‘Just’ Speech

The great satirist Tom Lehrer said, “… One problem that recurs more and more frequently these days, in books and plays and movies, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love. … And the characters in these books and plays and so on, and in real life, I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can’t communicate. I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Communication is tricky. Indeed, the 18th century sage known as the Vilna Gaon teaches that wisdom comes from listening more than we speak which is why we have two ears but only one mouth.

Many of us could do with a bit more shutting up — and then listening in a way that conveys genuine interest.

The other side of the equation, though, is the speaker. Real communication occurs only if there is something and someoneworth listening to. Are there ways of speaking that are more or less just?

In his 1956 book “The Power Elite,” sociologist C. Wright Mills suggests that communication can be divided into two types based on two types of communities or societies. The first is a community of publics, which engenders communication between equals. Each party has opinions to express and does so from his/her own perspective. In this scenario, information is exchanged. The potential for “just” speech is higher because the listening party can dispute any claim in real time.

The other type is mass society in which communication (mass media) is produced and distributed widely. The listener is no longer a conversation partner (actual or potential) but a member of a wider viewing or listening audience. Information is not exchanged but received because the speaker is not saying but delivering it. The potential for injustice is higher because the line between news and propaganda is thin. For example, we can draw a fairly straight line from mass media to mass incarceration, as the New York Times recently admitted in its important but too-little-too-late mea culpaabout so-called “crack babies.” The mass voice is an unanswerable one.

One important distinction between these two forms of communication is that mass communication is traditionally transmitted by some device (newspaper, radio or television) while public communication is often face-to-face. And when it wasn’t, the mode of communication was often a letter which takes a while to write and much longer to receive.

The Internet and communication tools like social media complicate matters. These bear some resemblance to mass communication: they travel quickly over large distances and are viewed (at least potentially) by huge numbers of people. Success on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram is for something to “go viral.”

But many social networks include elements of public communication as well. Online, people “chat” with one another in a free flowing exchange of ideas. Is this speaking justly? One important difference is that communication online is, by definition, not face-to-face. Even video chat technology involves a fair amount of distancing. Who among us has not multi-tasked during a FaceTime call or a Zoom conference in a way we would never dare over a lunch conversation or over the backyard fence? And unlike traditional letter-writing posting, re-tweeting and commenting doesn’t take time or engender much editing (or restraint). Words explode onto the Internet instantly, ubiquitously and permanently.

In his book “Just Mercy,” noted author Bryan Stevenson champions the power of “proximity,” particularly as a means of better understanding poverty and incarceration. He describes his grandmother, the child of enslaved people, who would smother him with big bear hugs. “… She would ask me, ‘Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?’ If I said yes, she’d let me be; if I said no, she would assault me again. …. ‘You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,’ she told me all the time.”

Just speech, then, is best achieved not through a broadcast, a tweet or a communication — but in a conversation.

A version of this piece can be found at Jmore here.

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