Print

Students parrot, "Every story has two sides!"

This response has ceased to mean anything beyond, "I've said what I think you expect to hear."

"Every story has two sides!"

To many well-intended souls, this cliche; absolves the speaker from honoring the responsibilities that all promises entail. Somewhere along the line, the commitment to seek the truth by listening to diverse points of view has collapsed into a truism-everything exists in opposites. Therefore, flipping through the Master Stereotype File containing the alphabetized and cross-listed antithetical poles of belief will produce the ideal pair of verbal combatants whose skirmishes will reveal the best and worst consequences. Student reporters sometimes see the limitations of this approach, especially if they study ethics.

In ethics class, aspiring reporters learn to avoid extremes, to follow Aristotle's middle path. However, once again-just as in many of the newswriting exercises-the world splits neatly into two pieces, in this instance, cowardice and foolhardiness.

The Golden Mean certainly points out the need to consider a third option, the optimum action that enables individuals to draw upon personal strengths to behave ethically; nevertheless, it is couched in the frame of the universal challenge: choosing between opposites, but these two poles are joined by a continuum, not separated by a gulf. The final step of rejecting the idea that there are only two extremes leads to the realization that not only do other options exist but indeed may be better.

The notion of gray areas between extremes leads naturally into S. I. Hayakawa's ideas about "two-valued orientation." Both Aristotle and Hayakawa remind students that a complex world seldom can be explained merely through considering "two sides." Two-valued orientation innately appeals to human beings who had to survive before technology empowered them to develop agriculture. To this day, many people still live in an "us" and "them" world where either someone agrees with them or is an enemy. Some Republicans proclaim that all "liberals" endanger "America," and some Democrats consider all "conservatives" to be right-wing fanatics. Neither perspective leads to the compromise essential in passing effective legislation. Without respect, or willingness to look for a middle ground, citizen debates devolve into hateful shouting matches.

Television and the Internet have also contributed to knee-jerk two-valued orientation. For example, when O. J. Simpson went on trial accused of murdering his wife and her friend, folks bought T-shirts either declaring "He did it!" or "He's innocent!" They suited up for their "justice" team daily until the verdict finally was announced. Then, they moved on to something else that lent itself to "insider"/"outsider" or "us"/"them" profiling. Some issues, like abortion or gay rights, fit into this continuum of just two extremes where angels sit at one end and devils at the other.

To see the shades of gray in ethical situations, students need to discover the advantages of "multi-valued" orientation over "two-valued" orientation. Hayakawa's seminal book on general semantics, Language in Thought and Action, explores the perversity inherent in rewarding citizens for closing their minds. For example, he points out that the German Nazis labeled everything either "Aryan" or "not-Aryan." They categorized lions as Aryan but rabbits as not-Aryan. Even silverware and sheet music received labels. The Japanese qualified as Aryan because Hitler said so while for the same "reason" Polish citizens were denounced as not-Aryan. Such irrational outcomes illuminate the false nature of limiting consideration to just two diametrically opposed options.

On the other hand, multi-valued orientation recognizes the value in listening to everyone who wishes to participate in the grand public conversation. The Golden Mean could be expanded to suggest that ethical people seek the multi-valued orientation that Hayakawa proposes. Then, anyone with a stake in the situation could participate in the decision-making process. The concept of community is enriched by the notion that everyone matters, that one person can make a difference. As Eleanor Roosevelt noted, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

The shadows of doubt and despair prevail in a two-valued society where social harmony surfaces only when all dissent is stamped out and absolute conformity reigns. Innovation is stifled. Creativity dwindles. Cruelty replaces justice, and ignorance eclipses knowledge as the rulers promote bigotry cloaked in superstition to enforce their bogus superiority. The self-proclaimed elite denies everybody the right to read and think freely because education automatically leads to questioning the status quo.

Of course, journalists traditionally are expected to serve the public by questioning the powerful who spend tax money, hopefully for the benefit of the commonwealth. To serve as watchdogs, reporters who follow Aristotle's Middle Path will only find the truth if they also pursue Hayakawa's goal of understanding complex issues through multi-orientation.