There is one serious problem, or danger rather, with communication media like the Internet. It is absolutely brilliant how it can bring such vastly diverse groups of people together, but there is something fundamentally dangerous about that two-edged sword.
What would drive me mad, is an attempt to write in a way that everyone will find acceptable. That is damn-nigh impossible. The diversity of an Internet audience is simply too great. When I target my writing at black, white will think I’m the darkness itself, while if I target my writing at white, black will hate me for not respecting the tranquillity of the shade.
It is impossible to be everything to everyone all at once, so don’t even try.
This exact problem is also found in churches, as well as in attempts at understanding collections of books like The Bible. A congregation is typically very diverse. A message preached from a pulpit, falls on diverse ears, and is very very hard to target. It is really the responsibility of each member of a congregation to take the most out of a message they might receive. The most well-meaning and diligent pastor, with the most carefully worded sermon, in the process of helping out many people, is still very likely to lead others astray at the same time.
The modernistic way to reduce this diversity and thereby maintain sanity, is to develop a creed. If everyone submits to this creed, and direct their lives according to it, it becomes a lot less tricky to communicate well.
However, this also does not work perfectly. On the one hand, there is still diversity. On the other hand, forcing uniformity is one of the greatest evils known to man. It suppresses each individual’s identity and creativity, in favour of the supposed “common good”. What humanity is slowly realising, is that this sacrifice still does not appease the god of chaos and misunderstanding.
Allow me to quote Thomas Paine, revolutionary author during the Enlightenment, notorious for his book “The Age of Reason”, from which I am quoting:
Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.
No matter what you think of the rest of his writing and philosophy, you must be able to recognise the truth in that quote, even if you do not take it as far. In my personal experience though, that last clause is much more true than I ever thought it could be.
But I digress. The point is, moulding people into identical little boxes, defined by some label typically attached to a creed of some sort, is unhealthy. Dare I say evil…?
Allow me to draw on an example from a Charismatic/Pentecostal-oriented religious organisation named Maranatha Campus Ministries, which existed from 1971 until 1990. Obviously, they teach from The Bible, drawing heavily on the teachings of a very famous man known by the name “Jesus”.
Now Jesus was an excellent teacher. He taught largely in parables, which have this knack for raising more questions than they give answers. He taught in the context of a culture from two thousand years ago, a culture obviously quite different from our current one. Each culture has its own unique challenges (and yet, in the bigger picture, exactly the same challenges, because we are all human).
Pre-modern culture was story driven. People told stories, over and over, and stories spread far and wide. It was an oral culture. We don’t see very much of that in modern, supposedly “civilised” culture. I think one of the remnants of this tradition, is campfire stories.
An essential ingredient in story telling, especially stories that carry meaning and truth, is metaphorical language, figurative language, imagery. “Beeldspraak” in Afrikaans, which translates literally to “Image Speech”. Jesus wielded this weapon like a sword. The pen may be mighty, but it merely emulates the tongue.
Now here is where things become sad or ironic: modern humanity, with all its supposed knowledge, seems to be losing sight of its wisdom. As “fact fundamentalists” (thanks Marcus Borg), we take this incredibly rich heritage of ours, and try to read everything in terms of absolutes. Black and white. We are destroying ourselves, digging our own hearts out with a spoon. Truth is not dependent upon facts…
In 1982, the University of Waterloo in Canada, expelled its Maranatha chapter. “Religious discrimination!” I hear people shout. Unfortunately, such expulsions do not happen before someone actually gets hurt. One member sexually maimed himself, quite likely citing the likes of the hyperbolic “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”. Or better yet, If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. These verses do contain truth, they do contain wisdom, but they cannot be read literally.
I really do believe militant, fundamentalistic atheists have to bear some of the blame for reinforcing literal readings of this culturally rich piece of heritage. Maybe we do need to bring the Bible back into schools, together with the Quran, maybe some Buddhist writings, and any other very significant pieces of human history and cultural heritage. These could be invaluable tools for teaching children how to think and look at the world around them, and appreciate the diversity…
Which brings me back to the question, what then, to do with the great diversity that is humanity?
The other solution to the problem of diverse audiences, is to form tiny little groups. The smaller the group, the easier it is to have everyone think alike. You can pick and choose your inner circle. Birds of a feather, flocking together… I hope it is becoming clear that “knowing” someone by the friends they keep, is rather modernistic. The error in this suggested solution should be obvious to everyone.
Humans evolved into a highly gregarious species. We have big brains so that we can handle larger communities. We are exposed to culture from all corners of the world (did I just state the earth is flat?). As if that spatial diversity is not enough, we read diverse texts that were written over a span of thousands of years. We are developing a global village, with so many inhabitants that you can no longer count the billions on one hand, soon possibly two.
Our increased connectivity, in the sense of communication tools rather than true intimacy, makes it abundantly clear that it is of utmost importance that we learn to cope with incredible diversity. This may seem like a brave new world, with significant new problems never seen before. What is the solution? Simple:
As old as the ages. As true as it is that we have problems that have never been seen before, there is still nothing new under the sun. It is quite a cliché that “we have two ears and one mouth, and should use them in that proportion”. The most important skill for good communication, is still the listening skill. The more diversity we run into, the more understanding and empathy we need.
Enter the post-modernistic realisation that those little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same, simply do not work.
I label myself as someone that rejects all labels – ’nuff said.