The communication discipline is bleeding

NOTE: If you want more on the ongoing conversation that my comments are situated within, please explore our colleagues’ commentary on Twitter with hashtag #CommunicationSoWhite, read the backstory of these issues via Mohan Dutta’s astute commentary: https://culture-centered.blogspot.com/2019/06/in-post-made-in-response-to-changes-to.html and examine NCA’s record of documents about the distinguished scholar nomination processes and (lack of systematic) changes https://www.natcom.org/distinguished-scholars?fbclid=IwAR3pvlh-Wf78cbzcesDFSlI2rVi-yKopYlRdtAcMoYzpRK9X1GSUWMb9u0I

The communication discipline is bleeding. Pus oozing. Vomit erupting. 

We are suffering. 

Most humans turn away from suffering. We build walls on our freeways so we don’t see poverty on our daily commute. We build gates around our communities. We don’t look homeless people in the eye.  We conveniently delete, scroll through, or click “sad” or “angry” emojis before quickly moving on.

And, right now, it would be easy, especially for the privileged among us, to turn away from the suffering of our discipline. It’s summer after all. Email auto-replies prove that we are “out of the office”. This is time for family, vacation, and writing!

But this suffering is not suddenly new. It’s been at a slow simmer. Will we ignore this boiling flashpoint?

Of course, only some of us, the privileged among us, have the luxury of ignoring. Or maybe we don’t ignore, but instead treat the situation as perfect summer entertainment. Heck, let’s just get out the popcorn and watch it all go down. Who will be the heroes? Who will be the villains?  When will the usual players make their appearance? CRTNET hasn’t been this entertaining for years! 

When suffering becomes a drama to be watched from the sidelines, the more vitriol, violence, conflict, and casualties the better.  But our colleagues’ suffering should not be entertainment.

What if, instead of ignoring or watching as spectacle, we chose to be courageous?  What if I chose to be courageous? My coauthors’ and my very own research tells me that the courageous thing to do in the face of suffering is to show compassion.

Compassion comes in the form of recognizing and acknowledging suffering—deeply listening, hearing, and accepting the reality of truths and experiences of those who are suffering. It also means relating vulnerably, which requires us to be open to our own faults and uncertainties—admitting where we have been part of the problem, and choosing to engage in the conversation even if, by doing so, we might engage poorly and sometimes put our foot in our mouth. It means being o.k. when people point out that we did not say things quite right or that our well-intentioned compassion does not result in consequences that actually alleviate suffering. It means being o.k. with hearing that we may have actually made the suffering worse.

Indeed, relating vulnerably takes practice. And anything worth doing well is worth doing badly in the beginning. And after doing it badly, being compassionate (to ourselves and others) means caring less about “looking good” and caring more about (re)listening and courageously trying again.

Finally, and most importantly (and what differentiates compassion from empathy), compassion means acting or reacting in a way so as to materially relieve suffering.  Certainly, this may be at the individual level (e.g., sending a supportive note). However, this also comes in the form of transforming structures that result in oppression.  

As I have read the recent words from my colleagues of color—among others, Bernadette Calafell, Karma Chávez, Devika Chawla, Amira De La Garza, Mohan Dutta—I am again struck by the immense emotional labor and resilience required to shoulder, resist, and deal with ongoing and ever-present disciplinary structures that say, “You don’t belong here. Get out.”  The people in power say, “but we have changed the rules of the game, you can now enter.” And then the powerful seem mystified saying, “Well, we changed the rules so you could enter, and unfortunately not enough people came.”  Dragging oneself to the door, to just see it be shut (again), is more than exclusion. It’s trickery. Chicanery.

It’s one thing to be isolated, another thing to be tricked. The first is mean. The second is evil.

People are suffering because the structures of the communication discipline have resulted in evil consequences.

When doors are closed day after day and year after year, it’s not just suffering, but exhaustion and justified outrage. As such, it’s not enough to tweak the rules to the game.  It may not even be enough to completely change the rules of the game (which it seems some folks are willing to do).  Over time, we need to question the game itself.

Among other questions, we should be asking is this: “What does the institution of distinguished scholars produce at the structural level for the communication discipline?” When I use the word produce, I mean it in the way that Foucault talks about power “producing.”  So, I am asking us to consider both intended and unintended consequences.

And, if we cannot come up with good answers, perhaps now is a moment in the discipline when we rise up and say, “new game.”    

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2 comments on “The communication discipline is bleeding
  1. S. A. Hall says:

    I know many NCA scholars and ICA Fellows with fewer publications and a lower h-index than numerous prolifiic scholars in the field who are not socially networked in with the Big Ten scholars. As a result, they are ignored. I could name names; but decline to do so, because of being ostracized in public forums. I have published ten books and I am discussed cross culturally, but I was never nominated for NCA Scholar; while being rejected for ICA Fellow. An NCA scholar and ICA fellow who will remain anonymous; wrote this about the subjective bias of being designated as a scholar:

    With the push for diversitification of Fellows in ICA, which is a good thing but means that more people are being nominated (and not all will be selected).

    I’ve been observing NCA Distinguished Scholars and ICA Fellows elections for many years. Often I’ve been mystified by the results. The fact that the results don’t seem to make sense is not unlike public political election results that shock us. I know many truly outstanding scholars who have been rejected—some more than once– and some who after a couple of rejections decided they didn’t want to belong and I can’t blame them. I used to try to figure it out but there are so many possible reasons for not making it that I gave up my analysis. Voter behavior bows to all the biases and irrational reasoning that affects us in other endeavors. External recognition like this is nice, but the only truly meaningful reward is how a person feels about their own work.

    • Your comparison to public political elections is spot on. Shocking, yet unshocking. The mystery of individual voting shrouds structural bad behavior.

      In your comment, I also hear exhaustion and burnout–in the efforts of knocking at the unopened door as well as trying to make sense of it all.

      Thank you for your comments, and thank you for your contributions to the discipline.

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