Pragmatism, semiotics and sacred truth
Thoughtful reading of the enduring theories of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) can result in a clearer understanding of the occasionally visceral hatred of public relations. Peirce explains that in order to survive and develop, humanity has evolved as a species which seeks logic cooperatively.1 For Peirce we model the world in our minds in a way which depends utterly on everyone striving for and candidly sharing the best account of truth which can be found. He says there is a huge emotional investment in the honesty of this project. The contention of this chapter is that it follows that primeval antagonism may be evoked if there is suspicion that, on the contrary, access to reality is being covertly manipulated for sectional interest. In this way Peirce’s views can be used to give an insight into the suspicion which seems to constantly surround the public relations industry. Peirce’s approach is known as ‘pragmatism’ although he later called it ‘pragmaticism’. It is about the practical outcomes of the ways we think and is associated with Peirce’s notion of ‘semiotics’ – the way we model the world in our minds using signs of the world. The intention below is to make pragmatism and semiotics accessible and relevant to an understanding of public relations. We will do this by initially anchoring pragmatism to the issue of climate change. The battle for public opinion over climate change involves a struggle to inﬂuence belief in the importance or otherwise of anthropomorphic causes of this phenomenon. In December 2009 belief about the degree of urgency of this crisis was aﬀected by the failure of the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and by what was called ‘Climategate’. Climategate was the name attached to publication just before the conference of e-mails appropriated from East Anglia University’s climate research unit. The e-mails revealed anomalies in the reporting of climate change data. They were used by climate change sceptics to cast doubt on the veracity of the science. Then in early 2010
the inﬂuential UN inter-governmental panel on climate change was forced to admit a previous report had been wrong when it claimed Himalayan glaciers would probably disappear by 2035. The scientiﬁc evidence for anthropogenic climate change continues to be overwhelming. But the belief of many people and consequently the views of many political parties and representative groups seemed to lose urgency following these events and revelations. A degree of doubt was fostered over the hitherto apparently best cooperative account of truth. This climate change example illustrates the similar consequences for the eﬀorts of public relations practitioners if beliefs which they rely on are jeopardised.