and choose our morality, and cites sports commentary as an example. “We accept coaches who abuse their players as long as their teams win,“ he observes. “But we draw the line at cheating. If we see the role of a coach as similar to the role of a parent, then we ought to realize that abuse can be just as damaging as deception and cheating. Coaches who respect people can still get results.” Mike speaks from experience. In four years as the coach of the Westmont women’s soccer team, he has won four district titles and earned two trips to the NAIA National Tournament.
In an ongoing research project, Greg is examining the impact of images in our culture. From tangible photographs to intangible mental pictures, he is studying the function, control, and authenticity of images.
“Living in an image-dominated culture accentuates an innate totalitarian impulse,” Greg argues. “Our ability to manipulate digitized images fools us into thinking we can control the world. The second commandment, which prohibits the making of idols, addresses this desire to control life in opposition to God.”
Images also tempt us to pretense and projecting a false persona. “Finding few models of true authenticity to imitate, we seek a glamorous image instead,” Greg says. He believes we make too many decisions based on “image,” sometimes unconsciously. “While we might say we would rather have perfect humility than a perfect body, we devote more time to our looks than to our character. We really believe our life will improve if we have a perfect body. Where is the evidence that spiritual health follows a preoccupation with appearance?”
The prevalence of images in society has led some educators to stress the importance of “visual literacy.” While Greg agrees that we need to be educated about how the media persuade us, he doesn’t think that “literacy” is a helpful description of the process. “Oral and print communication require reflective participation, whereas most visual media leave viewers as spectators. As followers of Christ, we must attend to our calling as people of the word.”
A Civil Tongue
In recent years, the media has lamented the lack of civility in public discourse, and Christians aren’t entirely immune from criticism. Mike is working on an article that explores the issues of both civility and passion, two qualities he believes essential in effective communication.
“I tell students they need to be more like Rush Limbaugh and less like Rush Limbaugh,” Mike elaborates. “Limbaugh reminds us that truth worth telling is worth arguing for. He passionately defends his positions. On the other hand, his use of pejorative terms such as ‘feminazi’ eliminates the possibility of dialogue with those he labels.
“I want students to engage those who hold different views, and I have identified four attitudes which will help them communicate with civility:
• I value the passion you feel for your position;
• I desire to understand your position in your words and in your shoes, not mine;
• Although I cling to the truth as I know it, experience has taught me that a clearer, fuller understanding may lie ahead; and
• If I believe it is true, I should be able to defend it to others, at least to my own satisfaction.”
Students have opportunities to practice this approach during campus forums on controversial subjects. Mike moderates these sessions, which have tackled issues such as racism, provocative dress, and affirmative action. Not only can students express their own opinions, but they can hear other views. Mike intervenes when students make weak arguments and warns them not to have passion for positions they haven’t carefully thought through.
A Help or Hindrance to Community?
The Internet has created an entirely new forum for communication. While civility has sometimes been lacking on-line, Greg expresses other concerns. “Heavy use of the Internet can detach us from the people around us—our family, church, and community—who teach us morality and hold us accountable for our actions. If we know no one is watching us, how well do we choose? Anonymity on the Internet allows us to behave in very destructive ways. I am particularly concerned about the ability of adolescent boys to access hard-core pornography. They will grow up with one view of women: as sex objects.”
Can the Internet make a positive contribution to the development of communities? Dr. Deborah Dunn, who will join the communication studies faculty in the fall, participated in a study that matched lonely, isolated seniors with junior e-mail pen pals to see if relationships formed. Since many of the children were young, few meaningful connections developed. But some seniors forged lasting on-line friendships with other seniors. Many contacted relatives using e-mail. The most active seniors on-line during the study were the least lonely when the project began. The most isolated seniors dropped out at an early date. So the Internet may have played less of a role in promoting community than the personalities of the participants.
Deborah accepted a position at Westmont partly because she wanted to communicate her faith. “As I have grown in my relationship with Jesus Christ, I have increasingly longed to share that with students, especially those who tell me about difficult personal problems. At public schools, I had to be very careful about saying, ‘Let’s pray.’ But at Westmont I can integrate who I am, how I teach, and what I study and not apologize for my beliefs.”
An interest in communication within organizations has led her to study how forms of discourse, including documents, training sessions, and meetings, enable and constrain dialogue, especially in the case of sexual harassment. Most often, organizations silence the dialogue, especially if an accusation of sexual harassment occurs. The nature of our litigious society contributes to this silencing. Interested in the diverse ways members of organizations see and communicate about reality, she studies the processes by which they express, suppress, and negotiate varying viewpoints. Organizations intrigue her because they are established through communication and people spend so much time in them.
A Call to Christian Action
All three professors welcome the opportunity to help students develop a Christian perspective on communication. In particular, they believe it is essential to evaluate the media and educate believers about its influence on society. “We should reject the naive, knee-jerk reaction that focuses only on sex, violence, and profanity in the media and critically examine its distorted world views and our willingness to accept unreal, misleading images and content,” Greg states.
He recommends that Christians “fast” from the media to better understand and counteract it. “Getting completely away from mediated images for a time may be the only way we can comprehend their deceptions. For example, we may know intellectually that a digitized image of a woman is enhanced and unreal, but it can still make an emotional impact. Avoiding such images helps us gain perspective.”
Greg and Mike try to help their children become good critics of the media they see. Mike previews movies before taking his kids to the theatre and recommends a resource on the Internet (http://www. screenit.com) that lists such things as sexual content, foul language, and potentially troubling themes. “In my view, the commercials are more damaging than many of the programs since they encourage children to develop a consumerist identity,” he adds. “Because the next toy they ‘must own’ is just beyond their reach, kids develop a deep dissatisfaction with what they have.”
Carefully choosing what we watch, valuing truth-telling in all communication, and expressing our concerns with passion and civility can help Christians return a sense of moral responsibility to discourse in society.
—Nancy L. Phinney