Fear of Identity Erosion

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Sound and Fury, the 2000-released, Academy award-nominated documentary film about two families struggling with the impact of having their deaf children receive cochlear implants. These tiny electronic devices are surgically implanted, and will usually improve hearing in deaf patients, but—it is feared by the families featured in Sound and Fury—this improvement will come at the expense of “deaf culture.”

McLuhanThe film is an absorbing exploration of what we mean by culture and identity, and how critically important these concepts are to us. Because here’s the thing—the parents of one of the children being considered for cochlear implants (who are themselves deaf) choose not to have the operation, even though their child has asked for it, and even though it will in all likelihood significantly improve their young daughter’s hearing.

Why? Because improved hearing will negatively affect their daughter’s inclusion in the deaf tribe. I use that word advisedly, because it seems that is what identification comes down to for nearly all of us—inclusion in a group, or tribe. We identify ourselves via gender, language, race, nation, occupation, family role, sexual orientation, etc.—ever more narrowed groupings—until we arrive at that final, fairly specific definition of who we are. And these labels are incredibly valued by us. We will fight wars over these divisions, enact discriminatory laws, and cleave families apart, all in order to preserve them.

And here’s the other point that the film makes abundantly clear: technology forces change. I’m told that American Sign Language (ASL) is the equivalent of any other, fully developed spoken language, even to the point where there are separate dialects within ASL. The anxiety felt by the parents of the deaf daughter about the loss of deaf culture is entirely justified—to the extent that cochlear implant technology could potentially eradicate ASL, and this language (like any other language) is currently a central component of deaf culture. With the steady advance of implant technology, the need for deaf children to learn ASL could steadily decrease, to the point where the language eventually atrophies and dies. And with it deaf culture?

Possibly, yes, at least in terms of how deaf culture is presently defined. To their credit, it seems that the parents featured in Sound and Fury eventually relented, granting their child the surgery, but they did so only after fierce and sustained resistance to the idea. And so it goes with ‘identity groupings.’ We are threatened by their erosion, and we will do all manner of irrational, at times selfish and destructive things to prevent that erosion.

My friend Rafi, in a recent and fascinating blog post, announced that this year, he and his family will mostly forego the Passover rituals which have for so long been a defining Jewish tradition. He writes that, after a sustained re-reading and contemplation of ‘The Haggadah,’ the text meant to be read aloud during the Passover celebrations, he found the message simply too cruel, too “constructed to promote fear and exclusion.” “I’m done with it,” he announces.

Well, at the risk of offending many Jewish people in many places, more power to him. He does a courageous and generous thing when he says no more “us and them,” no more segregation, no more division.

All cultures, all traditions can bring with them a wonderful richness—great music, food, dance, costumes, all of it. But they can also bring insecurity, antipathy and conflict, conflict which can often result directly in people suffering.

Everyone benefits from knowing who they are, where they came from culturally. But no one should fear revising traditions; no one should slavishly accept that all cultural practices or group identities must continue exactly as they are, and have been. Technology may force change upon you, but regardless, recognize that change whatever its source is relentless. Anyone who thinks they can preserve cultural traditions perfectly intact within that relentless context of change is fooling themselves. And neither should anyone think that all cultural traditions are worth preserving.

New identities are always possible. Acceptance and inclusion are the goals, not exclusion and fear. It takes time, careful thought, and sometimes courage, but every human being can arrive at a clear individual understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Choose traditions which welcome others and engender the greater good. Reject those which don’t. If you can do this, and I don’t mean to diminish the challenge involved, you’ll know who you are, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy a rich cultural life.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 2

We tend to forget—at least I do—that, in the history of storytelling, movies came before radio. By about 15 years. The first theatre devoted exclusively to showing motion picture entertainment opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was called The Nickelodeon. The name became generic, and by 1910, about 26 million Americans visited a nickelodeon every week. It was a veritable techno-entertainment explosion.

The thing is, anyone at all—if they could either buy or create the product—could rent a hall, then charge admission to see a movie. To this very day, you are free to do this.

When radio rolled around—about 1920—this arrangement was obviously not on. It’s a challenge to charge admission to a radio broadcast. In fact, the first radio broadcasts were intended to sell radios; this was their original economic raison d’être.

Sadly, very quickly it became illegal to broadcast without a government granted license. (Oddly enough, the first licensed radio broadcast again originated from Pittsburgh.) And almost as quickly, sponsorship became a part of radio broadcasting. The price of admission was the passive audio receipt of an advertisement for a product or service.

An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Maia C photo
An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Maia C photo

Radio shows were much easier and cheaper to produce than movies, and they weren’t always communal in the way movies were, that is they were not always a shared experience. (Although they could be—many a family sat around the radio in the mid part of the 20th century, engrossed in stories about Superman or The Black Museum.)

More importantly, as with book publishing, the gatekeepers were back with radio, and they were both public and private. No one could operate a radio station without a government license, and no one could gain access to a radio studio without permission from the station owner.

Then came television with the same deal in place, only more so. TV shows were more expensive to produce, but like radio, they lent themselves to a more private viewing, and access to the medium for storytellers was fully restricted, from the outset. As with radio, and until recently, TV was ‘free;’ the only charge was willing exposure to an interruptive ‘commercial.’

With the advent of each of these storytelling mediums, the experience has changed, for both storyteller and audience member. Live theatre has retained some of the immediate connection with an audience that began back in the caves (For my purposes, the storyteller in theatre is the playwright.), and radio too has kept some of that immediacy, given that so much of it is still produced live. But the true face-to-face storytelling connection is gone with electronic media, and whenever the audience member is alone as opposed to in a group, the experience is qualitatively different. The kind of community that is engendered by electronic media—say fans of a particular TV show—is inevitably more isolated, more disparate than that spawned within a theatre.

The first commercial internet providers came into being in the late 1980s, and we have since lived through a revolution as profound as was the Gutenberg. Like reading, the internet consumer experience is almost always private, but like movies, the access to the medium is essentially unrestricted, for both storyteller and story receiver.

And that, in the end, is surprising and wonderful. Economics aside for a moment, I think it’s undeniably true that never, in all our history, has the storyteller been in a more favorable position than today.

What does this mean for you and I? Well, many things, but let me climb onto an advocacy box for a minute to stress what I think is the most significant benefit for all of us. Anyone can now be a storyteller, in the true sense of the word, that is a person with a story to tell and an audience set to receive it. For today’s storyteller, because of the internet, the world is your oyster, ready to shuck.

Everyone has a story to tell, that much is certain. If you’ve been alive long enough to gain control of grunt and gesture, you have a story to tell. If you have learned to set down words, you’re good to go on the internet. And I’m suggesting that all of us should. Specifically what I’m advocating is that you write a blog, a real, regular blog like this one, or something as marvelously simple as my friend Rafi’s. Sure, tweeting or updating your Facebook page is mini-blogging, but no, you can do better than that.

Start a real blog—lots of sites offer free hosting—then keep it up. Tell the stories of your life, past and present; tell them for yourself, your family, your friends. Your family for one will be grateful, later if not right away. If you gain an audience beyond yourself, your family and friends, great, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Blog because you now can; it’s free and essentially forever. Celebrate the nature of the new storytelling medium by telling a story, your story.