2020: conflict, communication and our better angels

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What a year, eh?

Prior to the last 12 months, the numerical term 20-20 was best known for describing perfect vision. However, the past year has proven to be anything but perfect. And as visions go — this one has left many people with a dark and uncertain view of the future.

Each day we are provided information about the global pandemic, social unrest over racial inequality in the U.S., and political discourse in our country that is more divisive than many people can recall in their lifetime. Every sector of our lives has been pressed to change, leaving many of us in search of something — anything — that is consistent with our past. Ironically, the past may actually be the best place to find perspective as we endure these radically changing times. Let me elaborate.

First, I point to Jon Meacham’s best-selling book, “The Soul of America — The Battle for Our Better Angels”. Meacham, a master at blending history, politics and journalism, tells us how we all have been here before. Repeatedly. He reminds us that our history is checkered with agonizing moments of political and social discourse dating back to the colonial days. Conflict, it seems, is part of our national culture. If you just look back to the 20th century, you will find numerous points in American history that are defining moments for us. All of them are wrapped in social or political change and the fear that change will bring to those in power. Fear and vitriol were ever-present as our nation dealt with the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II in the 1940s, the anti-communist Red Scare campaign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

These events impacted families, changed political agendas, drove new economies and forced us to deal with some of our darkest societal demons. Along the way, our grandparents and parents argued, fought, bled, died, cried, prayed and eventually moved forward. Somehow, the “better angels of our nature” as President Abraham Lincoln called them, emerged with a message that helped us find our way. For me, reflecting on those historical events and our emergence from them, provides comfort that we and future generations will lurch forward from our current challenges on the strength of the human spirit.

The second point I would make is the importance that communication and mass media played during those extraordinary times. National moments of discourse always have some form of mass communication attached to them — and oftentimes, a new media platform is integral to the public debate. Typically, the debate is driven by the better messenger — who may not always be the better angel but is very adept at managing the latest medium. Radio and movie newsreels were the newer platforms in the ’30s and ’40s, while television moved to the forefront in the ’50s and ’60s. Strong messengers with highly focused messaging used these new mass media channels to sway public opinion. While social media has been around for some time, it’s being used today in new ways, at the highest political levels, to once again drive public opinion. Again, some of those leading the public discussion may not be among our better angels.

As 2021 approaches we start to wonder, what comes next? As history has shown, there will be powerful presenters attempting to shape public opinion; there will be conflict between lesser and better angels, and mass communication platforms will play an integral part in what information the public receives and the decisions they make for their own lives. The trust we have in the messengers and the mass media outlets presenting information will certainly be key. But no matter what the future debate is, mass media will no doubt play a role in driving the national conversation.

Tim Dye is a communications and media adviser with more than 35 years of professional experience. He is the founder of Dye Communications, a Grand Rapids-based public relations firm. He also has worked at a Lansing-based PR firm and held leadership positions in four TV newsrooms in Michigan.

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