Monday, February 18, 2013

More on Lerner

While I tend to take a lot of what Mary said about Western or American jingoism and agree with it, I couldn’t help but feel that Lerner’s (1958) definition of empathy contained nuances that are worth exploring more. Lerner picked an interesting part of the world to make his argument, but nonetheless he offered a descriptive, if biased, view of the transition from traditional society to a modern western-influenced society.

In his article he offered a parable to describe the contradictions many individuals in the Middle East faced, between traditional values and limitations and modern ambitions and temptations. The great multiplier in this transition was mass media; the exposure to which Lerner suggested led to empathy. But empathic capacity, he argued, only occurred in societies that were “industrial, urban, literate, and participant”, and that “traditional society is non-participant” and more isolated (p.430). Lerner seemed to suggest that the Middle East was clamoring to be like the U.S. 

Next, Lerner offered a dichotomous definition of the “mechanisms” of empathy. According to the author it can be a projection of one’s own attributes onto some other object or person, or it can be the reverse, introjection, which is the incorporation of aspects of the object onto the self. This skill, he suggested, is a necessary one, particularly in a world where technology not only opens up the world to increased in-person interactions between different people and cultures, but mass media too increases what he called a “psychic mobility”. Mass media has amplified individuals’ abilities to “imagine themselves as strange persons in strange situations, places and times” (p.431). This psychic mobility, he posited, offers individuals numerous vicarious experiences. 

Lerner seemed to assign these two forms of empathy to individuals with very different forms of experiences: introjection to the displaced traveler who is actually there, and projection to the more vicarious armchair explorer. For the displaced traveler, real-world cross-cultural encounters force him or her to confront stereotypes, respond to immediate stimuli, and “discharge interior tensions”. These “interior tensions”, I would argue, are the individual’s own preconceptions about the host culture. On the other hand, the vicarious traveler experiences the foreign culture not up close, but through the devices of mass media. The environment he or she experiences is not a complex one, but an overly simplified one, filtered and presented that way through mass media. Lerner mentioned that this passive traveler has no such “discharge channel” as the displaced traveler does. He or she can only imagine how life is organized in different lands and is stuck with one’s own interior tensions. 

One might argue that networked communication is erecting a bridge to empathy in ways that mass communication has never been able to. This is not to say that networked communication leads to world peace, but social media in particular has been instrumental in creating a participant society that responds to stimuli in an immediate way. Unlike mass communication’s vicarious experience, networked communication offers a more visceral experience. Social media has created a lot of virtually displaced travelers, who despite not really being at the source of a conflict, are plugged in as such to react and mobilize in ways that are very different than the experiences of the armchair travelers Lerner identified. How many Americans 50 years ago actually interacted with individuals from other countries? Today a dialogue occurs between people on opposite ends of the globe in real time. 

In the last section Lerner wrote that, “the media spread psychic mobility most effectively among peoples who have achieved in some measure and antecedent conditions of geographic and social mobility” (p.432). Malala Yousafzai used a blog to reflect the inequality of access to education between girls and boys in Pakistan. It's not everywhere that young girls are shot in the head for believing that they have a right to be educated. When a window is open onto the world for a young girl in Pakistan who wants to do something with her life beyond simply having babies, I think that kind of social change only occurs in conjunction with systems of media. Despite being somewhat haughty about Western culture, I think Lerner still makes a fairly effective argument about the correlation of media systems and social change, that they tend to shift together. 

Lerner, D. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society. In Peters, J. & Simonson, P. (eds.) (2004). Mass communication and American social thought. pp. 426-434. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., MD.

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