Media Literacy and General Semantics

By Hoffmann, Gregg | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Media Literacy and General Semantics


Hoffmann, Gregg, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


AFTER SEVERAL YEARS of involvement in both general semantics and media literacy, I have become convinced that the two "movements"--for lack of a better label--have so much in common that they should really get to know each other.

Don't get me wrong. Some people in both movements already know of each other. Probably the best known of those was Neil Postman, who became a legend for his media ecology program at NYU and writings about media and education. Renee Hobbs, now at Temple University, is another person well aware of the commonalities.

Don Ranly and other people at the University of Missouri have been aware of the potential ties since the days of Earl English heading the school of journalism there. I have openly used general semantics as my theoretical foundation for 20 years of media literacy work at UW-Milwaukee.

But, overall, I do not think that many people in media literacy know much about general semantics and vice versa. They really should. Here's why I say that:

First, many of the foundation principles in both disciplines have similarities, even if the terminology used differs. Media literacy people say media messages are constructions. GSers say we create maps of the territory, including media maps.

Many media literacy people say we negotiate the meaning of media messages. GSers talk about abstracting and self-reflexiveness; the mapmaker inevitably influences the map.

Media present values and ideologies in their messages, say many in the media literacy movement. GSers talk about the dangers of "paradigm paralysis" and allowing higher order abstractions to entrap us and prohibit us from actually exploring the territory. Many of us involved in GS also use a variety of tools to decipher underlying motives and values within communication.

Other theoretical similarities exist, but the commonalities between the two disciplines do not stop there. When you start to look at how the disciplines have traditionally been spread through their respective movements, you can see other commonalities.

Both media literacy and GS attract people of varying disciplines. Within the media literacy movement, you have people involved in journalism, TV entertainment, advertising, film, news media, traditional and alternative education, the arts, etc. Within the general semantics movement, we have psychologists, language arts teachers, lawyers, scientists, artists, media people, businesspersons, etc.

Naturally, these individuals from varying backgrounds bring their own perspectives to the overall fields. Each practices his or her own version of media literacy or general semantics.

This can serve as both a strength and weakness in the movements. First, I believe it shows a strength that the two disciplines can be applied across these different disciplines. It demonstrates to me that both can be used holistically, in what has become a world of specializations and fragmentation. …

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