Interpersonal Communication Ethics and the Limits of Individualism
******* ARNETT ********** EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 4, 1996 ******
INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION ETHICS
AND THE LIMITS OF INDIVIDUALISM
Ronald C. Arnett
University of Northern Colorado
Abstract. Many Americans today are pursuing
community unsuccessfully due to society's
linguistic rootedness in individualism. Friedman
(1983) and Bellah et al. (1985, 1991) suggested
some people cannot choose community due to
linguistic limitations arising from social
patterns we have developed for living together.
This paper lays the groundwork for recognizing the
ethical problem of the lack of linguistic choice
in our everyday interpersonal communication by
examining "therapeutic language" as a metaphor for
the problem of pursuing community. We address the
limits of individualistic language for building
community by exploring Friedman's analysis of
Rogers' theory and incorporating field research
conducted by Bellah and associates. Choice-making
in interpersonal communication ethics necessitates
a linguistic system capable of nurturing and
sustaining both individualism and community.
Ethical implications for constructing a language
to sustain communication in community are also
Individual freedom is the heart of the American Dream.
Individualism plays a central role in our _Habits of the
Heart_ (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985).
But according to Bellah et al., there are two competing
American Dreams: (1) the pursuit of individual freedom, and
(2) the search for community. Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan,
Swidler, and Tipton (1985, 1991) and Friedman (1982b, 1983,
1984, 1985) recognized our language in daily communication
fosters and supports individualism; the notion of community
is of secondary consideration. This paper asserts
"therapeutic language" centered on self-actualization
perpetuates an emphasis on the individual over the
community--leaving us to potentially actualize only one
American Dream (the pursuit of individual freedom).
Multiple approaches to communication ethics are
described in Speech Communication literature (Greenberg,
1991; Jaksa & Pritchard, 1994; Johannesen, 1990). A bright
thread passes through each of these various approaches--to
be an ethical decision-maker one must be permitted to make
choices. Bormann (1985) contended the question of
communication ethics, or lack thereof, can only be addressed
when choice is present. For the question of interpersonal
communication ethics to be raised, one must be able to
choose a course of action.
Friedman (1983) and Bellah et al. (1985, 1991)
suggested some people cannot choose community due to
linguistic limitations arising from social patterns we have
developed for living together. The inability to choose
between individualism and community makes an ethical
decision or choice-making action much less viable.
Choice-making in interpersonal communication ethics
necessitates a linguistic system capable of nurturing and
sustaining both individualism and community. Only in the
process of choice-making can the discussion of communication
ethics be meaningful. The goal of this paper is not to
solve the linguistic problem of community, but to describe
the limits of individualistic language for building
The first part of this paper contextualizes the
language of community by examining Rogers' (1980)
"therapeutic language" as a metaphor for the problem of
pursuing community without a language to sustain the search.
In the second section, insights from Friedman's (1982b,
1983, 1984, 1985) scholarship are principally used to
support this case. Friedman did not directly claim that
Rogers' therapeutic vocabulary promoted the growth of
individualism rather than community. However, the
significance of Friedman's implicit analysis is that Rogers'
therapeutic language sets limits on the possibility of
building a community-based understanding of interpersonal
communication. The last section examines the realm of
"therapeutic language" in everyday conversation as detailed
by Bellah and associates (1985, 1991) and addresses ethical
implications for constructing a language to sustain
communication in community.
Contextualizing the Language of Community
An ethical dilemma permeates the use of individualistic
language for inviting community. Friedman (1985) and Bellah
et al. (1985) offered insight for investigating the limits
of Rogers' (1980) language for building a community-based
understanding of interpersonal communication. Friedman, as
a philosopher, and Bellah et al. in _Habits of the Heart_
(1985) and _The Good Society_ (1991), as sociologists, leave
us with a similar message: Too much individual concern
limits the possibilities of community.
Neither Friedman (1985) nor Bellah et al. (1985)
sharply defined the terms "therapeutic language,"
"individualism," and "community." Both parties explored
general societal trends and relied on broad-based common
sense definitions. "Therapeutic language" for Bellah et al.
is grounded around costs and benefits to the self:
It is often diffcult, working with the resource of
popular therapeutic language, to give a full
account of social and historical context. A
therapist deeply concerned about the integrity of
our lives and what threatens it, often has only an
impoverished language in which to think about such
issues. Asked about work that comprises a
person's character, such as corporate bribery, one
such therapist answers in utilitarian style that
we have to 'ask ourselves what it costs us.' Then
she adds that such costs are 'cumulative' ....
Straining its logic to follow the trajectory of
moral character over a lifetime, the language of
costs and benefits can give us only a thin,
quantitative facsimile of it .... Judgments of
character as 'self-esteem' and of action as what
'works for me now' only dimly depict the meaning
of work well done, a family well raised, and a
life well lived, as if all such judgments were
merely a matter of subjective feeling. (pp.
Friedman (1976) shared a similar perspective that
"therapeutic language" centered in the individual self is
inadequate. Friedman's long association with Buber's (1958,
1965, 1972) work propelled him to suggest that living must
emerge from the *dialogue of relationship,* not just from
individual opinion--individual perspectives must be tested
and perhaps modifed in conversation with others.
Rogers (1980) developed an individual image of the self,
while Buber (1972) and Friedman (1977) supported a
dialogically centered image of self.
One of the hardest obstacles to grasping Buber's
basic thesis that the self only becomes a self in
its relationship to the Thou is our sense of
individuality and self-awareness that persists
when we are in relationship with others and when
we are not. (Friedman, 1977, p. 169)
The critique in this paper is not of "therapeutic
language," in general, but rather of a particular form of
therapeutic language that promotes the individual self over
a dialogical self, which is central for a community-based
understanding of interpersonal communication.
Friedman (1983) and Bellah et al. (1985, 1991)
recognized "individualism" to be concentration on oneself
via self-growth, self-promotion, and self-concern.
"Community" suggests an appreciation of others with a desire
to further the life of the collective group, not only
oneself. Perhaps most important, these two approaches
conceptualize meaning as arising from different places--in
an individualistic orientation meaning emerges from oneself;
in a community orientation meaning is given birth in a
common life together. Neither Friedman (1983) nor Bellah et
al. (1985, 1991) dichotomized individualism and community.
They recognized the significance of both orientations.
However, they noted contemporary society emphasizes
individualistic advancement; community is currently a
secondary issue. Friedman (1983) stated,
many psychotherapists and psychologists who today
recognize the essential importance of mutual
relations betsveen persons still see these
relations largely as the function of the
individual's becoming and the means to that end.
As long as dialogue is entered merely as a means
to the end of health, maturity, integration,
self-expression, creativity, 'peace of mind,'
'positive thinking,' and richness of experience,
it will not even produce those things. . . The
relation between persons takes place not only in
the 'I-Thou' of direct meeting but also in the
'We' of family and community. It is not only the
fate of smaller and larger groups that depends
upon the common speech-with-meaning. If man does
not recover the genuineness of existence as We, he
may cease to exist at all. (pp. 29-32)
Friedman's general call to move from individual concern to
community sensitivity is echoed in _Habits of the Heart_:
Perhaps the crucial change in American life has
been that we have moved from the local life of the
nineteenth century--in which economic and social
relationships were visible and, however
imperfectly, morally interpreted as parts of the
common life--to a society vastly more interrelated
and integrated economically, technically, and
functionally. Yet this is a society in which the
individual can only rarely and with difficulty
understand himself and his activities as
interrelated in morally meaningful ways with those
of other, different Americans. Instead of
directing cultural and individual energies toward
relating the self to its larger context, the
culture of manager and therapist urges a strenuous
effort to make of our particular segment of life a
small world of its own. (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 50)
Community is not just consideration for the moment of
individual interests. Rather, community is an attitude of
long-range concern for the generation before our own and the
generation following our own. Bellah et al. referred to
this understanding of community as a "community of memory."
Such a community has a history, a story told collectively at
different times in order to provide a memory or live
tradition to which one can belong. An understanding of
oneself is rooted not just in individual accomplishment, but
in a loyalty and commitment to a people. "Where history and
hope are forgotten and community means only the gathering of
the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave"
(Bellah et al., 1985, p. 154).
An individualistic vocabulary is inadequate for
building and promoting a community-based understanding of
interpersonal communication. Rogers' (1980) theory of
interpersonal relations is used as a metaphor for the
problem of creating community with an individualistic
vocabulary. The next section examines Friedman's (1985)
exposure of this problem in Rogers' work.
Maurice Friedman on Individualism and Carl Rogers
Before beginning this section, it should be clear that
Friedman and these authors have much respect for Rogers'
work. The quality of Rogers' commitment to his task is not
questioned. Rogers (1985b), "Toward a More Humane Science
of the Person," revealed that even with his considerable
reputation, he was open to 'new" insights from other fields.
Rogers' remarkable career withstood attacks from
psychotherapists, behaviorists, and even rhetoricians
(Mader, 1980). Rogers was a model of what Buber (1972)
called a "great character"; he understood his psychological
tradition well enough to challenge it where and when
necessary. In many ways Rogers' biographer is right,
Rogers' orientation is "as American as apple pie"
(Kirschenbaum, 1979, p. 138). He was optimistic, willing to
explore new territory, and a genuine supporter of
individuals against systems that curtail personal growth.
However, Rogers' (1980) theory can be viewed as a metaphor
of a dilemma in interpersonal communication--there are
limits in attempting to discover community with an
Friedman is an international authority on Buber, and is
intimately familiar with Rogers' work. Friedman moderated
the dialogue between the two men and announced significant
differences in their images of the person--Rogers' image of
the person leads to individualism and Buber's image of the
person leads to community. It is virtually impossible not
to refer to Buber in a discussion of Rogers, particularly as
we concentrate on Friedman's scholarship. The
epistemological issue at hand involves where meaning arises
in a communicative exchange: in the "organismic strivings
toward self-actualization" suggested by Rogers or the
"ontology of the between" which pursues a community-based
understanding of communication suggested by Buber (Friedman,
1972, pp. 183-190). Terms central to Friedman's examination
and critique of Rogers' individualistic language include
"image of the human" (Friedman, 1974), "community"
(Friedman, 1983), and "empathy" (Friedman, 1985).
The contrast between Rogers and Buber is not over right
and wrong, but the image of the human being. As early as
1961, May suggested the battleground between psychology and
psychoanalysis would be over the "image of man" (Friedman,
1984). Friedman (1982b) argued the human image is revealed
in literature and narrative. This paper further advances
Friedman's thesis, stating that the battle over the "image
of the human" in different approaches to interpersonal
communication is a struggle between individualism and
Friedman frequently referred back to his work, _The
Hidden Human Image_ (1974), for definition:
The Human Image, as I use the term, is not only an
image of what man is, but also an image of
authentic personal existence that helps him
discover, in each age anew, what he may and can
become, an image that helps him rediscover his
humanity. 'Image' in this context means not a
static picture but a meaningful, personal
direction, a response The human image embodies a
way of responding. (p. 4)
The human image is a direction or set of possibilities
implied by a narrative, story, or communication theory.
Different interpersonal communication theories suggest
competing images of the human. Friedman (1985) recognized
numerous similarities between the work of Rogers (1980) and
Buber (1965), but he also called attention to fundamental
differences in *images of the human.* Rogers' commitment to
the individual self presents a much different image of the
person than does Buber's interpersonal dialogue rooted in
Longing for Community
Friedman's (1985) analysis of Rogers' (1980) theory
revealed Rogers' work to be a metaphor for our culture--a
metaphor revealing a longing for community without a
community oriented vocabulary. The following quotation sets
the tone of Friedman's critique of Rogers' work.
This ambiguity [of attempting to build community
on an individualist foundation] comes through
particularly clearly in Rogers' most recent book,
_A Way of Being_, in which he puts forward two
different and, in some ways incompatible,
touchstones of reality--self-actualization and
the I-Thou relationship. In one place he writes
of the 'actualizing tendency as the fundamental
answer to the question of what makes an organism
tick.' In another he writes . . . 'Such a deep
and mutual encounter [I-Thou relationship] does
not happen often, but I am convinced that unless
it happens occasionally, we are not living as
human beings.' . . . These two touchstones of
reality are not really compatible. (p. 55)
Friedman rejected Rogers' blending of self-actualization and
an I-Thou vocabulary. Friedman expressed concern about
Rogers' choice to unite fundamental differences in pursuing
a relationship of individualism (self-actualization) and
sensitivity to community (I-Thou). Geller (1982) supported
Friedman's (1977) conclusion.
Geller stated Rogers' theme of self-actualization is at
odds with the actual mission of community and results in an
atomistic view of the individual:
Self-actualization theory (not merely those of
Rogers and Maslow) . . . bears a striking
resemblance to dehumanized forms of interaction.
Just as the dehumanized personality can form only
instrumental relationships with others, so the
self-actualizing personality must use others as
vehicles for self-actualization. For all
self-actualization theorists, self-actualization
is the self-conscious goal of human life, that
which gives it meaning and direction. To seek
self-actualization does not preclude a concern for
others or the formation of nonauthoritarian and
nonexploitative relationships. But insofar as
these relationships are indispensable to the
journey of self-actualization, they are valuable
only as a means to this end. The other exists
only as a vehicle for my fulfillment. It makes
little difference that Maslow, Rogers, and others
insist that self-actualization involves
transcendence of this instrumentality. As long as
self-actualization remains the self conscious end
of human life, that toward which we should strive,
it is impossible to transcend instrumentality.
Only if self-actualization is no longer actively
sought is genuine community possible.
(Geller, 1982, p. 71)
Geller perceived an ironic twist in Rogers' (1980)
project. Geller posited Rogers did want community, but his
emphasis on self-actualization made this impossible. Geller
further suggested a "relationship of community" could only
be obtained if the project of self actualization, which
continued to be a major component of Rogerian theory, was
abandoned (Robinson, 1985). Further confusion emerged in
Rogers' connection of self-actualization and empathy.
Friedman (1985) identified inconsistencies in Rogers'
(1980) two descriptions of empathy. At times, Rogers'
writing resembled Buber's (1972) understanding of
"inclusion" and "experiencing the other side of the
relationship." At other times, Rogers' definition of
empathy approximated an individualistic version of empathy
critiqued by Buber. Friedman asserted this confusion in the
following two quotations from Rogers' (1980) _A Way of
In his essay, "Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of
Being," Rogers quotes his own 1959 definition of
empathy as sensing the other's inner feelings as
if they were his own without losing sight of the
'as if' and falling into identification [similar
to Buber's inclusion]. In this same essay,
however, he updates his views on empathy in a way
that sometimes resembles 'inclusion' and sometimes
empathy in the narrower sense: 'An empathic way
of being with another person . . . means *entering
the private perceptual world of the other* and
becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves
being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing
felt meanings which flow in this other person, to
the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or
whatever that he or she is experiencing.... It
means frequently checking with the person as to
the accuracy of your sensings, and being guided by
the responses. (pp. 199-200)
Friedman had no disagreement with the above
understanding of empathy. He considered this discussion
consistent with his own experience as a counselor and in
accordance with Buber's understanding of "inclusion."
However, shortly after Rogers' description of empathy he
offered elaboration that caused Friedman significant
Rogers [according to Friedman] continues with a
statement that once again suggests empathy in the
narrower sense: 'To be with another in this way
means that for the time being, *you lay aside your
own views and values in order to enter another's
world* without prejudice. In some sense it means
that *you lay aside yourself.'* (Friedman, 1985, p.
Friedman questioned this "narrower sense" of empathy,
which can be tied into the theme of self-actualization and
an unleashing of the self. The first view of empathy,
associated with "inclusion," is more sensitive to limits
that must be placed on one's interaction with another.
Friedman's (1985) concern was that Rogers (1980) joined
two different approaches to empathy. These approaches to
empathy may be briefly described as follows: (1)
"limiting," with the qualifying "as if," which is akin to
Buber's (1965) "experiencing the other side of the
relationship" without losing one's own ground, and (2)
"unlimiting," with a desire to "enter the other's perceptual
world and become thoroughly at home in it." The first form
of empathy sets limits on one's involvement in another's
world, but the second invites one to give oneself over to
Rogers (1980) was best known for his limiting, "as if,"
qualification on empathy. This view makes a useful
contribution for understanding interpersonal relationships.
But when vocabulary without this "as if' limitation
continued to appear in Rogers' work, as it did in the
material quoted by Friedman, confusion occurs. Only with
great diffculty could Rogers put constraints on the self.
According to Friedman (1984), even as Rogers wrote of
I-Thou, the center of his philosophy still remained
Rogers' (1980) diffculty of consistently placing limits
on the individual self is no small issue. In fact, this
diffculty is a natural consequence of his philosophical
assertion that the human is "innately good." Rogers'
acceptance of the human as "unqualifiedly good" made limits
difficult for him to accept. One is not as compelled to
limit what one perceives as good, in contrast to limiting
that which is perceived as destructive. Rogers contended
that if one can only get a patient to reach down into his or
her depths, he or she will discover a nature that is social,
constructive, and "unqualifiedly good" (Friedman, 1984, p.
213). This view of the human as innately good at the core
of his or her being encourages striving toward
self-actualization. This "unqualifiedly good" perspective
also invites an empathic involvement with few limits,
because one's "organismic impulses" will naturally be
appropriate and good.
May (1982) critiqued Rogers' (1980) position on the
innate goodness of the person. May stated his own
recognition of the daimonic urge for good and evil, in
contrast to Rogers' innately good perspective. With regret,
May quoted Bennis' critique of Rogers' viewpoint as
"devilishly innocent" (p. 13). Finally, May stated,
I am pleading for a realistic approach to
human evil. A colleague tells me that when you
had a discussion with Martin Buber in Michigan you
said, 'Man is basically good,' and Buber answered,
'Man is basically good--and evil.' I am arguing
that we must include a view of the evil in our
world and in ourselves no matter how much that
evil offends our narcissism. (pp. 18-19)
Viewing the person as innately good results in fewer
limitations than conceptualizing the human as good and evil.
Because of his positive assessment of human nature, Rogers
released the individual self. In contrast, Friedman (1984)
and Buber (1965), who conceive the human to be both good and
evil, moved toward establishing limits.
Individualism and Community
Community places limits on individual action.
Individualism, on the other hand, is grounded in
ever-increasing potential. Some people may engage in
behavior that benefits themselves, but is detrimental to a
larger group. Buber (1965) used the metaphor of the "narrow
ridge" to stress the importance of both individual and
collective efforts. Friedman (1983) referred to this
understanding of community that limits individual and
collective abuses as the "community of otherness" (pp.
27-36, pp. 249-260). The "narrow ridge" and the "community
of otherness" are linguistic realities in stark contrast to
In _The Confirmation of Otherness_, Friedman (1983)
described the significance of the different world views or
images of the person generated by Rogers' (1980) enthusiasm
for the inner goodness of the person. At this point,
Rogers' affirmation of the individual self was most
apparent; he trusted the individual self that is innately
good, not ongoing society. This individualistic "image of
the human" nourished Rogers' therapeutic language system:
Equally serious is the tendency on Rogers' part to
see what is happening . . . in terms of
Either/Or--the individual versus the society or
the organic whole, the inner versus the outer. .
. For this reason, he claims that 'the locus of
evaluation is in the person, not outside'; and
that 'the good life is within, not dependent on
outside sources.' The young woman who goes from a
Rogers workshop to face 800 people at a public
county school board meeting around the issue of
racial integration reports her experience in
typical Rogerian terminology of the organism: 'I
felt, more fully than ever before, my strength and
confidence in my organism.' The organic analogy
which Rogers uses to explain . . . is inadequate
to capture the reality of the community of
otherness. (Friedman, 1983, pp. 150-151)
Rogers placed the individual in contrast with society,
trusting the individual and distrusting society.
Rogers (1982b) made this point in a critique of May
(1982): "So my experience leads me to believe that it is
cultural influences which are the major factor in our evil
behaviors" (p. 8, see also Friedman, 1982a). Subsequently,
Rogers (1985a) stated the need to permit
the client to choose the directions for his or her
life, if we rely on the wisdom of the organism in
making such choices, and if we see our role as
releasing the client from constraining
self-perceptions to become a more complete
potential self. (p. 566)
This optimistic view of the person makes it difficult
to take seriously Rogers' (1982a) views on such complex
issues as nuclear weapons. His arguments rest on trust of
the individual organism without appropriate recognition of
ideological and political structures that give birth to
Rogers' (1980) emphasis on the inner goodness of the
person, reluctance to place limits on the individual self,
and his adoption of the self-actualization metaphor all
merge in an individualistic "image of the person." However,
what is most fascinating is that as Friedman (1983)
critiqued Rogers' orientation, Friedman stated that Rogers'
position was close to his own "community of otherness,"
while at the same time is fundamentally different (p. 150).
Rogers' therapeutic vocabulary pointed in the direction of
the "community of otherness," but fell short of community,
thereby leaving us with an individualistic language
of "organismic impulses" and "self-actualization."
Before moving on to discuss the significance of the
work of Bellah et al. (1985, 1991) with regard to this
thesis, we should emphasize that we agree with Anderson
(1982) that there are scholars more individualistic in
orientation than Rogers (1980). This fact is precisely what
makes Rogers' theory significant, as we turn to the research
implications contained in _Habits of the Heart_ and _The
Good Society_. Rogers' emphasis on organismic impulses and
a turning toward the inner person conflicts with his *own*
emphasis on a community of relationship. Rogers' linguistic
incongruence and contradictions are not unlike those offered
by many persons in contemporary North America. People
desire community, but often do not have a sufficient
vocabulary to nurture and sustain it. The contemporary
importance of Rogers' theory is that it can be viewed as a
metaphor representing the confusion of individualism and
community. An emphasis on the individual self, organismic
impulses and the innate goodness of the person lead to
individualism, not community. Rogers' "therapeutic
language" revealed the dilemma described by Bellah and
associates: How do we sustain community when our
interpersonal communication is steeped in individualistic
The next section examines how therapeutic language
centered on the individual self is unable to provide a firm
foundation for a community-based understanding of
interpersonal communication. Not only have particular
psychological theories ignored the linguistic grounding for
community, many persons in our society (not specifically
trained in but exposed to therapeutic language centered on
the self experience a similar dilemma: We desire community
without a language to adequately sustain its formation and
maintenance in daily interpersonal communication.
Habits of the Heart
_Habits of the Heart_ (Bellah et al., 1985) is not only
a book title, but a metaphor for the intellectual and
cultural mores that sustain and undergird a community. The
term "habits of the heart" was coined by French social
philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, who published the frst
two volumes of _Democracy in America_ in 1835.
I have said earlier that I consider mores to be
one of the great general causes responsible for
the maintenance of a democratic republic in the
United States. I here mean the term 'mores'
(moeurs) to have its original Latin meaning: I
mean it to apply not only to 'Moeurs' in the
strict sense, which might be called the habits of
the heart, but also to the different notions
possessed by men, the various opinions current
among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental
habits. So I use the word to cover the whole
moral and intellectual state of a people I am only
looking for the elements in them which help
support political institutions. (Tocqueville,
trans. 1969, p. 264)
Like Tocqueville, Bellah et al. used the phrase "habits
of the heart" in a broad-based fashion, including the
intellectual grounding that bonds people together.
The metaphor "habits of the heart," like Rogers'
interpersonal dialogue, seems to revolve in oxymoronic
tension around two different "habits": individualism and
community. Of the two "habits," individualism is currently
the strongest in our culture--and yet, persons crave
community with others.
American culture has long been marked by
acute ambivalence about the meshing of self
reliance and community, and the nation's history
shows a similar ambivalence over the question of
how to combine individual autonomy and the
interrelationships of a complex modern economy. But
if the fears of Madison, Tocqueville, and Debs
seem today to be becoming alarmingly true, then
perhaps their hopes can speak to us as well. They
believed that the survival of a free people
depends on the revival of a public virtue that is
able to find political expression [that works for
the common good of the community, not just
oneself]. (Bellah et al., 1985, pp. 256, 271)
Tocqueville's l9th century warning of the tendency of
individualism to overwhelm community is consistent with the
current conclusion of Bellah et al. (1985) in _Habits of
the Heart_. The "habit" of individualism seems stronger
than the habit of community in contemporary society,
continuing to isolate us from one another. To illustrate
the power of individualism and the desire for community
without a proper language to sustain it, the authors tell
the stories of many Americans, using four persons as
One of their "representative" characters was Brian
Palmer. Brian was a successful upper echelon manager, who
worked long hours and struggled to succeed in his career.
"In many ways, Brian's is an individual success story. He
has succeeded materially" (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 5).
Brian, however, discovered that single-minded devotion to
career was not enough. A divorce and responsibility of
children altered his perspective; he began to want a greater
sense of community through involvement with his family.
Bellah et al. discovered, however, that when Brian was asked
to justify his move from an individualistic to a
community-oriented ethic he had difficulty doing so.
According to the authors, Brian lacked the necessary
vocabulary to fully nurture and sustain a community
[Brian's] increased commitment to family and
children rather than to material success seems
strangely lacking in substantive justification.
'I just find that I get more personal satisfaction
from choosing course B over course A. It makes me
feel better about myself. . . . Despite the
combination of tenderness and admiration he
expresses for his wife, the genuine devotion he
seems to feel for his children, and his own
resilient self-confidence, Brian's justification
of his life thus rests on a fragile foundation.
Morally, his life appears much more coherent than
when he was dominated by careerism, but, to hear
him talk, even his deepest impulses of attachment
to others are without any more solid foundation
than his momentary desires. He lacks a language
to explain what seem to be the real commitments
that defne his life, and to that extent the
commitments themselves are precarious. (p. 8)
Brian's story is significant in that our desire for
community, without a language to sustain it, has become the
prototype rather than the exception in daily life.
The language of individualism is so common and powerful
in everyday speech that it overshadows the language of
community. The desire for community is hindered by a
language too individually grounded to provide a solid
foundation for it. We require, but nevertheless seem to
lack, an everyday language capable of transcending our own
"radical individualism" (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 21). The
dominance of this problem is, of course, reinforced by
Friedman's (1985) critique of Rogers' (1980) individualistic
language. Rogers' reliance on the individualistic language
of the real self, following organismic impulses, and
entering the perceptual world of another provided us with an
individualistic language directed toward restoring
individual mental health.
Unlike Friedman (1985), the authors of _Habits of the
Heart_ (1985) did not refer directly to Rogers' writings
(see pp. 14, 98, 347). They did, however, address the close
connection between individualism and humanistic psychology.
Humanistic . . . psychologists [question and at
times reject the significance of] . . . external
authority, cultural tradition, and social
institutions. . .The self in all its pristine
purity is affirmed. . . Such romantic
individualism is remarkably thin when it comes to
any but the vaguest prescriptions about how to
live in an actual society. (Bellah et al., 1985,
The connection between humanistic psychology and
individualism has permitted this "therapeutic vocabulary"
and "therapeutic attitude" to become part of our everyday
language and meaning structure. According to Bellah et al.,
a therapeutic orientation or attitude increases individual
autonomy, the pursuit of self-actualization, and a
reluctance to sacrifice for another. Therapeutic language
celebrates the individual.
Social bonds are those based on the free choices
of authentic selves. . . The only valid contract is one
based on negotiation between individuals acting in
their own self-interest. . . No binding obligations and
no wider social understanding justify a
relationship. It exists only as the expression of
the choices of the free selves who make it up.
And should it no longer meet their needs, it must
end. (Bellah et al., 1985, pp. 98-104)
Bellah et al., however, did not conceptualize the
language of "therapeutic individualism" as necessarily
generated from narcissism. They did not question the
motivations of practitioners, but rather *critiqued the
language that sets limits* on one's life.
Rogers' (1980) orientation was also guided by good
motivations. But "therapeutic language" that is primarily
individually centered interferes with community association.
Bellah et al. described a therapist, Margaret Oldham, as an
example of this phenomenon. She is motivated to help
people. Her vocabulary, however, leads to individualism,
not community. Phrases such as "taking responsibility for
oneself," and "self-reliance" lack meaning in community (p.
The consequence of the "therapeutic language" of
individualism combined with the individual roots of this
culture results in a "culture of isolation" and, at best, a
limited sense of community (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 285).
Such an orientation is likely to define community as quality
of "lifestyle," not commitment and service. An
individualistic culture makes the very idea of institutions
inaccessible. "In our life with other people we are engaged
continuously, through words and actions, in creating and
re-creating the institutions that make that life possible"
(Bellah et al., 1991, p. 11). In community, other
"like-minded" persons are sought to enrich and reinforce
one's own interests.
The power of Bellah et al.'s (1985) cultural critique
is similar to that offered by Friedman (1985). Friedman
recognized two languages in Rogers' (1980) therapy, one of
individual self-actualization and the other of I-Thou and
community. Bellah et al. provided a picture of "therapeutic
language" grounded in individualism that leads away from
community and back to only one "American Dream" (individual
fulfillment). They countered that Americans have not only
one "American Dream," but two, the first of individual
fulfillment and the second of community:
The American Dream is often a very private dream
of being the star, the uniquely successful and
admirable one, the one who stands out from the
crowd of ordinary folk who don't know how. And
since we have believed in that dream for a long
time and worked very hard to make it come true, it
is hard for us to give it up, even though it
contradicts another dream that we have--that of
living in a society that would really be worth
living in. (p. 285)
The dream of community is possible through interpersonal
communication with others.
Inviting Community in Interpersonal Communication
Bellah et al. (1985) provided a number of solutions
promoting the invitation of human community in their last
chapter, "Transforming American Culture." Their solutions
are primarily related to structural changes. However,
throughout _Habits of the Heart_ they identified three
important ideas for developing a language to invite
community in interpersonal communication.
*First, community does not rest primarily on feelings,
but rather on a commitment to principles and values that
bond people together.* In short, we need to reverse the
implications of the following quotation:
The objectified moral goodness of Winthrop obeying
God's will or Jefferson following nature's laws
turns into the subjective goodness of getting what
you want and enjoying it. Utility replaces duty;
self-expression unseats authority. 'Being good'
becomes 'feeling good'. . .Given this
individualistic moral framework, the self becomes
a crucial site for the comparative examination and
probing of feelings that result from utilitarian
acts and inspire expressive ones. (Bellah et al.,
1985, pp. 77-78)
Bellah et al. indicated the need for a language tied to
something beyond individual feelings, such as Eubanks'
(1980) "civilizing values" and Weaver's (1948) pursuit of
the Ideal. But Bellah et al. set ideals in the
historicality of the community, not in a Platonic ideal.
They suggested a language centered on the self and feelings
is not wrong; they just want an individualistic vocabulary
to be secondary to an emphasis on principles that bond
*Second, relationship cannot be considered the most
important term in communication from a community
perspective.* Values and principles are needed to bond
relationships, not just positive feelings and utility.
The limitation for millions of Americans who
remain stuck in this duality in one form or
another is that they are deprived of a language
genuinely able to mediate among self, society, the
natural world, and ultimate reality. Frequently,
they fall back on abstractions when talking about
the most important things. They stress
'communication' as essential to relationships
without adequately considering what is to be
communicated. They talk about 'relationships' but
cannot point to the personal virtues and cultural
norms that give relationships meaning and value.
(Bellah et al., 1985, p. 237)
The implication is that a community-sensitive language
of interpersonal communication views relationships as a
by-product (rather than the goal) of a common life together.
Bellah et al. are not averse to relationship--relationship
is simply a secondary emphasis that emerges as a result of a
community vocabulary of commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, and
*Finally, the language of interpersonal communication
sensitive to community is grounded in a "community of
memory."* Developing a language that is sensitive to
community takes time and a willingness to commit oneself to
a community long enough to embrace the stories and dramas
that bind the people together. In our culture, the dream of
individual success requires the person to uproot community
to find success. Whyte (1957) in _The Organization Man_
described mobility, not community, as the trademark of this
lifestyle. Instead of movement, Bellah et al. (1985)
suggested a willingness to become part of the drama or
story, to become a participant in the "community of memory."
Their suggestion is similar to Fisher's (1984) connection of
story or narrative with involvement in public moral
argument. Bellah et al. seek a vocabulary that grounds one's
story in community, not just individual pursuits. For our
linguistic possibilities to invite and sustain community, we
must realize how much our everyday use of "therapeutic
language" has begun to emphasize individualistic impulses.
We must make our overuse of individualistic vocabulary
visible and begin to consciously seek alternative
descriptions of how human community is fostered if we are to
encourage a "community of otherness" in daily interpersonal
Summary and Implications
This paper raises significant questions for advancing
our understanding about philosophy of communication as well
as interpersonal communication ethics. Several guiding
questions and ethical implications for understanding
contemporary interpersonal communication will be presented.
Friedman's (1985) examination of Rogers' (1980) theory
and the sociological studies by Bellah et al. (1985, 1991)
suggested "therapeutic language," centered around the self,
often limits community with its individualistic grounding.
Friedman and Bellah et al. expressed concern about an
individualistic language that centers on the individual
self, feeling, "organismic impulses," and freedom from
limits--preferring instead a language drawn from a
"community of memory" or a "community of otherness."
Granted, most theories using "therapeutic language,"
such as Rogers' (1980) "person-centered approach," stress
*both* individualism and community. However, in light of
the current strength of individualistic vocabulary and in a
spirit of dialectic, we recognize it may be time to turn to
a language of community--not as the total answer, but as
another choice and counterweight to the status-quo in
discussions of interpersonal communication. How would a
community-sensitive language base for interpersonal
communication be described? Our charge, if we are alert to
the warnings of Friedman (1985) and Bellah et al. (1985,
1991), is to offer a language of community, as a dialectical
balance to the current dominance of individualistic
language. A crucial issue to be addressed concerns how one
linguistically punctuates his/her contextual experience.
How would a "language of community" contrast with and
complement current "therapeutic language"?
A community approach to interpersonal communication
would assert the importance of a common life together, while
providing a language to sustain the pursuit. What
linguistic set of assumptions undergird our professional
understanding of interpersonal communication? Would a
content analysis of current interpersonal communication
texts uncover language encouraging individualism, stressing
feelings, self, and 'me' or would the analysis reveal a
community addressing tradition, collective association, and
a "community of memory"?
As stated earlier, communication ethics most often
involves the process of choice-making. What is our
specific ethical charge in interpersonal communication? Is
interpersonal communication instruction unethical if we do
not provide a *choice* of vocabularies -- one inviting
individualism and the other inviting community? Are we to
encourage community or individualism in our theoretical
pursuits? Or should our theory be so sensitive to the
historical situation that when the need for less emphasis on
community emerges a strong individual response is nourished
and vice versa? Addressing these issues in our discussions
of interpersonal communication opens the possibility of
interpersonal ethics as a process of choice-making.
In summary, the proposal of this article is both modest
and demanding. Bellah et al. (1985, 1991) and Friedman
(1982b, 1983, 1984, 1985) are not suggesting that an
individualistic approach to interpersonal communication is
wrong. However, from a standard of choice-making, *an
individualistic approach is not ethical if a community-based
approach to interpersonal communication is not available.*
Clearly, further scholarship exploring the implications of
grounding "therapeutic language" in community are needed.
Perhaps the most important "language" horizon before us lies
in the pursuit of community. We depend on language for
community: "What we cannot imagine and express in language
has little chance of becoming a sociological reality"
(Bellah et al., 1991, p. 15). Our responsibility as ethical
choice-makers is to present the possibility of linguistic
choice before an ethical evaluation of the merits of
individualistic and community oriented approaches to
interpersonal communication can commence.
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