Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kill The Brain, Kill The Zombie

Once upon a time, in a village in Eastern Europe, there arose an unusual problem. A curious disease afflicted many of the townspeople. It was mostly fatal (though not always), and its onset was signalled by the victim’s lapsing into a deathlike coma… As a result, the townspeople feared that several of their relatives had already been buried alive and that a similar fate might await them. How to overcome that uncertainty was their dilemma.

One group of people thought that the coffins be well stocked with water and food and that a small air vent be drilled into them, just in case one of the dead happened to be alive. This was expensive to do but seemed more than worth the trouble. A second group, however, came up with a less expensive and more efficient idea. Each coffin would have a twelve-inch stake affixed to the inside of the coffin lid, exactly at the level of the heart. Then, when the coffin was closed, all uncertainty would cease…

What is important to note is that different solutions were generated by different questions. The first solution was an answer to the question ‘How can we make sure that we do not bury people who are sill alive?’ The second was an answer to the question, ‘How can we make sure that everyone we bury is dead?’
Neil Postman, Technopoly

Reflection – I am reading this quite wonderful book right now, on the inherent tendency of technology to not simply augment and assist but to dominate and control our lives. The above passage is from a chapter that treats language itself as a sort of technology, and shows how the ability to control the language allows the controllers—the linguistic technocrats—to control both what questions gets asked, how they are framed, and hence what the outcome will be.

This passage, and the rather amusing parable of the villagers’ two approaches to a knotty problem, sheds much light on our contemporary society and its discourse around difficult social issues. How are the questions of our times framed? Who is doing the framing? Can we step back from the actual raw experience that generates difficult social debates and look at how the outcomes of these debates are formed not only by the experiences themselves but by the choices made by those in power—the entertainment-media complex in particular—as to how to frame the terms of those discussions?

For example, is abortion about the right of a woman to self-determination and autonomy, or is it about the protection of a vulnerable human life? So much of the utter inability of the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ sides of this terrible issue to engage in meaningful conversation comes from the fact that they are in fact asking different questions and framing the issue in completely different ways.

Is ‘same-sex marriage’ about extending marriage rights and benefits to an hitherto excluded group or is it about changing the very definition of what marriage is? Completely different conversations emerge from how that question is framed. Physician assisted suicide—is it about how to relive suffering in a compassionate way, or is it about how to protect a vulnerable population (which eventually will include most of us) from being pressured to die?

Those who know me or have read this blog know where I take my stand on these issues, of course. I am Catholic, a loyal son of the Church, and I believe the Church’s teachings on these matters is from God, simply. But the question I raise here is not primarily about the issues themselves, but about the difficulty caused by how they are framed, and the lack of critical thinking that people bring to bear on this business of question-framing and parameter-setting.

Of course this leads to terrible problems in the very capacity of our society to discuss the issues themselves. People who are against abortion are framed as wanting to control women, people who are against ‘same sex marriage’ hate gay people, people who are opposed to physician assisted suicide lack compassion and want the sick and dying to suffer. All of those conclusions come, not from the issues themselves, not from the raw experience of the things themselves, but from the dominant narrative and how it has framed each of these issues.

I can hardly address all of these issues qua issues in a single blog post. Here, I simply wish to observe (without going into a full-bore ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ style rant) that we are being manipulated by the technocrats who control the language of our time, and that the framing of difficult and contentious issues is more often than not used, not so as to provide a careful and judicious exploration of the truth and falsehood of these matters, but to control the discussion, demonize and marginalize those on the ‘wrong side’ of the discussion, and cook the books to provide the outcome those technocrats have determined to be the right one.

And… is this really how a free, dignified, democratic and rational society should go about these things? Or is the twelve-inch stake being thrust, not so much in the mostly dead villager, but in the heart of our civil discourse and free society? Kill the brain, kill the zombie, you know--remove our ability to think clearly, and the undead remnants of Western Civilization will stop flailing around so annoyingly. 

I'm just framing a question here, folks, just asking the question…


  1. I think that the tendency to frame one's point of view in terms that exclude the other goes back as far as language itself. We are social animals, and it's comforting for us to belong to a strong, cohesive group. This leads most people to embrace "group-speak", as a way of ensuring that they are not going to be ejected from the group. We're generally not good at examining our own beliefs and we tend only to notice the evidence we see that supports what we already believe. It's up to the iconoclasts among us to shout as loudly as they can. Go, Neil Postman.

    1. Yes, indeed. Have you read that book, by the way? I think you'd really like it. Critical thinking is crucial for all of us. Of course, framing discourse is to some extent unavoidable - really, it's not in itself a bad thing. How else can we talk about anything? But it's necessary to be mindful that the frame is not the picture, and what's in the picture as we frame it is not the whole of reality. Critique, critique, critique... especially whatever the dominant frame is at any given time. Pax.


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