Our Existential Communication Question

“It is extremely difficult to excite the enthusiasm of a democratic people for any theory which has not a palpable, direct, and immediate connection with the daily occupations of life…. The habit of inattention must be the greatest bane of the democratic character. I dread, and I confess it, lest they should at last so entirely give way to a cowardly love of present enjoyment as to lose sight of the interests of their future selves and of those of their descendants.” ( Alexis De Tocqueville,”Democracy in America,” 1835)

“… Climate change, pandemics, nuclear war, or antibiotic resistance …. These risks make it increasingly important to extend our perspective beyond our own lifetimes…. Like teenagers confronted suddenly with the consequences of their actions, we are facing a crisis brought on by our short-termism.” (Richard Fisher, “How to Escape the Present,” in “The Long-Term Issue” of MIT Technology Review, Nov-Dec, 2020)

If as a society we want to tackle complex threats to humanity’s well-being — indeed its very existence — the first challenge is to take the future seriously. Almost two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville, the uniquely insightful observer of democracy in general and toddler America in particular, warned that we would be vulnerable to self-destructive myopia. Democracy in this country, he asserted, had already opened vast economic opportunities, and released massive human energy dedicated to achieving prosperity as rapidly as possible. As awesome and beneficial as this obsession was, Tocqueville asserted, it also was blinding us to its potential future consequences.

The prescience (and characteristic wisdom) of Tocqueville struck me when I logged into MIT Technology Review at the end of 2020, a year that in more than one way dramatized the painful costs of the behavior he identified. There, the Review’s “Long-Term Issue” laid out all the depressing problems that even the most passionate, self-flagellating aficionado of doom-and-gloom could possibly want. Fortunately for the rest of us, the same pages offered reasons to be hopeful as well. Of special interest to a communications professional such as me was an essay by Richard Fisher, “How to Escape the Present,” offering fresh and cogent thinking on how to overcome the pathology of “presentism” — the inattention to the future that Tocqueville believed endemic to our culture.

Tocqueville wrote at a time when, in Fisher’s historical perspective, humans were becoming increasingly aware of “deep time” — the eons before and after anything that people had previously imagined time could possibly encompass. Thanks to Newton, Hutton, Darwin et al., “the future” was no longer what it used to be; it was acquiring a new frame of reference to ponder, far beyond the absurdly narrow and simplistic boundaries established by any theology or natural philosophy. Tocqueville, with his depth of knowledge, surely understood that thinking about the future was a more complex matter than in pre-Enlightenment days, even without the swirling torrent of human industriousness he saw in America.

Fisher tells us that people find it especially difficult to focus their attention beyond the present in times of heightened pressures — as in the 2008 financial crisis or in the pandemic of 2020. Then we are most vulnerable to “temporal stresses” that blind us to longer-term dangers. These stresses have always included the problems we feel as immediate threats in our daily life, today exacerbated by information overload and the pace of change around us. Of special importance, I believe, is Fisher’s additional point that the frenetic, technologically distracted and depersonalized environment of contemporary human existence subverts our ability to assign and accept responsibility for solving unprecedented threats to humanity. In relatively unstressful times, he says, people can be better at confronting problems beyond the urgencies of daily life. Those periods, however, have been too few and too brief, yielding woefully inadequate results.

But Fisher is hopeful, warily. He believes that if we concentrate on understanding and relieving the temporal stresses, we can begin to change our myopic “relationship with time.” Further, changes in the cultural norms of our society may help to mitigate our “presentism.” (He was writing before the Georgia runoff election in January of 2021 offered encouraging support for this thesis.) Another reason for Fisher’s hope echoes how Tocqueville described the United States: people here are immature. Nearly two hundred years later, in Fisher’s analogy, we are still mere teenagers whose capacity to solve the problems threatening us has not been tested. This stunted growth is not a reason for despair but a virtue. Now that the severe consequences of our nearsightedness are more visible than ever, they may shock us into action, driven by all the resources of our youthful intellect and energy.

In any case, he warns, we are at a pivotal point — the proverbial “hinge of history.” If we can swing it the right way, hopefulness can evolve into reality.

The odds favoring a positive direction rose sharply with the election of a President replacing a guy who had nearly closed the door on hope. The actions of Biden’s predecessor intensified the burden on the new President, who must address long-looming issues made all the worse by the destructive momentum of the last four years. Obviously, he embraces that responsibility in his emphasis on tackling climate change and other threats. Implicitly, he is also recognizing that the first hurdle to extricating ourselves from the quagmire of presentism is to convince people that the future is rife with clear and present dangers. Yet how can that happen when millions refuse to open their minds to those dangers? In this democracy, that is the existential communication question of the 21st century.

I know that communication professionals and experts in psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines can offer a variety of helpful answers, as does Fisher with his focus on temporal stresses. A communication practitioner would also emphasize that effective communication in any organization (including a whole country) requires a leader who takes such work seriously, expecting subordinates to do the same and setting the right tone and messages from the top. Practical experience with many organizations of various types, supported by laboratory and field research, has shown that the most promising qualities for that kind of leadership are empathy, selfless dedication, and a mind open to the ideas of others.

I think Tocqueville would agree that at the hinge of history we have fresh if agonizingly cautious hope for the future of our democracy.



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Walter Montgomery

Walter Montgomery

Walter G. Montgomery holds a Ph.D. In Chinese history from Brown University and is the retired co-founder and CEO of a leading strategic communications firm.