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We must boldly move out of ‘reptilian’ mode

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In my studies at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication back in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, I remember reading a fascinating article by the respected psychologist Daniel Goleman in which he identified a dramatic shift in communication – and he related it specifically to the news media.

Goleman argued that in order to survive, humans access information that they want to know as well as what they need to know. Funny thing is, Goleman explained that in the news media, these two distinct types of messages aren’t what you might think. Common sense would tell us that we humans would need to know information about impending disasters or catastrophes, and then want to know information about health care reform and economic policies. But, Goleman says, that’s not how it works. Instead, the way information is packaged and delivered to us, we desperately want and feel like we need to hear about car wrecks and oil spills, but we aren’t very interested in consuming information about the latest jobs bill or global environment change. That’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it?

Goleman says the reason is in what he calls the “Reptilian Brain” – you know, the flight or fight center left over from early humans. This is the part of the brain that acts almost entirely on emotion. Recent research suggests that our brains can process this type of information and react to it even before we can intellectualize it in any way. This is very useful if you’re trying to avoid touching a hot stove, but kind of annoying when you find out that a traffic jam is caused by rubber-neckers and not an actual accident.

To complicate matters, Goleman says the reason why our broadcasts, websites and newspapers are filled with so much “Reptilian News” is because we simply cannot help ourselves – we feel as though we have to watch it or listen to it or read it. In other words, we want to be assured that bad things are happening to somebody else, and not to us. After all, if we’re reading about it or watching it on TV, then it’s happening someplace else to someone else. Ah, the “Reptilian Brain” at its finest.

The problem is that this “Reptilian Brain” is taking a devastating toll on decision making in our public institutions – particularly in public schools when it comes to First Amendment issues. In nearly every case of a First Amendment crisis at an American high school in the past several years, I can almost universally point to the situation being made worse because somebody reacted with his or her “Reptilian Brain” instead of responding intellectually.

Therefore, I propose that we journalism educators do all we can to help school administrators, school board members, parents and legislators move from reaction mode into response mode.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

In the fall of 2008, The Puyallup (Wash.) School District enacted its version of the atrocious NEOLA policy and regulation known as “3220/3220R” largely in reaction to pressure following the publication of articles on oral sex by the Emerald Ridge High School’s JagWire. But, just last month, courageous student editors from the district’s three high schools are now asking the PSD, the school board and their legal advisers to respond to the reality of the situation.

I believe the distinction between a reaction and a response is important to make. Let’s agree that accepted definitions of these terms would be:

  • Reaction: A physical or emotional reply to a situation or event; consistent with the “fight or flight” foundations in Goleman’s “Reptilian Brain.”
  • Response: A verbal or written answer; a more highly evolved and intellectual reply.

The American writer and philosopher Orison Swett Marden once said: “Most of our obstacles would melt away if, instead of cowering before them, we should make up our minds to walk boldly through them.” If I have learned anything in my adult life it’s that making critical decisions in reaction to something often solves an immediate problem (this is the reptilian brain serving its purpose), but that decisions made in response to something usually result in effective long-term solutions (this is our intellectual brain at its best).

Clearly, if public institutions and school officials react to every apparent and/or potential threat, those institutions and those officials soon lose all integrity and credibility. Just think about what 3220/3220R does: It reacts to the threat of a lawsuit by enacting policies that are in direct opposition to the very charter and mission of a public secondary school.

On the other hand, institutions and school officials who effectively respond to real and perceived threats engender confidence and trust. And that’s precisely what a new student expression policy could do for everyone in the Puyallup School District – thoughtfully protect the rights and responsibilities of all students and educators, while also protecting the long-term interests of the school district.

Now that’s a win-win-win situation I think all parties can support. Let’s support what’s going on in Puyallup and urge other courageous students, administrators and community members to respond in a similar fashion.

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