Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Shared Experience

In ages past, most people enjoyed shared experiences with their neighbors. Many lived in small towns or villages. They often worked the same occupation (agriculture), or at least encountered one another's occupation on a regular basis (e.g. the farmer visiting the blacksmith). Many countries enjoyed a common religion, (and some still do). A great many people were of the same racial and linguistic background as those around them. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, men shared the experience of obligatory national military service.

As a result of shared experiences, people could implicitly understand one another; they shared common terminology, values, and ways of viewing the world. Except within small towns, most Americans no longer enjoy a shared set of experiences. Christianity occupies a shrinking share of America's religious pie, and that Christian chunk is less homogeneous than it once was, due to both the increased proportion of Catholics as well as the ongoing fractures within Protestantism. Men of various backgrounds are no longer drafted together. It is no longer a safe assumption that the folks next door speak English. And Americans are increasingly expected to interact with foreigners abroad.

None of these are bad things, but all of them chip away at our shared experiences. What do we all have in common? Reference to elements of popular culture such as Facebook might be your best bet for a common experience. ("It's like when you discover that someone has inexplicably unfriended you...") The problem here is that most such elements, although they put us in touch with our neighbor, leave us cut off from the past. Grandpa's diary, devoid of references to Facebook, will remain foreign, even if Facebook users in Japan no longer are.

What are the consequences of having lost our shared experiences? One of the most obvious are the ways in which different groups completely misunderstand each other with regard to politics (a problem further complicated by the enthymemic nature of discourse). Try placing a professor of performance studies from a major coastal university in a small town in the Deep South and see how well he or she can discuss politics with the locals...

How then are we to understand one another?

It seems to me there are two clear solutions: (1) Increase our shared experiences or (2) Increase our capacity for working across diverse experiences.

The latter is the option most often embraced. But while society has gone to great lengths to affirm that one who views the world different is not ipso facto in moral error, I worry that we have done far less to help people actually view the world in different ways. This is, essentially, an intellectual problem, one requiring intellectual dexterity. Can one employ multiple frameworks with regard to the same set of data? Can one recognize that different terms may have the same meaning, or that the same term may have multiple meanings? Some of this falls into the realm of contemporary "diversity" training (to use that very baggage-laden term). But much of this does not, since intellectual dexterity is not the same thing as tolerance. The intellectually dexterous may recognize that the person who uses the name Yahweh and the person who uses the name Allah may be referring to the same thing, God. This is the tolerant or integrative understanding of difference. But the intellectually dexterous might also recognize that when two people use the term God they may actually be referring to two very different things. This is the intolerant or divisive understanding of difference. Some differences are superficial, while others are profound; alas, so far as I can see society writ large simply tells itself that they are all acceptable, and in so doing does little to really help ourselves navigate a world of people with whom we have little in common.

Alternatively, we may increase those shared experiences. This can be done in a plethora of ways. Exchange programs of various sorts do just that. But I would like to consider another avenue, that of engaging with the great cultural icons of our various civilizations. Reading classic works of literature - or, for that matter, viewing famous art and architecture, listening to major works of music, or watching great films or performances of well-known drama - provides a set of reference points which one may share with people of distant lands, or distant ages.

The appeal I make here is not exactly for more Great Books curricula. In the first instance, schooling only occupies a small portion of most people's lives, so merely appealing to schools to teach from "the canon" (whatever that might be) is only a start. Going further, our everyday lives should be imbued with the culture of our fellow man, placing us in dialogue with a broader community. In a further departure from the typical arguments for the Great Books, I do not here contend that historically well-known works are inherently more true or virtue-forming than obscure or contemporary works. (Indeed, the Great Books, in their diversity, can give rise to relativism.) But if we are imperfect, finite thinkers, a degree of humility is required in our search for truth, and that humility demands that consider the insights of others, that we look for giants on whose shoulders we may stand. Participation in a wide-ranging cultural milieu is no guarantee one will find worthy guides to the truth, but I think it is a first step. Finally, while most apologists for the Great Books limit themselves to the writings of Western civilization, I would advocate the inclusion of the cultural highlights of all the world's major civilizations, with one caution. Cultural eclecticism, the phenomenon of taking bits and pieces of various cultures and stitching them together in a way which has no real integrity, poses a real danger to shared experience in that various cultural items, stripped from their larger context, lose their value as connectors. The films of Akira Kurosawa, for example, are best understood not by themselves, but in conjunction with the plays of Shakespeare, the history of Japan, the world of psychology, and that very American genre of film, the Western.

So go crack open that Bible, watch some Shakespeare - his plays are all over Netflix Instant - or simply light a bonfire. You wouldn't be the first person to take up such practices. And you just might find that, in so doing, you have a little more in common with your fellow man.

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