During a recent conversation on a topic that now escapes me, my Chinese wife began to tell the story of the Tower of Babel, a biblical story from the book of Genesis. It tells of a united humanity, all speaking the same language, which, in the years following the Great Flood, built a tower designed to reach the heavens. God, however, was unhappy and instilled in humanity a diversity of languages and scattered them about the world.
My wife is not religious. Nor has she ever studied the Bible. She is, however, familiar with the Bible, without associating her knowledge with that sacred text, to a degree that relatively few Americans are today. Without getting into a debate about origin, many biblical stories exist outside of their biblical context. Even in China. Perhaps particularly in China, which has long been a story-telling region of the world.
The common Christian interpretation of the story is that God, in introducing so many languages to humanity, was punishing the people for believing that they were capable of building a tower that could reach God’s domain. This, the interpretation implies, is a level of unfounded arrogance that could be attained only through the collective confidence and knowledge of an informed humanity.
I have come to wonder, however, if, in fact, the opposite isn’t true. Perhaps God was, in truth, if not rewarding humanity, helping it to achieve a higher level of understanding and, in turn, enlightened satisfaction.
There is little question that enlightenment cannot be attained in total isolation. We need teachers, be they people, or books, or even the Internet. We aren’t born with sufficient information to lead exciting, productive lives. It may be true that a baby isolated at birth may enjoy some form of happiness, but its very survival would be far from assured.
That, in turn, introduces the need for communication. And, as is often the case, this need provides a concurrent opportunity. How far we take the benefit of knowledge is up to us.
Before Gutenberg invented his press, most knowledge was distributed orally, through legends and oral histories passed down through the generations. Even today much, perhaps most, of our knowledge is acquired through the spoken word. A declining but still significant amount is exchanged face to face, but throw in online videos, movies, music, and podcasts, and the percent, whatever it might be, has to be significant.
Language, however, is of human construction. Even if you accept Genesis in some literal sense, it is, at least, created in the image of humanity. God, however you may define him or her, surely does not speak English or German or Chinese.
All language, moreover, is symbolic. The Asian languages are the most obviously so, built, as they are, on pictograms or characters that originally had some literal relevance to reality. Alphabets, moreover, are consensually accepted conventions, having no direct counterpart in the natural world.
All language, as a result, requires a speaker and a listener, just as for every left there is a right, for every front there is a back, for every pro there is a con, and for every yin there is yang. Effective communication only occurs when the two parts of the communication are in balance, when the intended expression and comprehension are in harmony.
Which is why the diversity of language that exists may have been an incentive, not a punishment. My wife and I speak different languages. Yet our level of mutual comprehension is greater than any that I have ever known with another individual. And the reason is that language has forced both of us to develop our skills as listeners.
In today’s world, however, there is a great imbalance. And the effectiveness of our communication has been greatly compromised as a result. If you doubt that, turn on your tv or check the news feed on your smart phone.
That escalating failure, without any doubt, is due not to the fact that we are speaking less, but that we are listening less effectively. We are drowning in speech. We have more than 100 television channels of people speaking. We have billions of websites of people sharing words. We have people in the streets chanting their message. Silence, in fact, is on the verge of literal extinction.
But why aren’t we listening?
The most obvious reason is that the people with a message, and that is all of us, are telling us not to listen. They only care about what we do. Buy this. Vote this way. Think like this. Chant this message. Like me. Follow me. Give me that.
Technology isn’t helping. Technology has opened vast and powerful mediums for speaking. We can broadcast our speech to the world in fractions of a second. Little technology, however, has been devoted to helping us listen. Facebook and Google, the face of technology, are automated delivery systems for the commercial speech of advertising. To the extent they pretend to listen, they are merely gathering data for more targeted speaking. They have no interest in listening per se.
One of the indirect and unforeseen consequences of technology, moreover, has been the death of subtlety. Even though video seems to imitate a multi-dimensional reality, technology, as we know it today, is binary. It ultimately exists in only two dimensions. We can imitate reality but we cannot, and despite assurances from the commercial crowd that hopes to sell us virtual reality, will never be able to, duplicate reality.
That is already obvious in the world of written communication. It is a reality, however, that hasn’t been fully acknowledged.
Classical literature, for example, is of declining interest among a new generation of readers. Tolstoy cannot compete with Rowlings. Proust cannot compete with Tolkien. Why?
To comprehend, much less enjoy, Tolstoy or Proust, you must embrace subtlety. Proust communicates through delirium and Tolstoy speaks through gestures and imagery. In the 1,200 pages of War and Peace there is relatively little actual dialogue. And yet Tolstoy’s communication with the reader is unparalleled in literary history. Contemporary authors don’t even come close. Nor would we buy their books if they tried.
Rowling and Tolkien, of course, communicate through imagery. It is, however, a different kind of symbolism. It is graphic symbolism, not subtlety. Tolstoy gives you a gesture with the hand, the turning of a lip, a suggestive tilt of the head. Rowling gives us wizards, Muggles, flying broomsticks, and centaurs. I’ve read Harry Potter. It’s brilliant. As a reader, however, you don’t have to work much. Rowling delivers the entertainment on a platter. (Surely one of the best pure writers of our generation.)
Literary subtlety, in the end, is all about listening. And that takes time and patience. And those are the two commodities in shortest supply in our tech-mad world.
Technology has also killed our ability to think abstractly. Who can understand the theoretical physicists or mathematicians? Who wants to?
Who wants to major in philosophy or art history? Who will be our historians when the current crop dies away? Google? Instagram?
Oh how the worm turns. We are quite literally at the gates of Shinar. Silicon Valley is the new Mesopotamia.
What will happen this time? God or not, something will have to give. The current model of humanity is not sustainable. It will survive me, but not those that I love.
In the world of Genesis, language was enough to force us to listen. For a while. But it won’t be enough this time. An apocalypse would work, of course. Climate change will ultimately force us to change our resource-consuming habits.
Whatever happens, however, we will be forced to start speaking less and listening more. This is the balance that the universe, from the beginning of time, has sought, even demanded. Why not start now?
Note from the Author: It was exactly one month ago that I made a blog post entitled, Will They?, in which I predicted that President Trump would ultimately cancel the June meeting with the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. I also, on many occasions, confidently explained why the mis-named US/China “trade talks” were doomed to fail. Washington is clueless about Asia today. If you really want to know what’s happening in Asia today, read my book, Understanding China. The perspective and knowledge are timeless.
opening photo credit: iStock.com/ZU_09
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