Laura Byerley shares this Q&A from the University of Texas, Austin College of Communication.
Robert 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.
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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.