Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Concrete Symbolism

I often feel that I am on the verge of some great insight, something that will reveal to me what this thing we call life is all about. It seems that whatever it may be, it is always just out of reach – sometimes at my fingertips and other times more than an arm’s length away – but it’s always there. Since beginning my study of communication in earnest, that feeling is more profound than ever, but at the same time the frustration of not being able to grasp it has become more pronounced. How does one describe what is beyond definition? Words, for all the robustness and versatility they hold, are painfully inadequate.

Yet this is what we have. Symbolic communication – via words and otherwise - is the hallmark of the human enterprise; it separates us from the rest of the living. We are connected by the ability to think in and communicate those thoughts symbolically with each other. But the thoughts are not symbols – they are real. Our representations are abstract images of what we think, they are not the same as the substance of thought. Since symbols are the product of a process of encoding, and interpretation one of decoding, vast rifts can form between intention and interpretation. For all our ability to communicate, we still fall woefully short in transmitting and receiving messages. The greatest achievement of our species, therefore, is wrought with infinite variability in how what one says is turned into meaning by another.

Despite it’s imprecision communication has given rise to human domination of the planet. We have climbed to the top of the food chain in very short order. We are not the biggest or the strongest; not the fastest or the longest lived, but through our intellect and the ability to symbolically share our view of the world with one another, a degree of cooperation has occurred sufficient enough to have mastered our environment. Indeed, we have created it. Yet for all that communicative prowess, when someone looks at us the wrong way we read into it all the evil the world has to offer. For all the civilization we have created, we too often act with abject savagery. Differences of opinion beget personal affronts and peace, the very thing we (all humans, all the time) say we strive for, is lost in the destruction of what we have built.

Perhaps we will master the art of communication someday. Maybe that is what is just out of reach, a formula of encoding and decoding that leaves no room for interpretation – concrete symbolism might be the next great achievement of the human race. Computers can do it – digital instructions are followed to the letter (or number) without variation, without judgment. But if and when that day comes, what will be left for us to say? It is the very nature of six billion visions of the world, six billion symbolic representations and six billion interpretations that makes life the dynamic experience it is. With no variation, there is no humanity - even when some of those variants seem so very inhumane.

Monday, September 06, 2010

It's Not About the Boobies

A local high school student, Hunter Cooper, 15, is getting more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame. It happens sometimes when the planets align just so and the event, the social climate and decisions made by certain authorities combine into the perfect public relations storm. And Cooper has found himself in the eye of it. His claim to fame? He wore a rubber bracelet to school emblazoned with a slogan deemed offensive by administrators at Rocklin High School in Rocklin, Calif. The bracelet is part of Keep A Breast Foundation’s breast cancer awareness campaign. The slogan, “i [heart] boobies,” is aimed at raising awareness among young people and if the current media bonfire is any indication, it has done that and more. The uproar in this case, however, has less to do with a school’s right to limit certain freedoms of expression and more to do with the reasoning behind the disciplinary action taken against Cooper by school administrators.

According to a Sacramento Bee story that ran today, Cooper complied with his physical education teacher’s demand that he take the bracelet off, but when the teacher asked him to hand it over, Cooper started to ask questions regarding his teacher’s reasoning. He was told the slogan was demeaning to women and that there had been complaints. According to the Bee, Cooper responded, “If girls feel that way, then why are so many wearing the bracelets as well?” The response he received was a one-day suspension for being defiant. Other news sources tell essentially the same story, including quotes from Rocklin High School Principal Mike Garrison that establish the school’s rationale for the policy and the authority behind it. Schools do, in fact, have a great deal of authority regarding disruptive or offensive expression that would otherwise be protected under the First Amendment. This is not about that; this is about the so-called defiance.

Cooper raised a legitimate question – one that could have easily been answered in a dialogue that would have taught him far more than blind adherence to authority. Granted, this case could well have occurred in such a way that Cooper’s attitude was in fact defiant, that he was not legitimately seeking clarity and he was inviting a confrontation, but as reported none of that is apparent. Cooper is, by most standards, still a kid. But he is at an age when he is beginning to think critically and that should be encouraged. The answer to his question is simple and if it had been provided in a mature manner, he would have learned how thinking critically is applied in one of a lifetime's worth of real-time situations. They could have pointed out his glaring logical fallacy; that just because some women do not find it offensive, that does not make it inoffensive to all women. They might have followed up by citing case law that gives schools authority to limit certain First Amendment rights – or at least the rationale behind those limitations. If Cooper then refused to remove the bracelet (which, by all accounts he already had), they could have concluded the lesson for the day and issued the appropriate disciplinary action. To a young adult, the answer, “Because I said so,” should no longer be sufficient. They should be asking “why.”

Cooper engaged in a losing argument, but the way in which it transpired he could never know it. Indeed, he never got to lose his argument; it ended by force before it began. And force should only and always be a last resort. The school played its trump card way before it was necessary and lost out on an educational experience that could not easily be simulated in the classroom. In the classroom of life the consequences are real - the very foundation of our nation was represented by this single exchange. At some point kids need to be treated as real, thinking adults and when adults in authority squash their questions in an egotistical application of power, what does that teach them? Cooper may well have been motivated by an opportunity to be defiant – to exert his power justified by the righteousness of his cause. Or he may have legitimately wanted to know why he was told to remove what he believed to be nothing more than a sign of support. Either way, the school missed a golden opportunity to do what it is supposed to do – teach.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Good Old Days

My middle son turns 23 today. My youngest will be 21 next month and my eldest, now 26 has a son of his own with another child on the way. All this has happened before I turn 48 later this year. I guess that means I’m getting old, but I don’t feel old. And except for the grandchildren, this was all foreseeable – one only need do the math. But I don’t recall ever putting in the effort to do that math… it kind of catches me off guard every time one of these milestones rolls around. My kids are not kids anymore and have not been for some years now. Sure, they’re kids in the same respect anyone 25 years my junior is, but at the same time, these are adults we are talking about. And each has made some very adult decisions that carried with them both negative and positive consequences. It was not that long ago that I was their age – I didn’t forget.

In some ways, however, it seems like a thousand years ago. So much has changed in the world in such a short time. My children never played a record or actually “dialed” a phone. They have never been subjected to black and white TV and the handful of stations that came into the home from an antenna. And this, we are told, is progress. They grew up with the Internet and are as used to it being an everyday part of their lives as my bicycle was in my youth. By the time they were in the latter stages of grade school the paper route had gone the way of the dinosaur and afterschool daycare was a necessary evil. Although technological evolution is inevitable, it feels as though it is moving at a logarithmic rate… or maybe it’s because I have a larger frame in which to view it from. Perhaps mine is no different from every other generation in the recent, post-industrial, past, each looking back from a half-century of experience to the “good old days.”

My life will come to an end well before this century comes to a close. If I live to be 100, I’ll see 2062 and no more, and that is a big “if.” But my kids should see the latter part of this century and their children have a good shot at celebrating the turn of the next; I can only imagine what kind of world they will be living in. The human race is unique among all the species in that we plan not only for our own future, but that of our posterity as well. We have been working to make the world a better place for millennia all the while knowing that the immediate and short-term benefits we realize pale in comparison to what we are building for generations to come. The ever increasing pool of knowledge we have been filling for the past several thousand years is not just ours to benefit from now, but to contribute to for those that come long after we are all gone. Why?

And to be clear, it is not just the technology that is advancing at an alarming rate. We are also growing culturally into a world-society, though with the wars and conflicts that we seem to pass through with great regularity, it could be argued that we are still somewhat primitive when it comes to getting along. Still, great strides have been made when it comes to tolerance and equality even if the current status is a long way from ideal. I am hopeful that with advances in human communication – and with the help of technology – there will come a time when my offspring will not be faced with conflict resolution through force. A lofty dream perhaps, but it is what we, as humans, have always worked towards – even if that security, at various points in our short history, was reserved for certain humans and not others. As the world grows smaller and as our population continues to grow, our children will have to find a means to work together – and I believe they will.

I have great hope that a better world awaits my young sons. I don’t know of any parent who feels any differently. But it won’t just happen; we have to continue to show the way even when that journey is an uphill climb. I have a vision of a world in which conflict and differences of opinion can be worked out by human communication, leaving the need for force as a lesson in the history books. It can happen – it’s going to have to or there won’t be anyone left to read those history books just a few generations down the line. The dinosaurs ran the store here for millions of years, we have been at the wheel just a few thousand. If we want to last as long as they did, we’d better learn to live together. Nothing can wipe us out faster than we can.