Sunday, 22 November 2009

Via Media

For well over 50 years, Alistair Cooke, an English-born journalist, broadcast his Letter from America which monitored the pulse of life in the USA and interpreted it for listeners in other nations. He would always start his letter with an anecdote and it was always, I repeat always, impossible to second guess where this anecdote would link to contemporary events and his theme for the broadcast. I was recalling this as I read through my emails yesterday.

It was the end of a satisfying day and I was sitting in front of our wood burner in which we were burning the birch logs which Ray had gathered that day. Prices for fuel are so high nowadays that many of us are turning to more traditional ways of heating. For Ray, a walk on common woodland in a neighbouring village brought to light some newly felled trees. On investigation these were available for anyone to use. Consequently, he has made a few trips in the Jeep and brought them back for sawing into suitable lengths and our woodpile has grown.

Perhaps this is going to turn on a well-known phrase about woodpiles? No, I have foresworn racism, multi-culturalism and eugenics. Perhaps this is a homily about the satisfaction to be obtained from hard work resulting in a timber harvest. Perhaps it is symbolic of the fight of the small man, the individual, against big business such as the power companies.

Possibly the latter has the most relevance to my emails and the fight in which I, and others like me, are engaged. Certainly, those of us who have been involved in academic life are used to producing arguments. These are well-developed, factual and objective theses substantiated by evidence. These arguments can win over minds and develop intellectual thought and this approach is vital, particularly if laws are to be changed.

However, we are also won over by other means. Newspapers and television, even blogs, thrive on human-interest stories and these use more emotive language to do just that – provoke emotion. Sometimes this emotional approach can change people’s minds but the problem is that these emotions do not always last.

When we read the newspapers we gain our factual knowledge from the front pages which we hope will contain some objective reporting but then we turn to the inner pages, to the well-respected opinion writers who interpret these events and help to shape our thinking. Like Alistair Cooke, their writing often contains anecdotes but it is also evidence-based. The controlled subjectivity of this writing provokes discussion and forms opinion. For most people this is more accessible than academic or purely objective writing. We need personal opinion based on developed thought not just an outpouring of emotion. In order to win both hearts and minds several types of approach are needed.

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