We Are What We Think

WhatThink:rendiansyah-nugroho-454059

Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada

The world is orderly and simple.

The world changes constantly and is immensely complex.

These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.

Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.

He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.

But that turns out not to be the case at all.

In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.

Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.

Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.

The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.

By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.

“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”

No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.

Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions.

That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals, in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.

Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put out to sea.

Photo: Rendiahsyah Nugroho on Unsplash.com

Help, Help, I’m Being Depressed

Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness. — Alcuin, c. 804

On an otherwise lovely day in the tentative transition zone between a Maryland winter and spring I fell into a melancholia that lasted into the night. Some might say this was a perfectly natural reaction to an American Zeitgeist that had inexorably, over the months, twisted its grip like the coils of a python around the necks of the innocents. Others, less given to reflection on civilization and its discontents, were insistent that America would be great again, and proved it by punching out reporters and protesters who dared object to the emperor, who not only had no clothes but was gleefully parading, butt naked, across the arena stages of these Untied States of America.

As the Republican party trudged along on its trail of tears, the E pluribus unum (out of the many, one) of elimination trials powered along at a burn rate of millions per day, each approved Superpac message arcing through its trajectory like incendiary flares. In that white-hot glare every pore, every bead of sweat, every curl of the lip and glint of the eye transfixed the doubtful and transported the faithful.

Whatever is new is news — history need not apply  — and the news, like an unholy simulacrum of God’s creation, was brought forth every evening and morning in the fullness of time. The chairman of CBS chortled that whatever else was clear in the wake of yet another episode of the reality show called the Republican debates, the news for the stockholders was very, very good as 14.5 million viewers tuned in on February 13 for the Saturday night fights.

Throughout it all the doctor from Detroit, Ben Carson, ambled through his campaign with a benign smile as he pronounced the president a psychopath, Obamacare worse than slavery, and the pyramids — who knew? — to be ancient granaries. In the debates he was both literally and figuratively sidelined, giving way to the bombast of his opponents, while occasionally bleating that he got no air time.

Carson’s campaign was fueled from the beginning by his inspirational story of rising from poverty to become one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. He was the recipient of countless awards, honorary doctorates, and royalties stemming from his autobiographical books. A movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. was made of his life. It was a good life.

Friends of mine who knew him from the Spencerville SDA Church spoke of him with respect for his accomplishments while quietly sidestepping a commitment to his campaign. But many Adventists believed he was sent “for such a time as this,” and enthusiastically followed his every pronouncement on the campaign trail.

When Adventists hit the news it’s rarely a good thing. Despite our relevance as an indigenous American product of the Second Great Awakening, our global hospital and educational systems, and our healthy lifestyles, we usually get pegged in the media as vegetarian blood brothers of David Koresh. Add to that the full coverage of our refusal to ordain women during last summer’s world-wide gathering of delegates at San Antonio, and we can be forgiven for wanting a different profile.

Thus, when Ben Carson, Seventh-day Adventist physician and inspirational speaker, dissed the President at a National Prayer Breakfast, it seemed like once again we’d be known for all the wrong reasons. And then he announced his candidacy. Compelled, he said, by thousands who implored him to run, and given the green light by a revelation from God, Carson jumped into a crowded and boisterous Republican field.

Well, we thought, okay, maybe his personal integrity would make up for his lack of experience. Maybe all that street cred he’d built up all those years, and his notable charisma, would carry the day. He might bring some civility and professionalism to a fractious national arena. His political positions didn’t seem all that different, in many ways, from those of Cruz and Trump, but at least he didn’t raise his voice when he insulted  immigrants, his Democratic opponents, and the president.

We want to believe that political candidates don’t toy with our trust. We hope that we’re seeing the real person  when he speaks and that he believes what he says. We hope that these candidates are not just pandering to their audiences to get the vote. Most of all, we hope that their personal integrity runs like a silver thread from past to present, that whatever their positions on issues they respect themselves enough not to bow the knee to whatever Mammon looms up demanding their worship.

But no. Carson took himself out of the race in the same oblique fashion that he entered it. He did not join in his last debate, but it was unclear if that meant he’d be heading home to Florida to chill. Finally, he made the decision, picked up his bags and headed for the exit. At that point one could suppose that he’d retire gracefully, beaten but not bowed, his dignity intact to fight for his causes another day, another way.

Thus, when he endorsed Donald Trump, the very antithesis of his own campaign style and of his personal Christian values, it was a stunner. He was consistent, though, in that his flair for the bizarre came through when he declared Trump to be “cerebral” and that they’d buried the hatchet. There may be depths to Trump that only Ben Carson and Trump’s wife have seen. Humans are complex, act for a variety of reasons, and do things surprising even to themselves.

But the notion that a kinder, gentler Trump might appear on January 20, 2017 is about as plausible as Ben Carson signing on with all his heart and soul to the whole Trumpian package. Because that’s what he did when he endorsed Donald Trump on March 11, 2016. Carson said yes to The Wall, to reducing freedom of speech and of the press, to violently throwing peaceful demonstrators out of public spaces, to labeling an entire country as rapists and murderers, and to regarding waterboarding as but the beginning of horrors for captured enemies.

So that is why I fell into a melancholy. While I would never have voted for Carson for president I respected his self-discipline, his abilities, and his faith. Chris Christie endorsing Trump seemed sheer opportunism for two combatants who certainly gave the impression that their blows were intended. But Carson?

Has all this rancor, this bile, this winter of our discontent, just been a show? Off the stage, behind the scenes, out of range of a hot mike, are these candidates really just good buds who have figured out who the alpha dog is and where each of them might line up in the pack? Were Carson’s good manners, apparent Christian faith, and personal integrity just chips he was willing to trade for a bigger score?

I had hoped he was better than that.

We Are Our Communication

“Every part of a system is so related to its fellow parts that a change in one part will cause a change in all of them and in the total system. That is, a system behaves not as a simple composite of independent elements, but coherently and as an inseparable whole.”

These dispassionate words may not come to mind when we see the shelling in Gaza or watch in horror the videos of what the Islamic State is doing to Christians in Mosul. But they give us a way to deal with these extremes and to understand them.

The quote is from Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967) by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson, who were three of the principal researchers at the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto in the late 60s and early 70s. The pioneering work that they did, trying to understand the connections between communication and human behavior, was an interdisciplinary venture that spanned psychopathology, mathematics, literature, systems theory, and communication studies. They wanted to know how communication as an interactional process affected our behavior.

Starting from the axiom that “all behavior is communication and one cannot not communicate,” they arrived at the conclusion that everything we do when we communicate with each other affects all our communication processes and cannot be separated out. Put simply, to say that the actions of person A causes the behavior of person B ignores the relation of B to A and the effect B may have on A’s subsequent reactions.

Like it or not, they seem to be saying, we’re all in this together. Every time Hamas fires a rocket at an Israeli settlement it is communicating; with the inevitable reciprocation on Gazan villages there is a deadly communication process in place that becomes a feedback loop. Every action results in a reaction which provokes a new action ad infinitum.

Furthermore, if we isolate an action in order to find its cause—and thus to blame—we miss the wider context in which that action takes place. We discover that actions happen in a context and that that context occurs within a relationship between people and groups. Focusing on the particular actions and not on the relationship between the parts of this system results in us missing the meaning of the actions that take place.

An example given by the authors is the difference between my foot kicking a stone and me kicking a dog. When my foot hits the stone it will move and eventually come to rest again. But if I kick the dog it may jump up and bite me. The kick has become not simply energy but information; my behavior has communicated something which the dog, rightfully so, interprets as an attack and responds accordingly. A kick is not just a kick within a relationship: it sends a message that grew out of the relationship prior to the kick and will affect responses to the kick.

As I read news reports of the actions of ISIS/Islamic State, watched videos, and read the comments of readers and viewers I could feel a tension building in me. I could imagine the desperation of the thousands trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the children dying from thirst and exhaustion. And I wanted to obliterate the militants surrounding them on the plains below. It wasn’t enough that American pilots drop supplies to the victims: I wanted to see the bodies of those fighters after the bombs tore through them. I wanted video of them calling out for help as they bled to death.

And then a curious but inevitable thing happened. As the tension in me built the world divided up neatly into right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Crush them all! Barbarians! Stomp their lives out! So they’re killing Christians and ethnic minorities? Damn Muslims!

In a flash I had gone from righteous indignation to murderous wrath, from a generalized tolerance for other religions to a Crusade mentality against all Muslims. From the particular to the general. Kill ’em all and let God sort it out later.

It got even worse when I stumbled across a website that is apparently run by Christians who believe Islam is Satanic. Their comments were raw hatred, all the visceral fear and fury of those who are absolutely certain that their enemy is the Devil and they are on the side of the angels. And these were self-confessed Christians. In the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I looked from pigs to men and from men to pigs, and already I could not tell the difference. And that’s when I remembered Paul Watzlawick and his pragmatics of human communication.

I realized I was confronted with a moral dilemma that I couldn’t face—the slaughter of the innocents. I was helpless to do anything except inwardly rail against the perpetrators. The situation was too complex for me to handle, so I simplified it. I had divided my perceptual world in two: Christians and Muslims. But of course it’s much more nuanced than that. It’s Sunni against Shiite, Kurdish against Iraqis, caliphate against sovereign states, America against rebel forces, economic interests against religious and political ideologies, men against women and children, hate-filled Christian extremists against fanatical Islamic jihadists.

But even that was still too simple, a binary response to something multi-faceted and entangled. I recalled something I’d read years ago by William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian and philosopher: “We become the thing we hate,” he said. And I remembered, too, how easily we are manipulated by media images, and how adept political and military groups have become at the propaganda arts. Our instant and ubiquitous media draws us all across the lines in the sand. By watching we become changed—and not for the better. All those Christian groups glued to their YouTube videos, who thought Hamas and Islamic State would be in our streets next week unless we nuked them, would be more likely to turn on their neighborhood mosque or to beat up someone wearing a hijab on the Metro.

I am not at all settled on this. I could visualize myself, with the best intentions, running out into no mans land with my hands out, imploring both sides to cease fire, and getting shot before I could make my eloquent statement. Where am I on the non-violence idea? Generally for it, from the safety of my Maryland suburb. Children in Mosul were being beheaded, said a Chaldean-American activist on CNN. Is that true? I shudder to think so, and yet my children have their heads on their shoulders in the sweet summer evening air. Am I to feel guilt because we are safe, our home has not been bombed, my wife and daughter have not been raped? Guilt of that sort doesn’t seem productive and yet my heart can feel the terror and the blind rage and the sheer relief of having survived an attack, all in my imagination.

Hobbes thought the world was a place of constant terror, a life that was, as he famously put it, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Kant was steadfast against lying and murder, for any reason, and Aristotle counseled moderation in all things. Courage and prudence were cardinal virtues that didn’t need to be moderated; how could you be too courageous or too prudent? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that Christian exemplar of integrity and ethics, said, ‘When a horse is running wild in the street, you stop the horse.’ There is a time for words and a time for action, he seemed to be saying. Pacifist that I am would I hesitate to shoot someone about to murder women and children? The Tao cautions that violence should be the absolute last resort, and be discharged with sorrow and not with triumph.

What is becoming clearer to me is that we are, all of us in this tortured, dark, yet beautiful world, bound to one another. The death of one—any one—impoverishes all of us. This, I am convinced, is not New Age ignorance disguised as bliss. It is, rather, part of the virtues of humility and courage that Jesus and others exemplified. We cannot not communicate. All that we are, says the Dhammapada, is a result of what we have thought. Our revolution begins from the inside—and affects the world.

An Education in Transcendence

“An education in transcendence prepares us to see beyond appearances into the hidden realities of life—beyond facts into truth, beyond self-interest into compassion, beyond our flagging energies and nagging despairs into the love required to renew the community of creation.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known


That we are alone in this world is a fact which is confirmed by movies, reality shows, advertising, and economic self-help theories. That this is, in fact, false is something we must learn. 


I don’t mean alone in merely a physical or social sense. I once had a colleague, a recent arrival from China, who went to a public gathering on the 4th of July in Baltimore and felt a sense of panic because she was in a crowd numbering only a few thousand. It’s all in what you’re used to apparently. 


This kind of aloneness is not that of the weary commuter on the train gazing without seeing as the stations blur past. Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman, dying on the floor of his bathroom, a needle stuck in his arm, was alone in the way we are told is the norm.   


This kind of aloneness is deeply American, although other cultures are sensing its allure. It’s a strand of ideological DNA which causes moral palsy in some: the hand outstretched to help twitches, the cup of cold water crashes to the floor.


We are taught to be unique at an early age. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” drummed the message in with eloquence and fervor: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And again: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”


There is something thrilling in these lines, and in many others that Emerson writes. He hated the mob, the unthinking crowd so easily swayed by demagogues and charlatans. He wanted people to think for themselves, to see themselves as individuals. 


What the nation needed in 1841, he thought, was a sense of the present, not the past. Europe was the past: for all its intellectual glories it could not be the template for America. The country needed to build itself from the ground up and the way to do it was to boldly go where no nation had gone before. A nation of individuals, each one pursuing his or her course with a sturdy vigor, was the ideal. 


But somewhere along the way that centrifugal honesty snapped its line and arced away. What we see now is not Emerson’s neighborly self-reliance, but what Parker Palmer calls an endless power struggle between the self and the world. Each self is convinced it is in a battle for survival, with dominance over the world the only possible goal. 


Palmer has been a teacher for decades, a Quaker by choice, and a thoughtful critic of an educational system that trains people for arrogance rather than service. 


He suggests that our hunger for knowledge arises from two sources: curiosity and control. Curiosity for its own sake is amoral, a need to know that shrugs off any restraint. Control “is simply another word for power.” Together, curiosity and control can generate knowledge that leads us toward death, not life. 


But there is another kind of knowledge that contains just as many facts and theories as the knowledge we now possess, but that springs from something other than mere curiosity and control. “A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself (To Know as We Are Known 8).”


This is not a sentimental warm fuzzy kind of love, he notes, but a tough love—“the connective tissue of reality”—and we find it most often in community. 


Palmer talks about “community” a great deal, a word that splays out in so many directions these days that it’s hard to grasp what it means. I can sense that it’s a good thing, though, and as spiritual qualities go, it tops any wish list I could draw up. I’m just not sure how it comes about.


Palmer ties it to transcendence, a word often misunderstood. We need to think of transcendence as not being drawn up and out of life to an eternal realm, but as a sideways impulse, a breaking in of the Spirit which breathes hope and trust into us. That’s the kind of transcendence which happens in community, a practical notion of love with its feet on the ground and its heart aflame with Jesus incarnate—God among us.


I get a much clearer sense of what ‘community’ can mean when Palmer speaks of a “discipline of mutual encouragement and mutual testing, keeping me both hopeful and honest about the love that seeks me, the love I seek to be (To Know as We Are Known 18).”


At Sligo I have found community in the study group I belong to, Believers and Doubters. For years we have prayed together, argued together, studied the Bible and books about it together, laughed and suffered together, and suffered the loss of members together. I would not trade it for anything. It has been an “education in transcendence.” 

Change the R**sk*ns Name!

“Just tell the Oneida crowd we know how excruciatingly painful it must be to have to hear “Hail to the Redskins!” but are confident they have the moxie and the manhood to deal with it.” — Pat Buchanan

If a name offends a minority of people should it be changed? The Washington Bullets changed their name in the 80s when the city was known as the murder capital of the country. The owner, Abe Pollin, didn’t want to reinforce the image of violence that plagued the city in those days. Of course, as soon as the name was changed to the Wizards there were grumblings from conservative Christians about witchcraft and sorcery. The change of name was definitely for the better, but it brought no magic to the team’s win-loss record.  
The Washington Redskins first played as the Boston Braves in 1932. The owner, George Preston Marshall, changed the name to the Boston Redskins in 1933, and when the team moved to Washington, DC in 1937 they kept the name but changed the city. Along with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and a handful of college sports teams, these names have drawn criticism for decades. 
In the case of the Redskins, team owners from George Marshall to Jack Kent Cooke have resolutely refused to change the name. Dan Snyder, the current owner, is even more adamant. In a letter to USA Today, May 2013, Snyder said, “NEVER—you can put that in caps.” 
Pat Buchanan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and one-time presidential candidate, wrote a column mocking Oneida Indian Nation leader Ray Halbritter, who said in a letter to Snyder, “Native Americans do not want their people to be hurt by such painful epithets.”

Buchanan thought this was both absurd and intolerant on the part of Halbritter and his supporters. He quoted an unnamed source who admired the Native Americans because they fought bravely, stood their ground, and didn’t whine when they were attacked by Europeans bent on taking their lands and killing them off. Naming a football team or any team after Indians, said Buchanan, shows real respect for these proud people. Halbritter should suck it up and realize that we mean no harm—it’s actually a compliment. 

Furthermore, where would the censuring stop? If Halbritter took offense at Snyder’s intransigence what should be done about Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which called Native Americans “merciless Indian Savages”?
 

Should the statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman be pulled down because he wrote to Ulysses S. Grant calling for the extermination of all Indians—men, women, and children? 

Should the face of Teddy Roosevelt be blasted off Mt. Rushmore for disputing Sherman’s opinion that the only good Indian is a dead one? T. R. was more sensitive than that: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Buchanan’s argument followed a familiar tactic of reversing the charges: if Halbritter accused Snyder of disrespecting Native Americans he himself should show some tolerance and respect. I’m sorry you took offense; I meant no harm.
W. James Antle III, writing in The National Interest, took a different line. He argued that polls taken over the years do not show a majority of those polled in favor of changing the name. He admitted that institutions should sometimes “change even cherished customs and traditions out of respect for others.” But that would require, he said, “mutual respect, a desire to let other communities keep what is important to them without powerful reasons to the contrary.” There aren’t enough powerful reasons as yet, according to Antle. We must keep the fundamental difference clear between doing what is right and “doing something at the behest of the politically and culturally powerful.”
 

So who has the power here? The Native Americans’ request to cease and desist with offensive names is overruled because a majority of people polled don’t think it’s important. Yet, if the Native Americans got their way that would be bowing to the whims of the politically and culturally powerful. 

Have some patience, says Antle. Chill out. Perhaps the tide of public opinion will shift in your favor some day.
More likely, he concludes, the activists will wear everyone down with their incessant complaining, and the important people, the ones who have important things to worry about, will decide it’s not worth the bother.  What a shame that would be, giving in to such pressure.
Buchanan and Antle and those who buy these specious arguments believe that these matters are too trivial for serious consideration. They cling to their stereotypes, formed in their youth, in which the cowboys and Indians fought across their Sunday TV screens—and the cowboys always won. To admit that Native Americans have the right to be treated like any other self-respecting ethnic, religious, sexual or racial group would be to grant them power which they don’t deserve. After all, we won and they lost.
 

It’s a Catch-22: teams adopt these names because they admire the toughness of the Indians in fending off genocide, but if the Indians complain they are wimping out and betraying their noble heritage. The team owners won’t listen to them because they lack power, but if they were to get power they would be uppity. The harmony of the Union demands that such groups be kept in their place.

Let us restate the obvious: people like Buchanan and Antle have the right to speak their minds. They get paid good money to do so. Those who wish to believe them can line up and pay the admission price for the show under the big tent. But times change and so do ideas and values. They may yet realize they were on the wrong side of history, but by then they will be as anachronistic as cowboys-and-Indians westerns. 

Being Justin Bieber

“I don’t know who I am, But you know life is for learning.” — Joni Mitchell, Woodstock


I’ve been thinking about Justin Bieber this week, about him racing his Lamborghini up a street in Miami Beach, about him telling the arresting officer that he had been drinking and smoking weed, about him cursing the cop as he was being patted down for weapons, about him smiling as he was photographed at the jail, about him making bail after eight hours in jail, and about him emerging from the police station into a forest of mics and thickets of reporters and clutches of fans. How fortunate he is, I thought, he has been blessed with a stutter-step out of his routine; he now has time to regard himself. 


The ancient Romans had a shrine to the goddess Fortuna. She was often depicted with a cornucopia spilling out with all good things, or an orb of sovereignty delicately balanced between her thumb and forefinger. Most who worshipped her also knew to fear her because she was fickle and capricious: she would shower gifts on a person and just as cruelly withdraw them to enjoy her subject’s misery.  


Cicero, Roman orator and statesman, invoked her as the symbol of the ceaseless rise and fall of people and empires, and Seneca’s play Agamemnon had a chorus which chants, “Whatever Fortune has raised on high/she lifts but to bring low.”


Seneca and Cicero might kindly advise Justin Bieber to place his trust elsewhere than in the hands of his publicity agent, his lawyers, and his handlers. 


The media, today’s equivalent of Fortuna, raised him up to glory and will now exact its price in blood. There is no pain so deep that CNN and E! cannot make a ratings killing from it. The incident will be examined in excruciating detail, legal experts will be called in, maps will be drawn and bystanders interviewed. The judge will make a statement, the arresting officer will be grilled at length with questions like, “What was going through your mind as Justin Bieber was cussing you out?” And so forth. 


It’s all entertainment, all of it, from the racing to the display of the arrest report to the coverage of Bieber’s release to his inevitable statement afterward. There’s nothing in this whole incident— or any others which may follow — that cannot be commodified, wrung dry for its glitter and grunge, or spun off into auxillary revenue. 


In 1985, Josh Meyrowitz, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, published No Sense of Place:The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. The book won an award in 1986 from the National Broadcasting Association for its insights on television’s power to influence our social roles. Meyrowitz wrote that television is the ‘secret exposing’ machine in society that gives us unprecedented views behind the scenes. What once occurred behind doors or beyond carefully guarded physical boundaries is now exposed for all to see. Meyrowitz argued that the roles we play and witness in our lives are now played out to audiences who are not physically present to us in arenas that do not exist in time and space. In other words, electronic media has made actors of all of us and we are always on stage. 


“Truly different behaviors require truly distinct situations,” he says. We react in predictable ways because we associate certain behaviors with certain physical and social situations. But our ability to accept each other in specific roles relies on our unawareness of that person in other roles. For example, a young woman might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a doctor whom she recognizes as a boy who had a crush on her in high school. “By selectively exposing ourselves to events and other people, we control the flow of our actions and emotions,” says Meyrowitz. “Compassion, empathy, and even ethics may be much more situationally bound than we often care to think.” 


The focus of his research was on television’s ability to break down the walls between actors and audiences and to influence the roles we play in our everyday lives. This was in 1985—two years after Sony introduced the first camcorder, a hand-held movie camera that could record film on inexpensive video cassettes. By 1987 JVC had produced a camcorder with broadcast-quality performance. Less than 20 years after the book was published most people carry smartphones that can shoot high-quality stills and video. More than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, 80% of it from outside the US. Governments have toppled, politicians have been ousted, marriages dissolved, and cats elevated to cultural icons—all because everything we do can be seen by millions in minutes. 


“All the world’s a stage,’ said Shakespeare, “and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts . . .” 


I can’t help thinking that Justin Bieber, like Kanye West, is a brand rather than a person; that no matter what the occasion or the incident—whether it be carefully scripted or emotionally fraught—it’s all footage for the audience, the beast that must be fed. The fact that both Bieber and West occasionally lash out at the paparazzi only increases the suspicion that they are trapped in a cage of their own making. 


Bieber may not yet be fully aware that his life is not his own, that everything he does is on camera for all the world to see and judge. He is a money-making machine, 24/7, with no time off for good behavior. At times he seems both bewildered and bored, yet he compulsively tweets his most solitary and lonely moments. 


Joshua Meyrowitz thought that what children had formerly learned at a later stage from parents, older siblings, or books, was now available for the taking from television without preparation or preamble. Television had changed our sense of place and space; all backstage behavior was now onstage. Similarly, the ever-present cameras not only give us almost immediate access to situations and their behaviors, but “They give us, instead, new events and new behaviors.”


We don’t know whether to be titillated or embarrassed by behaviors we see on YouTube and television. Through such constant surveillance we are creating situations for ourselves that we have no experience interpreting. But the more awkward the situation the greater the selling point, until we are caught in an escalating rush toward a jaw-dropper such as Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.


Life presents us with countless opportunities to learn, but if we are floating on the surface of our experiences we may not even be conscious of them as anything but a succession of moments. Only as we step back, reflect, and see ourselves can we learn from our changes. It’s a lesson Justin Bieber could learn too, but I’m not hopeful he can see it.