Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Professor Kenneth Andersen Called for Civic Community in 2003. Are We Any Closer?

Kenneth Andersen
Among a speaker’s greatest roles is to call for moral renewal. Any democratic or republican form of government, indeed, any way of life that relies on people sharing a community, requires free, honest, respectful communication. Yet, Kenneth E. Andersen pointed out, in 2003, that we in the United States of America were already losing that sense of community and must work hard to regain it. He bemoaned the problem of the “free rider:”
“Many aspects of what we are talking about are problematic. One of them is the issue of the free rider – the person that takes advantage of the fact that we live by rules and they do not.”
At the 2003 National Communication Association (NCA) Convention in Miami Beach, I heard my former professor Dr. Kenneth E. Andersen deliver the prestigious Caroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture. The convention had gathered thousands of communication scholars, educators, and students. A former president of NCA, Andersen’s topic was, “Recovering the Civic Culture: The Imperative of Ethical Communication.” His thought-provoking talk called for moral renewal. He based that renewal on ethical communication and freedom of speech. Andersen focused his presentation on the NCA’s Credo for Ethical Communication, a document created under his guidance, which began by stating:
“Questions of right and wrong arise whenever people communicate. Ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision-making, and the development of relationships within and across contexts, cultures, channels, and media.”
Yet, Andersen bemoaned the United States’ decreasing sense of civic community and ethical involvement. He noted the increasing tendency of people who tried to triumph by ignoring the rules that everyone else follows. As he explained, civic engagement requires us all to respect the rights of people to communicate with one another.

Although there are several ways to deal with the free rider, Andersen suggested that the most important was for us to work – as an entire society – to insist on moral standards. After all, he explained, laws do not provide our most important guidance. Andersen explained that true guidance comes from a society that cherishes citizenship:
“Create a culture, a set of practices and norms. Perhaps the society should be best known for the laws it does not need to enact.”
But if we do not need to enact so many laws, we must let common values guide us. Ethical communication must be among those values. Andersen’s view of civic involvement entails that citizens respect the basic norms of a free society governed by the people themselves. That sense of civic commitment requires the nation to reject totalitarianism and respect people’s different opinions and needs. Andersen continued:
“The communication process as it has and is being utilized has played a significant role in the decline of the civic culture. Altering communication activity can play a significant role in rebuilding the civic culture.”
Accordingly, in words that presaged the political clashes that we face in 2024, Andersen pointed out the great conflict between two opposing views of community. The authoritarian view holds that a nation needs strong guidance from above, while the other places confidence in our fellow citizens. The authoritarian view obviously invites the free rider, for totalitarian leaders seize power to ignore their own rules. Andersen explained:
“Many commentators see the world as caught between two great clashing views, one that would freeze time and individuals or return us to some better, previous state or what it is believed to have been. As we age many of us remember a past that never was. This view involves holding to existing standards and patterns, to what was and is and thus ought to be. The other view or want of a better term might be termed ‘modern,’ envisioning a progressive evolutionary change allowing different standards and patterns. Loaded words I know.”
The first of those views, which clings to an often-imaginary past, steals peoples’ free choice. Do not Andersen’s words resonate today? The greatest irony of 2024’s political climate is that the people who scream most loudly about freedom are often the first to demand their own freedom at the expense of others. That view predictably unleashes the free rider. Yet, if we live by ethical principles, Andersen points out, we will share by free expression and speech, respect one another’s views, and value truth and critical thinking. If we do those things, we still might restore the United States’ civic culture.

However, Andersen insisted that an ethical civic culture requires that we all accept a free society’s values. We form a community only when we agree to respect one another:
“We cannot live more morally with other individuals than they are willing to live with us.”
In other words, a society full of free riders – people who enforce the rules but do not follow the rules – makes good people feel precarious.

Indeed, a free society flourishes when people understand and accept their community’s civic values. That is why so much of civic community comes from education. That does not mean political indoctrination. Andersen did not talk about urging students to support one political party or another. Instead, he pointed out that students need to learn to evaluate the information that modern mediated communication floods across the airwaves. Accordingly, students need to learn critical thinking and evaluation. Andersen explained:
“We need to assist students in developing strategies for dealing with the mass communication stimuli coming at us.” 
Professor Andersen gave this talk, so critical to the communication discipline, more than 20 years ago. I question whether we have made any progress. On the contrary, the increasing disregard for factual communication only symbolizes our nation’s failure to commit itself to a common community. Wild conspiracy theories run rampant. Free riders infest the political scene.

Worse, too many people in 2024 reject the very concept of rational thinking. Shockingly, the failure of facts symbolizes that failure. Immature Internet memes replace factual dialogue. The prestigious Annenberg School of Communication established the first major fact-checking website,, to call out public figures who misrepresent the truth. Sadly, this noble enterprise has met with utter failure: although does a major service, the professional liars who infest American public life in 2024 casually dismiss its well-researched findings as liberal bias. Needless to say, no free rider can tolerate facts.

Our 2024 presidential campaign does little to restore public confidence in national integrity. The leading Democratic candidate for the presidency, Joseph Biden, is an admitted plagiarist. Not only did he fail a law school course for plagiarism, but he admitted that he had repeatedly quoted other politicians without attribution. His opponent, Donald Trump, has been charged with dozens upon dozens of serious crimes and loudly boasted (on a sound recording!) about assaulting women sexually – and no one seems to care. Neither man has fared brilliantly on, although Trump’s endless duplicity has almost overwhelmed the fact checkers. Trump won PolitFact’s Lie of the Year Award on three separate occasions.

In the 2003 Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture, Andersen pointed out that civic community requires mutual respect, integrity, honesty, and compassion for others. He warned us of free riders, the people who thrive by forcing other people, but never themselves, to do the right thing. Andersen called for higher education to lead the way, not by partisanship, but by teaching compassion, mutual respect, and critical thinking. Is that too much to ask? 

By William D. Harpine

Copyright © 2024, William D. Harpine

Image: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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