Sweet Music

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Most of my learning about communications ethics literacy to date has happened at the intersection between theories and real life experiences, primarily at work and in the community. I suppose that is as it should be. But the readings this week provided another unexpected nugget of inspiration: music.

“One cannot force oneself to be a good musician, but if one continues to play and learn content, every now and then emerges a moment between the player and content that takes the music to a place not known before. One cannot demand such revelation, but without the hard work and practice on the content, no revelation will happen.”
(Arnett et al., 2009, pp. 224-225)

An autographed photo from Rampal, when he visited our home to hold a master class

In the distant past, I was a serious flute player. Studied privately with a renowned teacher for the better part of a decade, gave concerts, played in various ensembles including the Charlotte Youth Symphony, all-state band and orchestra, and a group called the Charlotte Flute Choir. Once I got to perform for Jean-Pierre Rampal, one of the greatest professional players of all time, in a master class in my family’s living room.

This is all ancient history, as I haven’t picked up my flute in any significant way since shipping out for college. But the visceral memories of playing are still there, and fortunately they include a few revelatory ones to which the statement above alludes. Certainly playing for Rampal was one of them.

The relevance for communications ethics literacy relates to intentionality of effort. Just as with music, meaning will only come from a concerted (pun intended) effort to apply and share what I have learned. In other words, I have to work at it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 9.15.40 AMThere are some basic lenses that I can peer through to actualize learnings in contexts beyond my studies, such as work, community, family and personal life. For example:

  1. It’s not all about me.
  2. Feed me more narratives, Seymor.
  3. Respect the Other.

These and other guideline are designed to facilitate the communicative good of dialogue, which is vital to discernment. “Dialogue requires that one know the ground from which one speaks, meet the other with a willingness to learn, and learn about the ground from which the Other’s discourse emerges (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 223).” The imperative of a dialogic ethic in all manner of interactions can’t be understated, especially where conflict or disagreement exists.

BAD news: Given the timing of this post, Donald Trump is top-of-mind.

GOOD news: He’s perfect fodder for proving my point.

TrumpTo me, Trump is the antithesis of communications ethics literacy. His most recent statements about prohibiting all Muslims from entering the United States represent an diametrically opposing praxis (been dying to use that term!) for achieving a dialogic ethic.

Following are Trump’s variations on the guidelines above:

  1. It’s only about me. The Donald is primarily motivated to grab attention for himself and “defeating” others in business, politics and his personal life.
  2. My narrative is the only one that counts. He’s not interested in any  story that doesn’t support his worldview. Trump cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an example of a beloved and respected leader who advocated a similar position to his about Muslims when FDR interned U.S. citizens of Japanese and German descent during World War Two. He ignores the fact that FDR’s policy is regarded as an infamous example of racism and abuse of Constitutionally-protected rights of our citizens.
  3. Dis-respect the Other. Trump revels in insulting and belittling those who disagree with him. He frequently describes President Obama and other elected leaders as “losers” and “idiots,” made fun of a reporter with a physical disability, and sneered at the appearance of Carly Fiorina, one of his presidential nominee opponents.

In my professional, community and personal endeavors, seeking dialogue is standard operating procedure for resolving conflict, building consensus, or otherwise working toward mutually beneficial outcomes. More often than not, this is a worthwhile exercise. But it rarely produces something extraordinary or transcendent, an interaction that represents the highest form of communications ethics literacy. Fortunately I’ve had a few revelatory experiences in my life as a musician and otherwise — the ones that marked me indelibly and helped shape me as a communicator, leader and person. With the academic grounding from my studies, I hope there will be more.


Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M. and Bell, L.M (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.


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