Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Babel and Babble

Today's thoughts are inspired by this posting over at Nancy's Apology. Nancy wants to lead some discussions at her Meeting, but is worried about how hard it can be to lead a good discussion when people are so sensitive about language. Her brilliant solution is to have the first discussion be about language use itself!

I've been thinking a lot about the polarizing forces in our culture today, and wondering (a) why people seem to disagree so sharply with each other, and (b) why they get so upset about disagreeing. Are our differences really that extreme? Are they worth getting really upset with each other about? Are differences of belief -- even strong ones -- worth breaking relationships over?

So, I have found myself meditating on the Tower of Babel story in a new way. My meditations began with this posting over at Bible Wonderings. Suppose we try this (admittedly radical) thought experiment, and replace God in the story with some very powerful human being, preferably one whom you think is not using his or her power terribly well. And replace the people in the story -- the tower-builders -- with your people -- the people you most like and identify with, working together happily and productively towards your cause.

Suddenly the story looks very different.

Is this what in fact is happening in our world at this time?

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If you are in power, and you feel your power threatened, a very effective strategy to re-consolidate your power is to get the people who threaten you to start fighting each other. You magnify the slight differences of belief among them; and you encourage people to base their regard for each other on shared belief, so that these differences become reasons to actually dislike each other. Disagreement becomes synonymous with disliking, disloyalty, and disrespect. And now, as the people fight amongst themselves, not only do they cease organizing a challenge to your power, but their attention has been deflected away from you and what you are doing with the power you have re-consolidated.

The Babel story is very much a double-edged sword kind of story. It can be read both ways: as a caution about pride, but also as an explanation of what might be going on when good people who should be able to get along well together find themselves reduced to ineffectiveness because they end up bickering among themselves over differences that may not really be all that important -- or may even just be misunderstandings rather than actual differences!

So, it is an urgent question of our time how to maintain relationship and facilitate effective communication over (apparent) differences.

My suggestion to Nancy applies in general: when you find yourself in the presence of, or part of, a conversation becoming tense, try to guide it back to actual experiences. Ask questions like: "have you had important experiences that have shaped your beliefs in this respect?" The more people come back to actual experience, the more likely it is that they can come to understand each other more sympathetically, and find common ground again.

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