"Sorry, Ms. Gump, but Life is NOT a Box of Chocolates"

2008 Presidential Address
78th Annual Convention of the
Southern States Communication Association
Savannah, GA
April 4, 2008

Craig Allen Smith

North Carolina State University
We gather this week in the historic Southern city of Savannah. Previous visitors have included James Oglethorpe who, in 1732 founded the colony of Georgia, and General William Tecumseh Sherman who in 1864 here concluded his notorious March of destruction. The Executive Council harbors no illusions that our visit will prove as momentous as that of Oglethorpe, and they have reason to expect that we will leave the area in better condition than did Sherman's Army. But many of us have seen the detritus generated by the Osborn reception, and we are less certain.
Many of you here today first visited Savannah to see the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low. But popular culture has helped many of us to associate Savannah's beautiful homes with the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the parks and benches with one Forrest Gump.
The character of Forrest Gump liked to tell people that, "My mama always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get." With all the respect due to that fictional character's fictional mama, I feel obliged to take issue with her maxim.  I'm sorry, Ms. Gump, but life is not a box of chocolates.
My first objection is that any box of chocolates (or bowl of cherries for that matter) consists of discrete, unconnected things. Eat one chocolate and the others are unaffected. To the best of our knowledge the nougats feel no fear, the almonds no jealousy. Chocolates in a box need no food, water or love to survive, and they cannot grow. (They can grow mold, but that's another matter).  I am aware of no evidence that chocolates seek self-actualization. You can act upon a chocolate and you can set a chocolate in motion, but a chocolate cannot act. And life cannot be said to be constituted of things that cannot act.
Moreover, life is systemic. Living things draw upon their environment for sustenance; we change our environment, our environment changes us, and we change one another. Humans do so both physically and symbolically. And as humans we are inclined to think that this makes us superior to the chocolates in the box. Yet we must acknowledge that we often use that supposed superiority in shameful ways.
It is difficult to imagine the chocolates developing shared identities that divide the white chocolates from the dark chocolates and the milk chocolates, or to divide the domestic chocolates from the imported ones. It is also difficult to imagine the tough, chewy candies trying to scare the jelly-filled candies so that they will live in constant fear that they will be devoured, and therefore trade their liberty for possible security. Although there may be a bunch of nuts in the box, it is hard to conceive of them calling into talk shows and influencing the other candies in the box.  And it is inconceivable that the chocolates could heat their environment to the point that they would melt themselves…only the owner of the box could do that. So unlike chocolates, living things act and are interconnected in systems or networks.
My second objection is that is that to equate life with a box of chocolates is to discount the fact that living things need. To live is to need, and to seek at least partial satisfaction of those needs. Much of our lives ought to be devoted to ascertaining the needs of others so that we mutually, or at least compatibly, satisfy our needs. Chocolates have no needs, and those who devour them need worry only about their own needs (will this spoil my diet? Will others think me greedy?). If life were like a box of chocolates we would each think only of ourselves, and never of anyone else's needs. And to the extent that some people approach life that way, it is a view of life that is inattentive to communication.
My third objection is to the premise that "you never know what you're gonna get" in a box of chocolates. This clearly dismisses the importance of reason, logic and wisdom. Stephen F. Whitman began producing chocolates in 1842, but his company's "Whitman's Sampler" did not appear until 1912. Prior to 1912, then, a "box" of chocolates was a box of chocolate covered sugar plums, or fruits or nuts – in short, you knew what you were going to get unless you had an incompetent or deceitful clerk. Perhaps Ms. Gump's maxim drew upon her fictional childhood circa 1912, when the first Samplers appeared.
Today the Whitman's Sampler and its siblings from Russell Stover -- yes, Stover now owns Whitman's candy – Today Stover and Whitman map the candies for us inside the lid. Therefore, only a "knucklehead" can not know what is to be found where in a box of chocolates. I sense the need to be more precise. By a "knucklehead", I do not mean an individual low in intelligence, ability to discriminate or educational attainment; a "knucklehead" is one who chooses to ignore information, instructions, guidance and available mentoring in order to maximize mystery, excitement and the prospect of disappointment. Members of this species can be found among students. The knuckleheads are the ones who choose to disregard textbooks, lectures and/or syllabi in favor of their instincts. They may be found among our authors who choose to disregard the advice and reviewers and editors, and among faculty who disregard their institutions' standards for promotion and tenure and the advice of their senior colleagues and department heads. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was roundly chided for saying, "We don't know what we don't know." Well, there are things that are unknowable and I don't what all of them are; but surely the contents of a box of chocolates is not foremost among them. Ms. Gump's maxim advises people to ignore available evidence and guidance, and to surrender unnecessarily to fate and mystery when they could reason with evidence toward a conclusion. 
Thus far I have argued that Ms. Gump's maxim that "Life is like a box of chocolates" ignores the systemic nature of living things, that it discounts the fact that all living things have needs worthy of respect and that it encourages people to ignore available evidence and wisdom and to submit themselves unnecessarily and unwisely to mystery and the thrill of failure.
I raise these issues today because I want to argue that they are central to what we teachers, students, scholars and practitioners of communication do. I want to argue that; but I am not entirely comfortable doing so. Perhaps you can help me by reflecting on three questions with me.
First, if we accept the interdependent, systemic nature of living things and if we agree that communication entails both sending and receiving within some kind of relationship or community, why do so many of our departments insist of fragmenting the undergraduate Communication major? 
The larger our departments the more likely we are to have cohorts of majors who focus on parts of the proverbial elephant. "I major in interpersonal" they say, "not media, rhetoric or public relations" as if their interpersonal relations require no rhetorical adaptation to situations, or are unaffected by the shift from letters to instant messaging and cell phones. Too often we well intentioned faculty devise curricula that require our students to value the terministic screens that insulate them from their natural curiosity about the totality of human communication. Consequently, we too often wind up with graduates narrowly prepared to understand life in all its complex communicative complexity.
As our institutions increasingly call for interdisciplinarity, it behooves us to reflect upon what is truly important for those who major in Communication to know. I want to suggest that we reconsider the core concerns of those who would proclaim themselves Communication majors. I suggest that they include:
  1. an understanding of the communication process from multiple theoretical perspectives, and the ways it can be studied,
  2. an understanding of the ethics of human communication,
  3. an understanding of symbolic influence, including persuasion and argumentation,
  4. an ability to critically evaluate messages, and
  5. an understanding of the evolutionary interdependence of communication and society.
It seems to me that these five concerns both undergird and transcend our specialties, but they are too often lost in the shuffle of curricular revisions. Each of our departments can approach these five concerns in our own ways, but if we lose sight of them we risk failing to teach the systemic nature of the communication process that our majors seek to understand. 
My second question is why we spend so much time on expression if we truly believe that all persons are worthy of respect. Students often emphasize "getting my point across" and it seems that everyone posts information on My Space or blogs. But who listens?
Does the drive to write and say more and more reflects keenly felt ideas or content? I tend to doubt it. Instead, I suspect that people post and say more and more out of a frustration that nobody is paying any real attention to them. We have, in this digital age, unprecedented outlets for expression; but expression alone is not communication. In a bygone day we saw pairs of students walking across campus talking, sometimes holding hands; today they walk across campus – each talking on their cell phones. In the chaotic radio days of the 1920s Secretary of Commerce and Labor Herbert Hoover is reputed to have observed that, "There is no freedom of speech when everyone talks at the same time." I think we must ask ourselves if our courses adequately challenge our students to read and listen, attentively and sensitively to what others are trying to say. I have yet to encounter a student who was not surprised to find that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would have allowed the continuation of slavery in any county that put down its arms by his deadline. Nor have I encountered any who realized that the Senate did not vote for war in Iraq, but voted instead to authorize President Bush to use his judgment regarding Iraq. Just as President Lincoln and the U.S. Senate deserve to have their messages understood, so do our families, friends and co-workers.
My third question follows from the second. What has become of our attention to the importance of shared, scrutinized evidence and wisdom? Cell phones, web bookmarks, niche marketed cable TV and radio programs, satellite radio and other recent technologies connect us. But as Kenneth Burke would have told Marshall McLuhan, what connects us also divides us, such that we have not a Global Village but a Globe of Villages.
Consider two neighbors who drive their air conditioned cars with one radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh and the other to NPR. They push their automatic garage door buttons, go inside and log onto their computers. There they respectively order goods from Netflix and LL. Bean, check their bank balances and manuscript progress, and get their news from Fox News and MSNBC. Are these neighbors or strangers? Communication technologies enable them to live in proximity without living in communication with one another. Their technologies enable them to find what they like and to like whatever they find, while avoiding discrepant information. And by avoiding discrepant information both neighbors avoid the unpleasant but crucial task of scrutinizing the evidence and wisdom to which they are privy.
As a college student I liked essay questions of the sort that said, "Agree or disagree with the following statement" or "Take a position on the following statement and support your position with course materials." I have frequently used that format with good results over the past thirty years of teaching. But recently something strange has been happening. Students expressing unsupported (or poorly reasoned) opinions have been objecting that they had agreed (or disagreed) with the position, that they are entitled to their opinions and that there is no way for us as teachers to evaluate or judge their opinions. This trend, I think, comes from our willingness to allow them to avoid the critical evaluation of arguments and evidence. Arguments for our students are too often seen as personal, to be resolved only by "agreeing to disagree" rather than by examining closely our reasons for disagreeing, with an open-minded willingness to change.
So it is that I read recently that "a candidate who opposes Affirmative Action should not tell that to an African-American audience." Really? Is that African-American audience not entitled to hear the reasons why some people think Affirmative Action should be ended? Should said candidate not seek to reason with those who might be expected to need persuading? Should all parties to the issue not seek to engage one another in a reasoned exchange toward creating a more perfect Union? Is that not the purpose of communication?
Forty years ago today we cancelled our Memphis convention because of the brutal murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we pledged to bridge differences with communication. This is my 32nd SSCA Convention (clearly if I were not at all superstitious, a Life Membership would have been a good investment). During those 32 years we have seen our profession evolve in a variety of positive ways. But as we have done so we made some choices that have fragmented the Communication major, emphasized expression over respectful listening and reduced our insistence that students and faculty engage and consider evidence and arguments with which they believe they will disagree. As a result, we too often seek comfort with those who share our intellectual predispositions. This does not foster community. We can restore our core concerns without relinquishing our new areas of study by reconsidering our core requirements. If we do so, we will affirm the systemic interconnectedness of people in communication, the worth of the opinions each of us wishes to express, and the importance of shared and scrutinized evidence and wisdom. But if we fail to do that, I fear that we will facilitate the emergence of a society that is indeed like a box of chocolates – discrete beings, knowable from a distance and perhaps individually quite tasty, but benefiting not at all from the dynamic interchange that is human communication.