The standard of debate at times online has never been lower on either side of the Atlantic. In a guest post a US communicator gives his own considered views.
by GUEST EDITOR Jim Garrow
Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. For example, when august folks speak about a topic that they are uniquely and eminently qualified to speak about, and are ignored or shouted down because they happen to be august and uniquely and eminently qualified to speak about the topic at hand. Those of us who work in public health know, first-hand, all about this fervor. For decades now, we’ve been battling Playboy Playmates, pet detectives, and discredited doctors to get people to give their children doctor-recommended, life-saving, rigorously-tested vaccines. One of the biggest proponents of vaccines, Dr. Paul Offit, is routinely lambasted as shilling for vaccines so he can make more money because he helped develop one. The man has spent his life devoted to saving children’s lives and, because of that, shouldn’t be trusted.
As President Barack Obama lamented in a commencement speech at Rutgers University on May 15: “We assume whatever is on the web must be true. We search for sites that just reinforce our own predispositions. Opinions masquerade as facts. The wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.”
Firtstly, anti-intellectualism is everywhere
You can find forms of this type of anti-intellectualism seemingly everywhere these days. In the States, we can literally find it everywhere these days as Presidential election campaign spots dominate the airwaves and tweets. Max Boot lays the blame at the feet of one particular political party, but even on the left, we see the same type of anti-intellectual passion. Donald Trump seems to be the embodiment of the sentiment, but stories abound from around the globe of “regular folks” dismissing those in power, or those with a vested interest. Calls for tearing down ivory towers and ivy-laced walls are coming from all corners. (And I’m not even going to mention that uniquely British thing that happened earlier this year.)
For the last few years, the advertising industry has used this anti-intellectualism as a way to sell things. One Reddit user excitedly reported that he was happy that companies were finally stopping asking for “bro copy,” or copy designed to appeal to the public at a friend level, like brands were just normal folks that liked to drink beer and to kick back. (This is as opposed to the “long copy” that we saw in magazines in the 1970’s, for example.) When your fast-casual restaurant, your beer, and your t-shirt manufacturer are all telling to to kick back, stop listening to the eggheads, and enjoy life, well, it does something to you.
So, where does that leave us, as communicators (that probably don’t have bajillions of dollars to spend on the latest advertising craze)? How do we communicate about very serious topics in an era when even acknowledging that those topics are important can stir up a hornet’s nest?
The first step is to not argue. There’s a lovely quote from George Bernard Shaw that describes why, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” You win none of those battles.
Secondly, what should comms do? Be smart
The second step is to try to be the change you want to see in the world. We talk about weighty subjects, life and death in some situations, and we need keep doing it, but do it better. Much like the teacher who is excited about cool new academic pursuits and instills that love of creativity and exploration in their students, we have to model excitement in our pursuits. The very essence of the intellectualism that is railed against is the boring, rote, unapproachable communications that ignore the audience. Don’t do that! Be human. Be boundless enthusiasm. Be smart. Make it infectious.
Listen, there are three kinds of people in this world: those that appreciate intelligence, those that actively abhor it, and everyone else. One of those groups will always be on your side, another will always be against you. How you communicate will determine whether or not the third group hears what you say.
We live in difficult times. For so many reasons. But we can be the ones who help turn it around. As professional communicators, we are the ones best placed to bring the world to a better place because we already have people’s ears. We need to take care of them, and be the best us we can be.
Jim Garrow is currently Director of Digital Public Health at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and manages the @PHLPublicHealth Twitter account.
Picture: Nationaal Archief / Flickr