So far in our exploration of communication ethics we’ve looked at self-reflection and the personal of evaluating our own ideas of “the Good,” we’ve looked at how we balance that with “the Other” in the public sphere, and we’ve engaged the idea of organizational communication ethics as a “dwelling place.” This discussion builds on the concepts of organizational communication ethics and extends our engagement to intercultural ethics. I’ll use the idea of “community of memory” as is expressed through organizational communication ethics, and then demonstrate the intercultural communication experience of “rhetorical interruption” as experienced in an organization.
In my vlog post on dwelling place as an organizational communication ethics, I developed the concept of the “saying” and the “said” (get the full overview here). The “saying” refers to “the current living practices that manifest a given good” while “the ‘said’ refers to memories of past and current public practices that form a substrate for future communicative action” (Arnett, Harden-Fritz, & Bell., 2009. p. 142). The saying is the communicative practices of the moment; the “said” is the public story of the organization: the mission statement, written policies and procedures, and the like (Arnett et al., 2009). The said becomes a “community of memory, … [an] organization conscience, retaining what a given organization deems as good” (Arnett et al., 2009. p. 145). This community of memory is reinforced by “the saying, the daily communicative practices” of an organization (Arnett et al., 2009. p. 147). Most often, this community of memory is bound up in stories, stories that give meaning to the events that occur over the life of the organization. As the saying shifts due to the temporal issues of the historical moment, the meaning of the events stored in the community of memory will change. If this back and forth between the saying and the said remains fluid and vibrant, the organization will effectively protect and promote its stated good.
I’ve been affiliated with many organizations with a community of memory, but an example that stands out is that of the religious denomination of my youth. This organization had a rich community of memory, based on stories of its evolution from the Protestant traditions in the US in the late 1800s, through to the modern day. An essential good of this organization was the Christian brotherhood, and to protect that brotherhood, the organization viewed political neutrality as a chief good. They believed that if your Christian brothers were in any and every country, then it would be a moral violation to pick up arms against that brother. A prominent element of the community of memory during my time in the church (1970s-2000) involved the stories of those church members who had lost their lives maintaining political neutrality in the face of religious persecution. I grew up with stories of those who had died in Nazi concentration camps, in Siberian prison camps, and in Ugandan massacres rather than deny their faith. We also heard stories of those in the US and Western Europe who endured prison sentences rather than participate in compulsory military service.
This organization had a built-in mechanism for managing the balance of the saying and the said, a concept known as “new light.” If an old policy or belief became obviously wrong or outdated, then it could be replaced and changed as part of a spiritual revelation to church leaders of “new light.” As a result, the organization was able to adapt and change polices (segregation of churches, men of color in leadership roles, changes to positions on compulsory service) without violating another good of the organization, the good that the church leaders were being directed on policy by Holy Spirit. Further, the community of memory related to brotherhood created a culture within the church that led to its being one of the most racial integrated religious organizations in the world.
This leads us to the transition from organizational communication to intercultural communication. “Culture is a communicative background that provides meaning and stability to human life” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 156). While we may think of culture as involving ethnicity, country of origin, or background, organizations become their own forms of culture, with community of memory as “the background scene that makes sense of foreground communicative action” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 156). Organizations must balance the shared culture of the organization as a whole with the diverse cultural backgrounds of its individual members. When we encounter a culture different from our own, there will be a disruption to that background scene and our sense of routine drawn from our own culture. This “rhetorical interruption” is a reminder that “we are on the outside looking into a culture other than our own” (Arnett et al,. 2009, p. 164).
Thus, with a religious organization that promotes the good of a spiritual culture that surpasses any physical notions of culture, there are bound to be rhetorical interruptions for individual members. I had my own experience of rhetorical interruption in the mid-1980s when I tried to date another church member of another race. We were both raised in the denomination, and truly had as a background routine the idea that our religious culture trumped our racial culture. However, his parents, both members of the church, objected to our relationship, based on race. They felt that, should we decide to marry, the challenges to us, even danger to us, would be insurmountable. This was a shock to me, as I didn’t think in terms of race, and I thought that other members of our organization felt the same way. This rhetorical interruption reminded me that no matter how much we were all “brothers in Christ” in the church, that individual cultural issues still made us each outsiders in the culture of the other.
This was one of many times that I experienced the tension between church culture and racial culture. How could these interruptions have been better navigated? As a young idealist, I wasn’t very open to the dialogic principle of learning when I saw (and experienced) church members putting racial issues before church beliefs. However, had there been a more open dialogue in the church about the challenges of navigating difference, rather than just focusing on the idea of being color-blind in Christ, then these types of interruptions might have at least been lessened.
As we explore ideas of communication ethics in this blog series, it becomes clear that we experience communication ethics challenges in every context of human experience. Just as individuals must embrace the idea of learning as the primary tool to navigate the rapidly changing postmodern world, organizations must do the same. And as we engage a diversity of cultures within cultures, we can expect to draw on the tools of communication ethics frequently, if not daily, in our communicative interactions.
Question: Have you ever experienced a rhetorical interruption in an organizational setting? Have you ever found the actions of an organization, or its members, to be out of alignment with its conscience, its community of memory?
Arnett, R.C., Harden-Fritz, J.M., & Bell, L.M. (2009). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.