“What do we want? Respectful discourse. When do we want it? Now would be agreeable to me, but I’m interested in your opinion” : Ethical Communication and Political Media
University of Colorado at Boulder
A sign from The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear sums it up. There is a growing frustration with the political media among the public as moderation fails to be recognized. This increasingly emergent problem elicits pleas for a paradigm shift of media engagement and representation. This shift aligns in many ways with Deetz’s (1990) theory of ethical discourse. An application of Deetz’s theory emphasizes the unethical nature of political media and opportunities for correction within the distorted system in a meaningful way.
Deetz (1990) frames communicative problems as lack of genuine conversation. He positions the modern democratic emphasis of communication as rooted in an enlightenment tradition of ethics. This dominant model relies heavily on notions of freedom of speech and rational discourse. Deetz notes that these principles are not negative. However, he argues that systems in which they function can become distorted, perpetuating inequities and unethical communication.
Here Deetz (1990) draws heavily upon the cybernetic tradition of communication theory. He positions the issue not in the interpersonal ethic but instead in failure to recognize systemic abuses that can occur behind the veil of “ethical”, democratic speech. Thus unethical communication is not the consequence of individual moves or even intentions but how the systems of communication engage persons and groups. This privileging of positions within communicative contexts creates power imbalance. Consequently those with the power in the resulting hierarchies can maintain dominant positions and represent their own interests at the expense of those not allowed equal voice in the discourse. This represents an infusion of the critical tradition that highlights the inequitable distribution of power in communication.
Deetz argues that this systemic unequal distortion of power is unethical but he offers an alternative. For this he turns to the phenomenological tradition of communication theory. Where the current democratic ethic encourages reproduction of meanings and interests determined in advance, Deetz’s alternative is productive dialogue. This emphasizes content as opposed to power. He borrows from Buber the concept of the “I-thou” relationship in which individuals are addressed not as objects, as the “I-it” relationship, but as people with unique perspectives. As a result, shared recognition of perspectives is emphasized over realization of a singular position.
Yet this is not actualized as long as discourse is blocked. Blocking is accomplished in several manners. First, participants can be frozen. This is done as those engaged in the communication become fixed in their roles. On one hand, a person might look “across the aisle” and label others in ways that objectify them and base interaction upon those labels. However, one might also freeze themselves by conceiving of their own person in a certain way that limits their participation or inhibits the participation of others. Thereby the communication system becomes unethical because it is not fluid or equitable.
In addition, Deetz offers six particular moves by which the discourse is limited. To begin, a participant or group can become disqualified from engaging as their identity is disenfranchised of a stake in having a say. Secondly, a position or subject matter can be naturalized as if there were no alternative. Neutralization on the other hand occurs when the content/roles are characterized as value free. Topical avoidance operates so as to limit the subject from even being addressed. Next, subjectification of experience allows the multiple perspectives to be acknowledged but then does not allow for discussion as difference is treated as unbridgeable. Finally, meaning can be denied as value laden statements are made but intentionality of value is not acknowledged. Thus unethical systems limit certain types of expressions and do not reflect genuine, productive dialogue.
Deetz offers a bridge to the aforementioned ethical systems via three maneuvers. First, a person or group can engage in metacommunication about the problem. While ideal in theory, attempts at metacommunication can be less than effective. Systems theory suggests that the system will maintain homeostasis and the structure is likely to be maintained. Another option for Deetz is rhetoric. He suggests that the primary move of rhetoric is to reveal an unknown or unprivileged position. Therefore, one can unmask the inequities in a system. Finally, one can utilize strategy. Deetz suggests that such strategies as public demonstrations and system disruption is only ethical if it gives way to a less constrained system. Thereby the disenfranchising systems can be confronted.
One such system recently challenged is that of the media-politics-public triad. The discourse within this system has become systematically distorted such that competition is emphasized above complementary action. One of its most prominent critics is Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” who claims democracy has become a pseudo-democracy in which the media increasingly polarizes viewpoints and privileges extremes (Warner, 2007). This effectively widens the gap between groups and consequently disallows genuine dialogue.
This system has become a debate in which reproduction of ideas and boundary enforcement is emphasized over collaborative production for societal benefit. Stewart specifically critiques the approach of shows like "Crossfire." Such media depictions of the public sphere present opposing sides promoting their political dogma. However, Stewart explicitly observes this system as unethical as Deetz most likely would. He states that the show, and by extension the general media, has a responsibility to public discourse but has failed miserably. The hosts have a responsibility essentially because they are gatekeepers of the content and power for communication around politics. However, they do not ethically fulfill an obligation to fair demonstration of the voices as extremes are privileged. Moderate or even non-aggressive positions are not recognized due to limited marketability.
Stewart makes an empire out of satire of this system. This public demonstration best falls under the reopening method of "strategy" described by Deetz. The show mimics the media-politics marriage but in such a syntax and intensity that just barely demarcates it as distinct from the larger system. It is an ongoing public demonstration that falls outside of institutional affiliation but still reaches the audiences of institutions. It works outside the traditional news networks in the frame of comedy. Warner (2007) notes that, “The Daily Show works […] by using an aestheticized (and very funny) parodic discourse to combat the aestheticized (and very serious) political branding techniques” (p. 17). Thereby the show indirectly confronts the unethical discourse by mirroring it.
By stepping outside the true system the comedian has the opportunity to challenge it. Stewart notes, “The absurdity of the system provides us the best material, the theater of it all” (Jon Stewart's Crossfire transcript, 2004). The absurdity is an outright failure to meet Deetz’s ethical standards. The systemic blockages are apparent in the complete lack of perspective-taking, respectful discourse. One of the more common moves is to freeze the participants within labels of “liberal”, “conservative”, “racist”, “sexist”, etc. Communicators can label themselves in such ways or confer identities as observers to others. This can have several effects including disqualifying certain parties from contribution or subjectification of the content as group identities become so disparate their opinions cannot even begin to be discussed. This can amplify the discourse at other groups but does little to generate genuine conversation between the groups as “I-it” associations dominate communicative relationships.
The alternative is to open the dialogue and engage in “I-thou” communication. For Deetz this would be complete access to and regard within “the conversation.” Where strategy and metacommunication to those with power within the system have failed, Stewart has turned to rhetoric. The most obvious example of this reopening move is seen in his 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear. In this move, he and Stephen Colbert engaged in explicit rhetoric to unmask the problem of unethical discourse in the political media and present the solution of ethical, honest, genuine conversation. Stewart called the rally a brief moment for honesty as he touted the benefit of a productive system. While it is too early to see direct effect, the rhetoric described by Deetz for the purpose of ethical communication was present.
Thus Deetz’s notion of genuine conversation and the ethical imperative in many ways describes the current issues within political media discourses. This is an issue that has been raised before. Bertrand (2000) dedicates an entire book to a discussion of the ethical failures of political media. This work heavily emphasizes the idea of systematic accountability systems and how entities navigate maintenance and change. It clearly challenges current political media in action in similar ways to Deetz’s application.
However, it must be noted that the concept of genuine dialogue fails to encompass this issue in several manners. To begin, it fails to describe the complexities of scope of such large discourses that are communicated through formal and informal channels. A fully genuine dialogue could not operate across the nation without representatives. It would be functionally impossible for the entire population to engage in the system. Access is then blocked through the leaders’ positions. Therefore Deetz’s theory does not address the notion of representation necessary to the largest discourses. The theory also does not explicitly describe the intersection of other systems with the communication system. The economic imperative of the larger media outlets that disseminate the discourses of concern seem to be the driving force between the debate orientation. The debate is parallel to and embedded with the capitalist move. Therefore it is part of a larger system that may or may not be characterized as unethical. It cannot be considered in isolation from the other discourses of great importance such as economics. Perhaps then it can be said that it exists as a unethical system within multilevel systems. A full discussion of the problem would necessitate observation of these external factors influencing the interaction.
In addition, the theory also tends toward framing the problem of systems as tied to hierarchies in which particular positions are privileged and others are excluded. This does not highlight what occurs when blockages are reciprocal. It may be true that one position works against ethical discourse while the other works towards ethical discourse but one might worry the implications of both sides using unethical moves. This is distinct from strategy which does not block other discourse but instead seeks to unmask and make the alternative seen by certain displays. On one side the unethical media politics may state, “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore" (Beck, 2005). However, the ethical discourse advocates have said, “Glenn Beck wants to tea bag our children.” Both are aggressive moves towards opposing camps. Yet it is unclear from Deetz’s theory if the freezing move is ethical if used to undermine the unethical system.
Despite these concerns, Deetz’s theory in many ways describes the moves that create a frustrating and inaccessible political media. It grasps the general tone and issues within the system that contribute to increasing polarization. The theory also outlines the modes of reopening the conversation that have been attempted and why they may or may not have been effective. Thus the largely expressed public frustration with political media provides a good application of Deetz’s concept of ethical communication.
Beck, G. (2005, May 15). The Glenn Beck program. Fox News.
Betrand, C. J. (2000) Media ethics and accountability systems. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Deetz, S. (1990) Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38(3), 226-243.
Jon Stewart's Crossfire transcript. (2004). http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/bljonstewartcrossfire.htm
Warner, J. (2007). Political culture jamming: The dissident humor of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Popular Communication, 5(1), 17-36.