Friday, October 12, 2007

The Age of Cacophony

PG Wodehouse once wrote in his 1952 novella 'Pigs have Wings', "silence had come like a poultice to heal the blows of sound." Each time I read that sentence I think of how true and incisive that is in my own life. I rarely watch television. Unlike the old days I don't like heated political debates any more either on TV or in person. It's not because I dislike being challenged in my views. There's actually nothing I like better than thinking through differing opinions and arriving at the truth, or often the 'why' of the 'what' that I do. It's sheer pleasure to put it in a few crisp words and realize the world of truth behind them. No, the reason I dislike debates, TV news and contentious discussions is because ours is not an age of reason, but one of soundbytes masquerading as reason.

Let's put this to test. What would you like to prove? Let's assume you would like to prove Jesus did not exist. There are a number of books out there that reject outright the historicity of Jesus, all of them considered less than scholarly by true experts in the field. See Wikipedia for details. But these books are not meant for people seeking the truth- they are meant for those who already want to believe Jesus did not exist. Some who oppose Christianity, some others who have a political agenda in trumping Jesus' historicity, others who are caught in behaviours considered sinful by Christians... the list could include many persuasions, but these all find fodder for their cannon in such books. Among these are people who are only casually looking and are prepared to be dismayed or shocked or set right- but they aren't hungry enough for the truth. These are the ones to whom soundbytes appeal more and more- and I think these are what most of us are, or are about to become. Instant news, instant knowledge, instant decisions on matters that have taken lifetimes for wise people to dwell on.

Let's assume that you want to prove that the crusades were misunderstood as acts of hatred, that in reality they were labours of love. Or, that the crusaders did not include at least some real Christians. Or, you want to justify the terror the British government and the East India Company unleashed on Indians by citing some scientific progress that came along in the wake of the industrial revolution that they passed along to India. Or, more far-fetched, you want to prove that the Nazi holocaust may have had a positive effect because it eventually produced the nation of Israel.. Or, assume you are someone who interprets all evil acts to have been 'worth it' because great people have been produced by them- Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn. The more I see things on TV or in print, the more I'm convinced that all of it is possible. Anything you want to prove can be written or said- and people will believe it if it makes enough noise.

Thus an atheist calling his community of God-denyers 'the brights' appeals to people to trust them because they are intelligent and anyone who disagrees with them isn't. A homosexual rights activist equates his/her struggle to the civil rights movement and gains sympathy for the cause. A Hindu fundamentalist in India decries any silence on the part of a Muslim when a Hindu is murdered, and in the same breath justifies the murder of a Muslim by a Hindu as something that happens when minorities are appeased. An American nationalist is certain that anyone who does not fight the war on terror alongside the US is against the US, while their own sympathies are far away from terrorist attacks in faroff countries, especially those of the Third World.

I like Google News because I get to read one point of view and deliberately look for something that is opposed to that view. It's possible to get the truth somewhere in between- if you look hard enough. I like Wikipedia because, though it may be biased, its discussion pages contain real debate on arriving at the truth. I truly hate TV because it commands us what to think. Take the recent Ann Couter controversy on Jews vs. Christians.

Coulter claimed that Christians were perfected Jews, and that its not a hateful comment because Christians think of themselves that way and do not force Jews to become as they are. Her host on CNBC, Donnie Deutsch, was outraged and offended as he is Jewish. He felt this was anti-Semitic. Coulter clarified that she meant Christians consider the New Testament and the Old Testament to be true, while the Jews do not believe the New Testament. Deutsche, instead of responding to that, said, "You said - your exact words were, "Jews need to be perfected." Those are the words out of your mouth."

Now there is a public outcry for Coulter to be banned from TV. I really do not have a stake in this one way or another. But consider this for a moment. We all know that Ann Coulter has courted controversy all through her current career. Deutsche behaves like a typical talk show host- all soundbytes and no reason. Regardsless of how thoughtless Ann may have sounded, Christians consider Christianity as the logical extension of Judaism; they also believe that simply stopping at Judaism is not enough. To say that Christians are perfect is going overboard and certainly arrogant-sounding; but in our age of political correctness saying anything at all about one faith comparing favourably against another is unacceptable and persumably leads to violence.

We must remember that in the minds of TV's spin doctors all of this selective- for instance it doesn't (they presume) lead to violence if an atheist mocks theism, or the Hindu American Foundation mocks Christianity but fights textbook material in the US on Hinduism because they perceive the material to be offensive, or a Muslim in Saudi Arabia discrimnates against Hindus or Jews. It all depends on the context. The loudest soundbyte wins. There is no reasoning through the existential questions we face; we just want to see a good fight and set the winner up as we see fit.

What happens in this age of cacophony when truth is hard to find and the truth-speaker has to make himself heard above the din of voices? It's tougher, of course, especially for a Christian. You see attacks on the message and the messengers of the Gospel everywhere- some of it caused due to fallen pastors, others due to specious claims made by the contentious. Now more than ever it's time to let God be God, and realize that the mission to proclaim the Truth is first and foremost God's mission. If it can't be heard, it will always touch people the way it's always touched them- not through soundbytes but by experience. Perhaps this is what Simone Weil meant when she said truth needs to be experienced and not heard; only then does it become truth to the hearer. Remember Chesterton's words:

The Convert
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

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