My contributions to Communication Scholarship

The journey of a journalist (Part 8)

By Shelton A. Gunaratne ©2009

(September 30, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) As I asserted at the start of this series, I was born to be a journalist. I became a prolific and challenging scholar only during the final decade before my retirement. I will leave it up to a younger researcher to sort and analyze all of my journalistic and scholarly output. I have referred to only a sample in this series. I still find it exciting to see my name in print.

Now that I am almost at the end of my journey as a journalist and scholar, I feel that someone other than my nāmarūpa should undertake assessing my 22 years at Minnesota State because events are still too recent for my dispassionate explication. However, I feel that I was able to avoid at Minnesota State many of the pitfalls that my adversaries in Malaysia and Australia had set up to entrap me in dukkha.

I found in Buddhist philosophy the solution to the problems of the drama of human existence (viz., man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus self) and also the Dao or marga (the path) to divert communication scholarship from the quagmire of banal research based on false assumptions toward a more creative and dynamic approach based on realistic assumptions.

Just like Charles Dickens influenced my literary and writing style early in my life, the works of Fritjof Capra, the Austrian-born American physicist who is just one year older than I, influenced my thinking on scholarship late in my life. Despite all its alleged faults on simplistic presentation of Eastern religious philosophies, Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975) convinced me that the Eastern philosophical approaches and quantum physics had so much in common that it made good sense to apply Buddhist and Daoist approaches to scholarship, which had developed as an unrepentant product of Judeo-Christian thinking in the West. Two other books written by Capra, The Web of Life (1997) and The Hidden Connections (2002) impressed me.

My endeavor to introduce Eastern approaches to de-Westernize social science scholarship was reinforced after I read two books written by Amit Goswami, an Indian physicist from Oregon: The Self-Aware Universe (1993) and The Visionary Window (2000).

My post-2000 scholarship represented by The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory (published in 2005) thus stands in contrast to my previous publications, including The Handbook of the Media in Asia (published in 2000), which followed the traditional Western approach.

I owe a huge intellectual debt to Joanna Macy, who wrote the book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (published in 1991) that systematically demonstrated the awesome resemblance between Buddhist philosophy and systems thinking—a resemblance that pleased the Buddhist sociologist Susantha Goonatilake, the author of the delectable book Toward a Global Science (1998 ).

Other scholars who have deeply influenced my post-2000 systems thinking are Immanuel Wallerstein, the originator of world-systems analysis and a merciless critic of social science who asserts that the so-called “scientific method” is a mere Trojan horse implanted to perpetuate the domination of the West over the rest; Ilya Prigogine, who in collaboration with Isabel Stengers, explicated the theory of dissipative structures in the classic Order Out of Chaos (1984); and biologist James Miller, who demonstrated the applicability of the 20 components of a biological system to analyze complex problems at eight hierarchical levels of living systems ranging from cell to supranational system.

Contributions through 2000

I consider the following publications to be the best of my modest scholarly contributions to communication studies through 2000:

* The Taming of the Press in Sri Lanka (Journalism Monographs No. 39). Lexington, Ky.: Association for Education in Journalism, 1975.
* Modernization and Knowledge: A Study of Four Ceylonese Villages (Amic Communication Monograph Series 2). Singapore: Amic. 1976.
* "Old wine in a new bottle: Public journalism, developmental journalism, and social responsibility." (1998). In M. E. Roloff (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 21 (pp. 276-321). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
* Handbook of the Media in Asia. (2000). New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Post-2000 Contributions

Most of my outstanding publications reflecting the incorporation of Eastern philosophical perspectives appeared after 2000. They include the following listed chronologically:

* "Convergence: Informatization, world system and developing countries." (2001). In W. B. Gudykunst, ed., Communication Yearbook 25 (pp. 153- 199). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. This essay won the 2003 Best Article Award of the International Communication Association.
* “Thank you Newton, welcome Prigogine: 'Unthinking' old paradigms and embracing new directions—Part 1 Theoretical distinctions” (2003). Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, 28 (4), 435-455.
* The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory (2005), Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
* “Public diplomacy, global communication, and world order: An analysis based on theory of living systems” (2005). Current Sociology, 53 (5), 749-772.
* “A Yijing view of world-system and democracy” (2006). Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 33 (2), 191 - 211
* “Public Sphere and Communicative Rationality: Interrogating Habermas's Eurocentrism” (2006). Journalism & Communication Monographs, 8 (2).
* “Falsifying two Asian paradigms, and de-Westernizing science” (2008). Communication, Culture & Critique, 1(1) 70-83.
* “Globalization: A non-Western perspective—the bias of social science/ communication oligopoly” (2009). Communication, Culture & Critique, 2 (1), 60-82.
* “Buddhist goals of journalism and the news paradigm” (2009). Javnost—the Public, 16 (2), 61-76.
* “Emerging global divides in media and communication theory: European universalism versus non-Western reactions” (2009). Asian Journal of Communication, 19 (3)

Pointing Out to Future

1. Instead of reifying social science, non-Western scholars in particular have an ethical obligation to de-Westernize all dimensions of journalism and communication studies.

In The Dao of the Press, I exposed the irrefutable biases of the classic four theories of the press—authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility and communist—popularized by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm since the mid-’50s. They focused on the Enlightenment view of a libertarian press as the ideal, and categorized the main deviations from it into three other broad “theories.” The writings of Edward Said on Orientalism and Eurocentrism convinced me that Enlightenment thinking was an assertion on the supremacy of the West, rather than a universal reflection of human thought. The four-theories-of-the-press design vitiated the objective grounding touted as a pre-requisite needed to build a scientific theory of the press.

2. Focus on building more challenging “humanocentric” theories that reflect the cultural, political and economic experiences of all human beings in the context of their own environments, thereby helping to reduce anthropocentrism

I have introduced a “humanocentric” theory of the press (a theory that goes beyond the experiences of the Western people) by grounding it on ti-lakkhana (the Buddhist view of existence)—anatta (no-self/ interdependence), anicca (impermanence/ change) and dukkha (suffering/ unsatisfactoriness). The concept of anatta asserts that everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent. (Physics has established that everything in the cosmos is interconnected by electricity, magnetism, gravity, and strong and weak forces.). Thus, the study of parts without the context of the whole can produce unreliable results because it fails to take into account the impact of emergence, the unique “extra something” that only the whole can engender through the interaction of all its parts. [This is why we assert that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.]

Yet, this is what many scholars do. They follow the mechanical linear model that arose from the “philosophic/ scientific” thinking of Rene Descartes (Cartesius, who died in 1650) and Isaac Newton (d. 1727). They conduct reliability tests, which are “unreliable” because everything is anicca (subject to ongoing change) and no event is repeatable to produce the identical result. The interaction of anatta and anicca brings about dukkha (unsatisfactoriness).

The static Cartesian-Newtonian model presumes the existence of independent variables in contrast to the Buddhist assertion that everything is interdependent as explicated in the operational dynamics of the paticca samuppada (dependent co-arising) model of 12 nidānas (conditional factors). Researchers have often used the C-N model to analyze the linear effect of independent variables on a dependent variable taking refuge in the ceteris paribus (“all other things being equal”) excuse. The anicca concept in Buddhist philosophy does not permit the ceteris paribus presumption because it violates the reality of ongoing change in an interdependent whole.

3. Begin with the whole before focusing on the part, and concede the limitations of the Western definition of science. This Buddhist approach is consistent with systems thinking.

Science claims its eminence on objectivity and testability. But most complex phenomena in the universe are not objectively measurable. Quantum theory asserts that objectivity is an oxymoron. Moreover, science alone is unable to explain the universe as a whole without recourse to philosophy and theology. Thus I ask: If the Buddhist assertion that everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent is empirically not testable, does that make it a falsehood?

Science limits itself severely by using “testability” as the criterion for its supposed independence from philosophy. This vitiates the Buddhist assertion that nothing is independent. If “science” is incapable of “testing” complex phenomena at the universal or holistic level, then long-standing ontological (metaphysical) assertions should command the same authority as epistemological (empirically tested) assertions until disproved.

4. Blending Western theories with related theories from non-Western cultures is one avenue available for developing humanocentric theories.

In The Dao of the Press, I outlined a theory of communication outlets and free expression (TCOFE) by blending the key concepts of Western and Eastern philosophies appertaining to the press system that one can recognize as opposites or complements that befit the Chinese yin-yang principle. Because Buddhism denies the existence of absolute freedom by emphasizing anatta (no-self/interdependence), a socially responsible journalism is much more important from the Eastern perspective than a putative free press. Therefore, my theory should be renamed TCORJ, the last two letters standing for “responsible journalism.” I have demonstrated how TCORJ works in a revised explanation in my 2007 essay “Let many journalisms bloom: Cosmology, Orientalism, and freedom” China Media Research, 3 (4), 60-73.

5. Explicate the unique opportunities offered by Buddhist journalism, which no other genre of journalism—developmental, civic/ public, peace, etc.—is able to offer to improve the quality of journalism, journalists and their profession.

I have illustrated (in my2009 Javnost article and elsewhere) how the Noble Eightfold Path, including the Four Noble Truths and the operational mechanism of paticca samuppada (dependent co-arising), offers the framework for a universally applicable normative theory of the press, a TCORJ. Because this Buddhism-based normative theory is more humanocentric/ universalistic than the Westcentric social responsibility theory, non-Western scholars could apply the goals of Buddhist journalism to compare and contrast the traits of the contemporary output of journalism that reflects the instrumental materialistic weaknesses of the dominant/Western news paradigm.

6. Concede that rights cannot exist without concomitant responsibilities within the framework of Asian philosophy. The notion of (human) rights sans responsibilities is a Western philosophical construct based on a transcendental faith in individual sovereignty. Asian philosophy reflects the ti-lakkhana—impermanence, interdependence and unsatisfactoriness.

The concept of “inalienable rights” is based on the Western philosophical belief in individual freedom: God created the human and gave him/her free will irrespective of responsibilities. (This is the root of individualism in Western society.) Therefore, this concept defies Western science. Buddhism, on the other hand, asserts that the human is interdependent (anatta) with his/her environment, and is free only to the extent that his/her freedom does not adversely impinge on the environment. Therefore, no rights can exist without responsibilities. Asian scholars are duty bound to edify Western champions of freedom of the press on this crucial difference in perspectives.

Next: Part 9—A second internship in ‘step land’

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University, Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of S. Easparathasan, D. C. Jayakuru, W. Monnankulame, D. B. Ranatunge, and S. G. Tennekoon, all of whom were his contemporaries in Peradeniya, c. 1960.]
-Sri Lanka Guardian