Q&A: Professor Robert Jensen on “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog”

Laura Byerley shares this Q&A from the College of Communication.

arguing_for_our_livesRobert Jensen, professor in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin College of Communication, is the author of “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog,” (City Lights Publishers, March 2013). The book explores issues with public discourse, trust in the leadership of elected officials and what Jensen calls an “Age of Anxiety.” It also offers strategies for addressing these crises.

In late April, Jensen spoke about his book at BookPeople. Here, he answers questions about his book and future projects.

What inspired you to write this book?

The inspiration was really more of a slow-building awareness of two simple but important points: information isn’t knowledge, and knowledge isn’t wisdom. We live in a society awash in information, yet more and more people report being unable to arrange all that information to come to social and political analyses that help them understand the world. And we live in times where seemingly knowledgeable people routinely act in very unwise ways. I wanted to use the material I had developed in the classroom and in community organizing to offer a framework for analysis and action that might help people sort out all that information and use that knowledge as wisely as possible.

In your book, you talk about how we live in an Age of Anxiety. How would you define today’s Age of Anxiety?

We all experience anxiety as individuals in our personal lives. But in this context, I am talking about a larger anxiety about the state of our society, and the health of the larger living world on which we depend. All the human systems that structure our lives –political, economic, cultural – are failing us, and all the news about the health of the ecosphere is bad and getting worse. That is bound to produce anxiety, whether people acknowledge it or not.

Where have we gone wrong in public dialog today, and how can it be improved?

The main problem is fear. People are understandably afraid to face the depth of the failure of our systems and the severity of these multiple, cascading ecological crises. Rather than grapple with the complexity of the questions, people are more eager than ever for simplistic answers and more prone to ideological rigidity.

You say that our culture has attacked the idea of critical thinking. Why is this – and how can we create a culture in which people aspire to be critically thinking intellectuals?

A number of factors undermine critical thinking. In the public schools, the obsession with standardized testing is an obvious problem. More generally, we are the most propagandized society in history, targeted by the massive advertising, marketing and public-relations industries. And we live in a hyper-mediated, entertainment-saturated culture that has made it easier to tune out than to take responsibility for thinking critically.

People routinely talk about politics and economics separately, compartmentalizing them. Why do you argue that the two systems cannot be understood independently of each other?

It’s obvious that the distribution of wealth in a society will affect the distribution of power. In a system that dramatically concentrates wealth, such as contemporary corporate capitalism, meaningful democratic dialogue and deliberation based on equal access is going to be difficult to achieve. Many people recognize this and argue that “we have to get money out of politics,” but it’s impossible to ever do that effectively – concentrated wealth simply can’t be kept out of politics. So, we have to face the fact that in some ways capitalism and democracy are incompatible.

Toward the end of the book, you say that we should shift from an Age of Anxiety to an Age of Anguish. Can you explain this?

Rather than stay stuck in that state of anxiety over these crises, it’s healthier and more productive to recognize reality. We’re in big trouble, and there are no easy answers. People who are aware of that often feel a deep grief, which is a healthy emotion. Denying reality is a bad strategy for coping with reality. Coming to terms with reality makes sensible action possible.

What future projects are you working on?

The most important projects I’m working on involve community organizing – promoting critical thinking about politics and building strong local networks of people committed to progressive change. My efforts at the moment are focused on a local community center and the worker cooperative movement.

As for writing projects: Tucked in the back of my mind is the possibility of a book about a friend, Jim Koplin, who died last year. It wouldn’t be a standard biography but more the story of how we can live our lives with integrity and contribute patiently to the slow work of making the world a better place. He was one of those extraordinary ordinary people who had a profound effect on thousands of people, not only through his teaching and activism but by the example he set.

More about the author: Jensen joined The University of Texas at Austin faculty in 1992 after completing his Ph.D. in media ethics and law in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Before his academic career, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade. He teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics.

Anita Vangelisti Shares Tips for Better Communication

Vangelisti 2009

This week, “The Handbook of Family Communication,” edited by Anita Vangelisti, the Jesse H. Jones Centennial Professor in Communication, will receive the distinguished book award from Family Communication Division of the National Communication Association (NCA) at its annual conference in Chicago.

“In the Handbook of Family Communication,” researchers examine communication across the life of families, including marital communication. Scholars from different educational specialties, including communication, psychology and sociology, explore topics such as the influence of characteristics of family relationships on specific communication processes.

“Receiving the Distinguished Book Award from the Family Communication Division is an incredible honor,” says Vangelisti. “’The Handbook of Family Communication’ is an edited volume, so the award is a wonderful way to recognize the work of all of the authors who contributed to the project.”

Vangelisti recently discussed the influences that led her to study communication and emotion in personal relationships, especially among family members.

“While I was an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, I taught personal development courses at a local fashion college,” says Vangelisti. “What I found in teaching these classes was that the material on social skills had the most impact on students and, many times, when I discussed social skills and social interaction in class, students would tell stories about their families. It was clear that the students’ family relationships were very important to them; that’s one of the main reasons I became interested in studying family communication.”

Based on her years of research, Vangelisti has some tips for better communication among family members.

“First, pay attention to family communication – watch how you communicate yourself and how other members of your family communicate. Respond to family members—including children—in ways that show respect and caring. Think about what is important to you and to your family: what qualities you want in your family relationships, what activities you want to engage in, and what memories you want to create and then work—together, if possible,—to make those important things happen.

“Studying family relationships and family communication has made me more aware of why I see the world the way I do,” says Vangelisti. “It has helped me change some patterns of behavior and—perhaps more importantly—has helped me create an environment for my own children that I hope will help them become happy, healthy adults.”

Vangelisti currently teaches the Family Communication and Communication and Personal Relationships courses in the College of Communication. Past books that she has edited include “Explaining Family Interactions” (1995) and “Feeling Hurt in Close Relationships” (Cambridge 2009).

Digital Media: Exploration of Social Networking and New Media

Watkins, Craig 2009by Samantha Ruiz

Could today’s youth be the ultimate experts in the digital evolution?

Craig Watkins, associate professor of Radio-Television-Film, answers this question and takes us into the world of new media in his latest project, “The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future” (Beacon 2009). “The Young and the Digital” explores highs and lows of digital media and how it affects lives of today’s youth from tweens, to teens, to 20-somethings.

He examines how the use of social networks, online gaming, and time spent online in general are influencing the way we view evolution of the digital scene and social media platforms.

“Social media has emerged as the dominant media in our lives because it offers something that television cannot offer: the constant opportunity to connect and share our lives with close friends and acquaintances,” Watkins said.

ShelfLife@Texas recently sat down to interview Watkins on his new book and his experience with digital media.

Q: How has media affected your life on a personal level?
A: Digital media has made it much easier for me to keep up with the news and information sources that I prefer. I have to admit that I stopped reading newspapers on a regular basis many years ago, but that does not mean that I have abandoned the news. As a result of the Internet, the reverse has happened. I’m able to follow news in a much more flexible yet detailed way and learn about a wide array of topics or the things that I really care about which include health, technology, politics, and the business and culture of sports.

Q: You have an 8-year-old daughter, what role does new media play in her life?
A: Like most kids her age she is quite comfortable with new media including mobile phones, mobile phone apps, video games, and computers. My daughter usually takes the lead in downloading new apps for my phone and eagerly explores all of its capabilities. She has introduced me to new features on my phone that have actually been useful for me. Research over the years shows that young children, unlike their adult counterparts, are not intimidated by technological innovation. In fact, they seem to be really drawn to new technologies and have typically emerged as the “tech gurus” in their own homes.

Q: What, if anything, do you think we can learn from today’s youth and their knowledge of digital media?
A: Young people’s enthusiastic embrace of technology is about being able to communicate more efficiently with a wide array of friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Q: What was the most surprising outcome that you found through your research?
A: That the more things change the more they really do seem to stay the same. Here’s what I mean: there is no question that young people’s non-stop use of technology–mobile phones, social media–represents a major shift in behavior. That is, how they use technology at home, in the classroom, and even when they are with each other. It represents new ways of being “social” in the world today. Some, of course, question if young people are social. But the idea of what it means to be social is constantly evolving in the face of technological innovations. This, I discovered, is really a constant theme in modern American life.

Watkins teaches in the Department of Radio-TV-Film and at the Center for African and African American Studies. He is also involved in the MacArthur Foundation Project.

His other books include “Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the soul of a Movement” (Beacon Press 2005) and “Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema” (University of Chicago Press 1998).

“The Young and the Digital” was released in October. You can view a trailer by Watkins at YouTube or read more at www.theyounganddigital.com.

Professor talks "Campaign Talk"

Hart Rod cropped imageContrary to the famous proverb about windows to the soul, political communication expert Rod Hart would argue that language is the window to the soul, not the eyes. He should know. Hart has spent the past 40 years studying the language of American politics.

Earlier this month, his book “Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us,” (Princeton University Press, 2000) received the Graber award, honoring the best political communication book of the past 10 years, from the American Political Science Association. The award is not made every year.


“Campaign Talk” contains a long-term (1948-1996) analysis of thousands of texts from several genres of campaign language, such as campaign speeches, debates, print and television news coverage, advertisements and letters to the editor. Hart’s computerized content analysis program, DICTION, boils down a candidate’s campaign rhetoric into a simple inventory of words and compares them to DICTION’s 10,000-word database—similar to a forensics lab analyzing DNA samples to determine the identity of a culprit.

“Language can tell us a lot about people and the lives they lead,” said Hart, who is the dean of the College of Communication. “There are a lot of clues in what people say that we don’t pay attention to.”

For example, Hart recently presented a paper analyzing the campaign language used during the 2008 presidential election. His research found that despite President Barack Obama’s reputation as an eloquent speaker, the language of his campaign was very pragmatic, concrete and optimistic. “He’s a great orator, but in examining his language, you see that he ran a very serious, hard-headed campaign. He spoke in concrete terms, and avoided overstatements and highfalutin metaphors,” said Hart.

Sen. John McCain on the other hand, ran a very old-fashioned, biographical campaign with heavy use of the words “I,” “me” and “myself.” “McCain used a lot of adjectives and adverbs as opposed to nouns and verbs,” said Hart. “When you compare the two campaigns on the basis of language, they contrasted sharply.”

So what language resonates with the electorate? Freedom. “Everyone loves the word ‘freedom.’ To Republicans ‘freedom’ represents individual freedoms, whereas Democrats tend to think of it as incorporating people into the group. Hence it no longer has any meaning,” Hart said. According to Hart, language reveals so much about a candidate that his DICTION program can identify a candidate’s party affiliation based strictly on campaign language analysis.

What words are turnoffs in a campaign? Religious language. “Politicians are careful in using religious language in their campaigns. While it’s accepted in the South, politicians tend to tone it down as they evolve from a regional to a national candidate. Jimmy Carter is a very religious man, but he chose his words carefully once he was on the national stage.”

Despite pervasive sentiment that campaigns have become too negative, Hart’s book asserts that campaigns play a vital role in sustaining democracy by creating a national dialogue and letting us peer into the souls of our political candidates.

Alumna Chronicles Her South-of-the-Border Identity Quest

Travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest (B.A. Post-Soviet Studies/Journalism, ’97) journeys deep into Mexico as she traces her bicultural roots in “Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlands” (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

She opens the memoir by describing an epiphany spurred by an encounter with a group of border crossers sprinting across Interstate 10 in the middle of a scorching desert. “As I look off into the desert hills from which they descended, a surprising thought flashes through my mind: I want to go to Mexico,” she writes.

Prompted by the experience, Griest decided to pull up stakes and move south of the border to fully immerse herself in her mother’s native country. Plagued by conflicted feelings about her mixed identity, the self-proclaimed “bad Mexican” set out on a quest to finally learn to speak Spanish and explore her ancestral roots.

Griest chronicles her pilgrimage from the border town of Nuevo Laredo to the highlands of Chiapas, detailing her myriad misadventures along the way. In the midst of the nation’s burgeoning social revolution, she rallies with rebels in Oaxaca, investigates the murder of a gay political activist and interviews family members of undocumented migrant workers.

From living in a house of gay roommates to attending a luchalibre (wrestling) match to dancing to hip-swiveling music in Mexico City’s thriving Zona Rosa district, she uses her journalist’s eye for detail to describe many bizarre, outrageous and touching experiences on her journey to self discovery.

Griest is the award-winning author of “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing and Havana” and “100 Places Every Woman Should Go.” Listen to her read a few chapters from “Mexican Enough” on MySpace, or meet her in person at one of her spring tour dates.

Pornography: A Mirror of American Culture?

While statistics vary, watchdog organizations estimate the pornography industry generates between $10 and $15 billion a year in the United States. By comparison, the Hollywood box office generates about $10 billion a year.

For several years, Associate Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen researched the pornography industry by interviewing producers, analyzing the films they make, following the trade press and speaking with pornography consumers via formal and informal interviews. The result is “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” (South End Press, 2007).

In an interview with ShelfLife, Jensen discusses why the pornography industry presents a disturbing mirror of American culture, and answers crucial questions about gender, race and economics.

Q: What motivated you, a journalism professor, to write “Getting Off”?

A: My initial work on the subject 20 years ago was sparked by my interest in law and freedom of speech, but I quickly realized that pornography was a place to ask crucial questions about gender and race, about economics and culture. In the past four decades, changes in the law, technology and social norms have produced a pornography-saturated culture for which there is no historical precedent.

Q: What does pornography reveal about American culture?
A: The popularity of pornography is a reminder that, for all the progress of contemporary social movements, we still live in a world structured by patriarchy, white supremacy and a corporate capitalism that is predatory by nature. Pornography is consistently cruel and degrading to women, overtly racist and fueled by the ideology that money matters more than people.

Q: Parts of your book are quite graphic. How did you cope with immersing yourself in such a difficult subject?
A: The short answer: Not very well. It is extremely difficult and draining work, which is why I conducted analyses of films no more than once every three or four years. When watching as consumers, men focus on the sexual pleasure. When watching as a researcher, one sees clearly the cruelty and degradation, and after a while it gets overwhelming psychologically. I coped with those feelings by talking with friends and political allies in the movement who also have had to deal with that, as have researchers and activists who have confronted other issues that illustrate the human capacity to dehumanize others. But there is something particularly difficult, I think, about seeing inhumanity turned into sexual pleasure.

Q: You’ve called yourself a feminist; how did you become a feminist?
A: By reading feminist writers and getting to know feminist activists, I came to realize that feminism is not a threat to men but a gift to us. Feminism is a way of understanding how hierarchy works, which gives men a coherent way to struggle to be more fully human in a male-supremacist system that provides us with unearned privilege. Working in movements for justice for women has given me a way to combat the dominant culture’s toxic conception of masculinity, which is not only dangerous to women but also unfulfilling for most men.

Q: Do you think pornography is the most pressing issue facing feminism?

A: I don’t think there is any single issue that is most pressing. In the contemporary world we face multiple crises on all fronts—economic and ecological, political and social. We are an empire in decline and a culture in collapse. The most pressing issue for feminism, and all other social movements, is to recognize that and start to plan for the dramatic, and no doubt painful, changes ahead in the coming decades.

Q: How would you respond to a woman who says she feels empowered by her work in the porn or sex industry?
A: I don’t tell women how to think or what to do, but it’s clear that talk of empowerment in any realm has to first ask, “What kind of power?” Can working in the sexual-exploitation industries of pornography, stripping and prostitution offer real power to women—the kind of power that will help create a more just and sustainable world? We all live within systems that are structured on a domination/subordination dynamic. We try to cope the best we can with these hierarchies. There’s no one answer to the question of how best to do that, but we have to at least be honest about the nature of the systems.

Q: How has writing this book informed your opinion on the state of masculinity?
A: In the dominant culture, masculinity is marked by control, conquest and domination. I used to think we needed to find a more humane concept of masculinity, but after this research I’ve concluded that we need to eliminate the idea altogether. By that, I mean we need to reject the belief that, beyond basic biological differences, there are clear sex-specific traits in regard to our intellectual, psychological or moral development. The basic physical differences between female and male humans may well give rise to some other inherent differences between men and women, but in obsessing over those differences we usually miss the ways in which we are similar. I don’t want to reform masculinity but rather abolish it. Instead of searching for masculine and feminine norms, I think we should focus on human norms.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: Paradoxical as it may seem, I want people to face the depth of the inhumanity of this culture and, at the same time, renew their commitment to political activism and struggle. Pornography is a reflection of the culture, and we can learn from it. What we learn is not pretty but is necessary to confront. From there, we can imagine the kind of radical political activity that is necessary and start to rebuild movements of all kinds—around issues of gender and racial justice, economic and international cooperation, and ecological sustainability.

Jensen teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics. His research draws upon a variety of critical approaches to media and power. His other books include “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege,” “Citizens of Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” and “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.”

Alum’s Book Parodies Pregnancy Guide

In a spoof on the pregnancy self-help book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Mary K. Moore (BJ ’96) spotlights the absurd moments of pregnancy and shakes the sugar-coating off symptoms.

Sure to brighten the day of any woman, “preggars” or not, Moore’s book delivers tongue-in-cheek advice on everything from how to know when baby prepping reaches a level of paranoia to picking a name to the do the dos and don’ts of “postpartum partying.”

A former New York editor for publications like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, Moore admits she’s not a guru, doctor, or parenting expert but has fallen in love with being a mother to her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett.

The sassy mother-daughter duo lives with husband/dad T.J. in Austin.

The Unexpected When You’re Expecting: A Parody” was published by Sourcebooks last September.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov./Dec. 2008 issue of The Alcalde. For further reading, check out the Austin American-Statesman’s Nov. 4 story about Moore’s work, “She’s expecting a book.”

Alum's Book Parodies Pregnancy Guide

In a spoof on the pregnancy self-help book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Mary K. Moore (BJ ’96) spotlights the absurd moments of pregnancy and shakes the sugar-coating off symptoms.

Sure to brighten the day of any woman, “preggars” or not, Moore’s book delivers tongue-in-cheek advice on everything from how to know when baby prepping reaches a level of paranoia to picking a name to the do the dos and don’ts of “postpartum partying.”

A former New York editor for publications like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, Moore admits she’s not a guru, doctor, or parenting expert but has fallen in love with being a mother to her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett.

The sassy mother-daughter duo lives with husband/dad T.J. in Austin.

The Unexpected When You’re Expecting: A Parody” was published by Sourcebooks last September.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov./Dec. 2008 issue of The Alcalde. For further reading, check out the Austin American-Statesman’s Nov. 4 story about Moore’s work, “She’s expecting a book.”

Alum’s Science Fiction Book Tackles Dangers of Global Warming

Imagine a world where ungodly temperatures create a hell on Earth for mankind. This heat leads to a frightening evolution of living things.

Animals grow at astronomical rates; monstrous creatures roam the Earth. The power of photosynthesis rises to new heights. Giant plant-life towers to the skies and challenges the agricultural industry. The city of Dallas becomes so polluted that humans must live underground where they can escape the mighty beasts.

This is the scenario in University of Texas at Austin alumna Perla Sarabia Johnson’s (BJ ’83) first book, the science fiction thriller “Global WarNing” (PublishAmerica, 2008). Against this dire backdrop, protagonist Dustin Jones works valiantly to protect mankind from Mother Nature’s revenge when he finds comfort in Heidi Hendricks, an attractive woman with a mysterious past.

Sarabia Johnson will be in Round Rock this Saturday, Nov. 22, for a book signing from noon to 2 p.m. at the Hastings Books & Music Video (2200 South I-35, behind Walgreen’s).

While conducting research for the book, she interviewed several experts in their field including Fabien JG Laurier, program officer for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program; Dan Ton, grid integration team leader of the Solar Energy Technologies Program; Samuel Ariaratnam, professor of construction management at Arizona State University; Stephen King, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University; and Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution.

Erica Yeager, publisher of Richardson Living Magazine, says “Perla Sarabia Johnson tackles an important issue in a creative and imaginative way.”

Scholar Examines the Rhetoric of Style

In his latest book, “A Rhetoric of Style” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), Professor Barry Brummett, chair of the Department of Communication Studies, examines the many roles of style in politics, society and culture. There’s even an examination of gun-culture style and its rhetoric in the United States.

One example from the book tells the story of Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott and his masterful handling of a delicate affair in the early 1800s that had a lasting impact on politics—and Scottish fashion.

In 1822, Scott hosted a party for George IV, the recently crowned king of Great Britain. With the Scots examining their identity and their relationship with the British, and George IV coming from a rather short dynasty that began with the German George I (who didn’t speak a word of English), the event had the potential for political disaster.

The savvy Scott—who had a keen understanding of the power of style—instructed the various Scottish clan chiefs to attend the party wearing kilts and regalia made from their clan’s tartan.

While most of the clans had kilts, few of them had tartans to designate their individual clan. So Scott told them to invent something, which they did. Likewise, Scott commissioned a special royal tartan design for King George IV to wear to the party.

The clan-specific tartans were an instant hit, the Scots adopted the system as if it had been passed down through the generations and the “Royal Tartan” was incorporated into the monarchy’s regalia.

Thanks in part to Scott’s strategy of style, political ties between the north and the British were strengthened. To this day, Scots wear their clan-specific tartans for special events and British monarchs wear their Royal Stewart tartan for such events.

Edward Schiappa, author of “Beyond Representational Correctness: Rethinking Criticism of Popular Media,” predicts “A Rhetoric of Style will become a ‘must read, must cite’ book for scholars and students interested in style and especially style in popular culture.”