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David Hegg: Some things in life deserve to be special

Ethically Speaking

Posted: December 25, 2010 10:16 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Several years and multiple studies on the efficiency of communication have come and gone since Marshall McLuhan shocked the world by saying what we all knew but were afraid to admit: “The medium is the message.”

Of course, we can debate the overall merits of his declaration. But we all understand it at some level — that the way something is presented, packaged, extended, contextualized, introduced, illustrated or otherwise delivered absolutely will determine the way most of the audience will understand, value and act on it. Let’s talk through some illustrations:

- What would have been the impact of the Gettysburg Address if Lincoln had shown up to the graveyard dressed in his day’s equivalent of shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops?

- What would have been the impact of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech if it had been delivered in a monotone?

- What would America think if President Barack Obama decided to break with tradition and deliver the State of the Union speech via a series of cell phone texts instead of live before the Congress and other leaders from the floor of the Senate chamber?

I think I could multiply other examples, but I want to move on to the point. It is neither proper nor beneficial to wrap the noble, serious, extraordinary and special in a package that is ignoble, frivolous and common. When you’re representing something serious, don’t be Bart Simpson.

My purpose is to speak to the prevailing sense in our culture that “approachability” is the highest value in communication and life. That is, we need to strip away everything that in any way might be seen as pretentious. In this case, “approachability” is seen as the opposite of the “authority” style of communication. The “authority” model assumes the speaker or agent comes from the position of knowing something the audience needs to know.

Clearly, this model has risks. Authoritative teaching can easily morph into authoritarian abuse. Most recently, those who reject the notion of “absolute truth” have used the potential abuse of the “authority” model as a reason to reject it out of hand.

More and more, especially in the minds of the postmodern thinker, any message is considered to be suspect if it is delivered in a way that suggests the speaker has some advantage over the listener.

Such an “authoritarian” means of communicating — in post-modern terms — is really an attempt to exert power over the listener. To “overpower” the listener is really the goal, and everything from the way the speaker dresses, to the words and tone of voice used, is focused at moving the listener to think and act in the way the speaker is advocating. This is true in speaking, advertising and any other medium where one party seeks to influence another. The post-modern world is screaming, “You better not approach us with any sense of authority. We’re not going to listen.”

But the problems associated with an “approachability” model are deep. One of the most noticeable, and most tragic, is the desire to make everything in life “common.” Everything in life needs to be “dressed in blue jeans.”

I love blue jeans. They are comfortable, and actually are increasingly acceptable almost everywhere. But the real question is: Should they be? Should the nobility of certain venues, events and occasions be stripped away by the prevailing wind that says anything noble is actually a pretentious act of power? Should Lincoln have given his address in blue jeans and flip-flops?

Not long ago I was approached by a couple who wanted to get married in blue jeans and have some pizza afterward. They were sincere and nice people, but they had been beguiled by our “approachability” culture into thinking that a wedding is not a special thing.

In fact, there are no “special” things; everything is a common thing. Every event in life, every truth in life, every occasion in life is common, a blue jeans and pizza thing.

All around our society, there is a growing trend to take that which has always been seen as serious and worthy of a higher sense of decorum and description, and dress it in the “blue jeans” of everyday slang and a general sense that this isn’t special. This trend sees the goal as a flattened society, where there is no high culture, no necessity of decorum or separation of the noble from the mundane.

But when this happens, we lose in two areas. We lose that spice of life that comes from having something special to look forward to. We wrap ourselves in the deceit of the moment, only to look back years later to find that we missed out on the mountains because we persisted in calling them prairies.

And any culture worth preserving must recognize that both are beautiful, and you can’t know the beauty of one without the other.

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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