Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist of Leeds University, was among the participants at the congress on “Media Parables: Creating Culture in the Era of Communication,” regarded as the most important event organized by the Church in Italy this year. The event, which ended Saturday, attracted 8,000 media professionals.
Q: Professor, does the growing flow of messages coming from an ever-greater number of computerized sources affect people’s conscience?
Bauman: Of course. French philosopher Paul Virilio talks about the “information bomb” that is about to explode, even more dangerous than the atomic bomb.
It seemed at one point that the challenge was to unlock the mystery of nature: Once we knew its laws, we thought we would dominate it and subject it to human needs. Today the challenge is how to assimilate the accumulated knowledge and make honest use of it; how to separate the valuable grain of important information from the useless straw.
The flow of information seems to deactivate rather than help thought. There is no time to concentrate, to focus the attention, to reflect. Critical and creative thought needs time to weigh things: But time is a good that the media cannot provide. If Emile Zola had been given the opportunity to defend Dreyfus on television, he would only have had time to cry out “J’accuse! …”
Q: It would seem that global information allows us to know everything, but it does not give us the hope to be able to change anything. Can this feeling of impotence make us indifferent?
Bauman: This is probably the greatest difficulty faced by any effort to enlarge our moral conscience on the global dimension of the problems and duties that we all share. We are bystanders — silent and passive witnesses who see and hear, but who can do little to bring about positive actions and to prevent or block the negative.
Q: How can we move from the state of bystanders to that of active agents?
Bauman: We are not helped to give an answer by the way information is offered. We are given striking images of human poverty, but no one helps us to understand the profound causes and complex mechanisms that increasingly cause the appearance of misery despite our solidarity. We doubt our ability to improve things, as we ignore the connection between what we do — or do not do — and what we are shown on television.
Q: Is there a possible way out?
Bauman: We depend on one another, so we are objectively responsible for our neighbor. What we do or do not do makes a difference in the life and opportunities of others.
Today the decisive step is to assume the responsibility that is already ours and to act as a consequence. However, we are driven to find, in vain, local solutions for global problems, to seek refuge from world anxieties in fortified communities, to construct our own security while abandoning others to their fate.
This may be the natural response to anxiety and fear that we all feel — yes, but it is an ineffective, shortsighted, and losing response. And, in their race for consensus, the media take great care not to disturb their users and unmask the deceit.
Q: To what degree does exposure to the media and to negative messages affect the behavior of those who absorb them, beginning with the youngest?
Bauman: We don’t know. Do people become violent because they see violence in the media or do they ask the media for violence because they live in a violent context?
Politics and marketing need to show what the public wants to see. And what people like to see does not depend only on the media, but on the world in which they live, from which they obtain experiences and interests. If we wish to change the message of the media, something must be done for man and society, beyond addressing the media professionals and silencing them by law.
Q: What type of culture do the media express today?
Bauman: The type of culture that media users recognize as the way of daily living. Talk shows, television serials, and advertisements form a kind of giant mirror in which spectators watch ad infinitum repeated images of their own experience, joys and anxieties, dreams and concerns, everything that is familiar to them.
The message we get is always the same: If you fail, it is your fault; if you are in difficulties, you can count only on your own resources to get ahead. However, I am afraid that it is erroneous and risky to blame the media for what is the fault of society.
Q: How can the Church communicate its message effectively in a cultural context that the times suggest is show business?
Bauman: When the Pope meets with thousands of young people, his message reaches all of them without the need to descend to commitments which the scene dictates. The values remain standing on their own. The less love and good will there is in the “real world,” the more avidly we will desire all the values we have lost.
People who want love, friendship, lasting ties, who want to count on others, who want to feel at home in the company of any human being, these people today are anything but a minority audience.