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In Praise of Sound Bites

In the 1950s, C.P. Snow warned the academic world that it was splitting into “two polar groups”: humanities intellectuals and scientists. Snow, being both a scientist and a novelist, traveled comfortably between these two cultures and discovered that each group thought of the other as if it were from some strange distant country where the natives spoke esoteric languages and conducted mysterious rituals. Snow opined that this break can be blamed on the industrial revolution, a radical transformation in society that took place without the involvement of the intellectuals. In an odd way one could argue that this rift has, if not been healed, at least lessened with the rise of bioethics. While bioethicists have been accused at times of suffering from technophobia and at other times of technophilia, they do strive to engage scientists in an ongoing dialogue about issues that concern both of the cultures.

Yet bioethics may not be unique in bridging the gap between the two cultures. In Academic Instincts, Marjorie Garber notes that the humanities has of late become particularly keen on the interface between the two cultures. She cites “the humanistic fascination with evolutionary psychology, fractals, cybernetics and the history of science”; perhaps bioethics should be thought of as another example of these “periodic rapprochements.” Garber does believe, however, that there is a rift in the intellectual world between two cultures: journalism and academia. “The fact that the former group [journalists] is populated to a certain extent by disaffected members of the latter [academics], and that the latter secretly aspires to be as ‘mainstream’ as the former, only exacerbates the periodic tension between the two.” Of course, as an academic I dream of the day when, as the French are supposedly said to do, our media wish to dedicate their talk shows to the work of intellectuals rather than movie stars. (“Of course, Oprah, I would be more than happy to come back tomorrow and further explain how my communitarian theory of informed consent is a radical break from the prior Kantian models.”) Academics often express their dismay that while the news reporter seemed fascinated by their detailed discussion of a recent issue in the news, the final result seemed to be a comment randomly taken out of context. In general, bioethicists, like most academics, have nothing but disdain for the expectation that they should speak in sound bites.

I think it essential that sound bites be regarded as a particular type of speech genre, which when used adroitly can be as powerful as lengthy philosophical treatises. Rather than peremptorily disdained, the academic sound bite should be thought as akin to another short literary form that has been used in philosophy, the aphorism. Throughout the history of philosophy the aphorism has been employed by a range of thinkers, from Heraclitus to Pascal to Schopenhauer to Wittgenstein. Friedrich Nietzsche was an enthusiastic endorser (actually he claimed to be “the first among Germans to be a master” of the genre); he claimed that it permitted him “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche had his fictional hero explain that aphorisms reveal the dramatic conclusion to our thoughts and not the slow intellectual journey to them: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks.”

In his analysis of the aphorism, Gary Saul Morson contrasts it with another short genre form, the dictum. For Morson, the dictum is a statement in which there is no doubt, for its intention is to demonstrate that the human world is not as puzzling as we may believe it to be. Unlike the aphorism, the dictum portrays a world that has laws and principles. In contrast to this genre, aphorisms present the world as far more complex than we first thought. To borrow Gabriel Marcel’s phraseology, while the dictum expresses a view that the world is a series of problems that can be solved, the aphorism views it as a mystery that can only be explored. As Morson states, “The dictum is a conclusion, the aphorism a beginning.”

Sound bites in bioethics seem most useful when they resemble aphorisms rather than dictums, for bioethics sound bites should not harmonize with the genre of the news story, whose form lends itself to bring closure to our moral dramas, but rather cause dissonance for the reader. Our sound bites often seem to me like dictums (“This case shows a classic contrast between our desire to respect autonomy and our moral duty to protect society”), which reinforce to the reader that our moral world is in the end complete and without variance or impoverishment. The fact that the bioethicist’s sound bite tends to be presented toward the end of a news story rather than at the beginning illustrates how, for the journalist, our statements are used for closing a social drama rather than for creating new ones. So let us praise the sound bite but only when it brings tension rather than comfort, trouble rather than peace, a new beginning rather than a final conclusion.

– Tod Chambers

Published on: May 5, 2006
Published in: Bioethics, Media

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