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"Who or What Are You Listening To?"

A Lay-led Service at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, June 11, 2000

Doris Brody
John McCormack
Quincy Northrup
Bob Willis


Introduction: Who or What Are We Listening To?
by John McCormack

Ours is the age of polyphonic cacophony, as we dramatized this morning in the Electronic Prelude. Each of the voices or tracks that you experienced was scored by professionals, whose job it was to create the voice that would be heard above the din of competing pitches. Each voice was designed to grab your attention, like the shrill cry of a street vender, pleading, cajoling, threatening, promising "Give me your undivided attention and I will reward you richly with . . . ." As you heard in the Prelude, when these voices are presented in concert, the whole is much LESS than the sum of the parts, making it impossible to follow any one voice satisfactorily.

Our polyphonic cacophony is a self-created Babel, not God-imposed as in the OLD TESTAMENT.

It is supposed to give us great opportunity, but gives us no guidance. Bob will ask, it this sensory Screen a distraction, and if so, from what? Quincy will examine how the medium is the Massage, Not just the message. I will speak about the struggles with technosensory addiction. Doris will Explore how a famous media-made American couple had a darker, more ominous side that was ignored by the media, but illuminated in their two recent biographies.

In fact, we can't live like this,
We take in everything at once
We've begun to read or
Mark time. We're forced to begin in
The midst of the hardest movement,
The one already sounding as
We are born.

Adrienne Rich



"ILOVEYOU" appeared on the e-mail screen spread all over the world very quickly, which meant that millions from the Pentagon to Saigon eagerly opened this message to have it then devour all else on their computers, leaving them lots of ILOVEYOUs and nothing else.

Clearly the inventors of this virus are on to something - for millions and maybe billions must get their ILOVEYOUs from their technology. As I thought about this, I realize that this may be somewhat true of myself, that I have a chronic infatuation with and infection by my techno-toys. I have a combined slave and master both in one that, blocks out other things and people. My good wife reports being apprehensive about "intruding" into my relationship with my techno-toys. I can at times realize what a sad and selfish state of affairs I describe when I get some distance from my sensory addiction.

Let me flip to another channel, and when I do, I quickly get into a hockey or a soccer game, pick sides and get fully absorbed again. I must be a techno-sensory junkie. This constant intake of sensory stimuli, like kids with their boom boxes, becomes my focal point, my centering device, my stabilizer in a way that my practice functioned while I was working. I am a person who prefers to, and maybe am capable of focusing comfortably on only one thing at a time. Otherwise I become confused, conflicted and worst yet, paralyzed by my withdrawal syndrome. Like many good UUs, I abhor feeling helpless more that anything else - I suspect. And my techno-toys are and ever present, ever available sensory, emotional, intellectual smorgasbord that surrounds me and infects me, like the ILOVEYOU virus, promising constant stimulation, laughter, entertainment, anxiety (the falling stock market), thrills ( the rising stock market) titillation in theory (but I cant find the porn webs for study purposes. This cyber control, because of its multi-sensory stimulation - feels and looks and acts on the screen, like the real world as it keeps me centered, hooked, infected.

If and when I can turn off this sensory MERRY-GO-ROUND THATS MERRY-GO-ROUND, I must find another center, but it can not, must not be all-consuming, or I will just have traded infections agents, and I wanted out of this tight, stressful spiral when I retired two and a half years ago. I guess old habits die hard, if at all. Seems like a lot of work ahead of me with no real guide or company. Well, besides an apology to my good wife, without whose frequent, gentle interpretations I might not have reached this insight, I guess I can either put this piece into the file or use this opportunity to float an idea . If there are others like myself, technosensory addicts maybe we could meet together and be known an the "over the sensory hill gang,"

"Technosensors Anonymous."

Maybe those of us who can see ourselves in any part of this scenario, regardless of age, race, sexual preference or of the nature of our all- consuming addictions, should hook up and help one another through these desperate waters. Couples and families would of course also be welcomed, but no cell phones, laptops, Beepers nor palmhelds would be allowed in the meetings. We would never exclude those "I must always keep very, very, very busy" addicted Type A folks. The meetings could not, should not be like some family dinners I have heard of where the 6 PM news cast is the center. Hopefully the meetings will have more person-to-person, I-THOU contact per Martin Buber with genuine focus, respect and attention given to each.

Part of the secret to successful addiction programs is daily contact with a sober, friendly, supportive community and this is also something that I could use and probably need daily. A sad statistic reveals that most couples take about 5-10 minutes per WEEK for significant, meaningful conversation, I am implying, I think, that by chance alone, these moments are rare and probably disconnected, held at times of stress and hurry.

On the other hand, the ever- present, ever patient availability of technostimulation is part of its addictive potential, just like the buzz-in-the-jug is the appeal of alcohol, always available upon request, for immediate consumption and immediate effect.

Where am I with all of this today? At step one, trying to curtail my tantrums when approached by my wife, which always seems to happen at the most crucial part of my engagement with my technotoys. We are still working to perfect intentionally setting aside "I-THOU' times regularly, and this is difficult because other issues and crises intervene. Recently we joined a sharing group of four other couples here at RRUC and meet regularly to discuss issues around retirement, this has become a valuable source of information and suggestions. There is much value, warmth and friendship available between and among us all that we unfortunately fail to take the time and make the effort to tap.

It seems, as with all chronic infections, building immunity to my ILOVEYOU viral infection is a slow and painful process of building one antibody at a time, meanwhile experiencing repeated relapses along the way.


Who or What are You Listening to?
by Bob Willis

Several years ago, I was eating lunch by myself in a restaurant. I overheard a group talking at a nearby table. One person remarked, " they say it's going to rain tomorrow." A few moments later, the conversation shifted to movies. A second person noted, "they say that's a good movie." Another movie was mentioned and someone else responded, "they say that's not worth seeing." At that point, I really wanted to turn to them and ask, "Who are they? Who are you listening to? Are you controlled by someone who is feeding information to you like cattle fed at a trough? Don't you have any thoughts of your own?"

I originally thought of this topic for today as an angry response to how we, the public, are fed information and to what extent that information influences us. In the last few years, were you, like me, fed-up -ad nauseum- with sensationalism over the likes of O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and, presently, Elian Gonzalez?

The media is a business and, like all businesses, the bottom line is money. What sells is what gets attention and publicity. The selling part is troublesome because it creates a world of the haves and the have-nots. A poor person, watching an ad for a car, might connect the attainment of a vehicle with a sense of freedom, which is what the ads suggest. A viewer might eventually resort to stealing if that is the only way to attain the car. Ads also glamorize the young and beautiful. This can create stress for those trying to acquire what is idealized. Americans often revere extremes of size, wealth, and beauty and seemingly cannot forgive themselves if they do not measure up to such top-of-the-line attributes. Ads also have made our society a "now" society. If someone has bad breath and is disliked by everyone, but tries a new toothpaste, that person, in 30-seconds, becomes popular. If you have an ache, take a pill. Subliminally, our culture picks up on instant attainment and gratification.

Behind all of this are greed, money, and materialism, which run counter to basic UU values. The ads are the antithesis to independent thinking and creativity. In fact, I hope some of our RE classes focus on media literacy.

Children are the ones most affected by what they watch. Some surveys claim young children watch TV about ten hours per week. Kids are exposed to excessive violence. Madison Avenue also preys on them with high-sugar cereals and junk food. Toy ads could also make children materialistic and greedy.

Our society makes heroes out of billionaires and those with big names in sports and movies. We idolize those persons seen on television. I often look at them and think, "overpaid athlete" or "overpaid actor" since that is all they really are.

Not all of television is harmful. Television has exposed social injustices. Without TV entering the home, perhaps there would be no civil-rights legislation. Also, the opposition to the war in Vietnam arose out of pacifism as well as from of the pain of watching television's images of war and body bags.

With every new technology, there are also social changes. Computers, televisions, and telephones have overcome distance as an obstacle in communication. But, at the same time, these inventions have depersonalized human contact. Folks used to sit on the front porch and talk to their neighbors. TV and air-conditioning took us indoors to a point where we no longer know the person living next door.

Here's a disturbing rhetorical question: is television reflective of our society or is our society reflected in television?

Marshall McLuhan, the noted media expert, was 25 years old when he began his teaching career. He was shocked to find a "generation gap" between himself and his students. Feeling an urgent need to bridge this gap, he found the cause was the effect of mass media on American culture.

McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message" and, as a pun, "the medium is the massage." To quote McLuhan, like the masseuse," all media work us over completely."

In a sermon last fall, our own minister, Scott, suggested that we all take an electronic break from cellular phones, TV's, stereos, etc. I often think of this when I see drivers rushing past me while talking on their phones or joggers with walkmen. Do we always need this type of stimulation? In these cases, we are listening to other voices, but are we avoiding our own voice? Are we so uncomfortable with ourselves? Or is our inner voice rejecting the dominant messages in the media of violence, materialism, greed, and sex?

The topic of "who and what are we listening to" is a very wide-ranging topic relating to the media, education, and popular culture. It is such a broad topic that I found it difficult to deal with only one aspect of it. So, let's hear how the others approached it. Quincy...?


Is the Medium the Massage ?
by Quincy Northrup

In 1967 Marshal McLuhan, standing at a watershed moment in media history, gave us a slim volume of words and images titled, the Medium is the Massage, his introduction, in book form, of the new media, media which combined words and images, to heighten the impact of each. He firmly believed that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which people communicate than by the content of the communication. And that the nature of this new kind of media, particularly it's introduction of the image, through television, was indeed going re shape society into a global village. The transmission of words and images "live" from one end of the earth to another would allow for a simultaneous awareness of the complex group of causes and effects directing peoples lives, would foster unification and involvement between peoples, rendering us irrevocably responsible for one another and compelled to commitment and participation. A new media day was dawning.

Many observers of the history of media in the larger sense have divided it into three rather simplistic stages:

1. The first LISTENING/LOOKING ear and image- preliterate people gathered information mostly with their ears and eyes.

2. The second READING/written word beginning with the introduction of the printing press, which allowed the gathering of information from the printed page

3. The third LOOKING/LISTENING AND READING/Ear- image- word. where we find ourselves today

Each stage has characteristic attributes.

Stage 1 Listening and looking McLuhan notes that primitive and pre-alphabet People integrate time and space as one and live in an "acoustic horizon-less, boundless space rather than a purely visual space". "In communication, they put in everything they know, not just what they see and hear".

Stage 2 Reading alphabet and print technology. In communication, ultimate faith is placed in the written word, linear, abstract, credible by virtue of it's physical presence on the page. Socrates had a strong opinion on the subject noting that "The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learner's soul because they will not use their memories"

Stage 3. Looking listening and reading "Electric informational media" With the reintroduction of image into our media mix as a result of electronic technology, we again have the "multi-dimensional space orientation of the primitive". We are in Chechnea or Sierra Leone or South Korea, experiencing events almost as if we were there. We are seeing and hearing people who are at war, homeless, ill, frightened. We can all recall at least one image that has moved us to action. There is no question that a picture is worth a thousand words.

But unlike the primitive, the sheer amount of information, being continuously updated, may be overwhelming. The result may be that we react passively rather than reflect actively. Are we going down for the last time in what McLuhan called a world pool/whirlpool of information, this incredible media blitz of information at our very finger, ear and eyetips, this incredible media blitz by which we understand, interpret, and gather information about our environment. The good news is there is lots of it, the bad news is there is lots of it. How do we respond to this media deluge?

My First challenge is to get it under control. And I do mean control. Often, it is merely my lack of discipline that leads me to waste time with a magazine or the newspaper or the tv or a computer game. Should I be Joining mediaholics anonymous?

There is some stuff I need not hear: Rush Limbaugh, gangsta rap, unlimited CNN, most campaign speeches. While acknowledging my biases, I sometimes indulge them, and sometimes challenge them. I admit that some Talk radio,is ear candy for me, especially our locals Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnambe.

There is some stuff I need not see: Most TV, the bumper sticker, kill your TV, strikes a responsive note with me. It's demise might allow for the rebirth of real communicational in people in the same space, looking at one another and conversing.

There is some stuff I need not read:

Another story about Elian. Should there be a check out line in the grocery store that does not have magazines that will explain how we can lose 10 pounds over the week-end or the latest spouse shuffling between various Hollywood personalities? I have begun immediately recycling unsolicited professional journals, because I know I'll never get to them. The same with the junk mail which clogs our box at the post office: I sort and toss the unsolicited stuff in the post office lobby.

The next challenge is to stay focused on "useable knowledge" to keep in mind what it is that I really do need or want to gather information about. There are general topics of interest that are ongoing-the arts, health issues immigrants, adoption, gardening. And there are topics that come and go-local politics, foreign affairs, my grandchildren's developmental stages.

Once gathered, the next step could be discussing it with others. I don't make enough time for this. Talking "live" seems best for me but the world is full of chat rooms and virtual cyberspeak. I spotted a wonderful headline in the Post not long ago. "Truth-seeking geeks slice into the web of lies-News for nerds" a report on "open source journalism", digital conversation available at www.slash.com, a possible way to get all sides of a story.

For me, keeping a journal is a crucial part of fighting the flood. I have kept a journal for many years and of course there is a lot in it that is not about anybody's news but my own. But journaling in the midst of this news flood helps me to hear myself over of the roar of the world's chatter. The process of journaling helps me to clarify my thinking on issues or problems. On really important issues, this is a key step. It helps to focus me towards actions consistent with my gathered knowledge.

McLuhan's 30 year old take on the impact of the new media on information gathering has become increasingly valid. Ours is a brand new world of all- at- once- ness. Time has ceased and space has vanished. In McLuhan's words, "the circuited city of the future / is an information megalopolis". And "Clearly the method of our time is to use multiple models for exploration": The computer, the Internet, the cell phone, the TV, DVD, as well as old fashioned books, magazines.

But is this new media shaping society as he had hoped? McLuhan hoped for a world in which people are irrevocably responsible for one another and compelled to commitment and participation. Is this happening? I don't think so. I think that there is a certain degree of passivity generated by the sheer amount of available information. In principle, we Unitarians are a people of Deeds not Creeds. I believe that in order to keep steady with this principle we have to be active in stemming the flood of information to a level we can deal with and actually use. We need to make the media and its information work for us rather than being somehow enslaved by it. It is my belief that realizing McLuhan's hope for the media, actualizing this impact, is an ongoing effort, on all of our parts, to be aware of the role that media plays in our lives. Further, it is up to each of us to reflect on what we can do to sustain the notions of responsibility, commitment and participation for our fellow swimmers in this whirlpool/world pool of information.


What About Conscience?
by Doris Brody

We have heard a lot about who and what bombards us from the media, what we choose to listen to and what we can't help but listen to. I want to raise another question-can we listen to ourselves? Do I dare use the word "conscience?" Is there something we could call conscience that helps us sort out what's right and what's wrong in what we hear and see?

The concept of conscience hasn't always had "good press." A survey of famous authors from Pascal to H.L. Menken brought up the following quotes on the subject of conscience (Pascal) "One never does evil so thoroughly and so gaily as when one does it for conscience's sake." (Luigi Pirandello) "Conscience is nothing but other people inside you." (H.L. Menken) "Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking." Conscience is not a particularly modern concept, either. An Internet search brought up quite a few religious sites, mostly fundamentalist Christian and Catholic. Other sites included references to human and animal rights, a record label, a contact lens solution, a board game for children, and the name of a Belgian novelist. About a third of the sites were in French. None made reference to Unitarians.

Is the concept of conscience relevant to UU's? Can you listen to yourself? And, if you do listen to yourself, can you trust what you hear? Recently I read two biographies of the Lindbergs-one of Charles and one of his wife Anne. Charles Lindberg was celebrated by the media as an American hero for more than a decade. In fact, the media pretty much created Charles Lindberg, the hero. And the media did a terrific job, 73 years after his historic flight across the Atlantic, most people still remember who he was-and probably remember him as a pretty good person. He and his wife built careers on his fame--both wrote and lectured widely. His wife's best-selling book, Gift from the Sea, a semi-religious treatise on how to live your life, is still widely available.

In the biographies that I read, the Lindbergs come across as honorable, introspective people who worried about ethical issues. How, then, I keep asking myself, did they become apologists for Nazi-type racism and fascism-relatively genteel apologists, but apologists, nonetheless? Of course, they weren't the only ones who felt like that in the late 1930's.

But both Lindbergs came from relatively liberal backgrounds. Charles, moreover, continued his crusade long after Krystallnacht and after the severe persecution of Jews in Germany became well known. He fought not only to keep the US out of the war, but also to keep us from aiding the British and the French against the Germans. And his wife supported him.

In the late thirties, the media love affair with Lindbergs was still going strong. He was still widely respected and listened to. In Lindberg's writing of this time, he implicitly denied true citizenship to American Jews, who wanted our country to fight against Hitler. Lindberg said such things as: "We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples (which he called "the Jewish Race") to lead our country to destruction." He said, "The White Race" should look after its own interests and should fight only if "seriously threatened." He did not see Germany as a threat. He elaborated, saying that [the White Race] "can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood." His wife Anne backed him up, saying: "There is no fighting the wave of the future" (by which she meant the rise of the "German spirit.")

How could they say these things? Who were they listening to? Unfortunately many people were listening to them.

Part of the answer, the biographies say, is that Charles Lindberg listened to a Nobel Prize winning scientist, named Alexis Carrel, who was also an eugenicist and who gave Charles, the only non-aviation-related job he'd had. Charles had dropped out of college his first year and, although he later went to flight school and learned many things including navigation very well, he had no real educational background. Carrel must made him feel useful and important and no doubt, as tall and blond and Swedish (at least on his father's side), genetically superior.

I still don't understand it. These people were concerned about ethical issues. Where were their consciences? And why couldn't they, at least correct their mistakes, as, apparently, they couldn't. According to the biographies, Lindberg never actually denounced his pre-war views. Instead, after the war, he stood in Hitler's ruined mountain retreat, commented on the beauty of the scenery and mused on the potential goodness of power and the collapse of dreams. He visited Dachau and condemned the concentration camps, but also questioned whether German brutality was really very different from American atrocities in the Philippines.

I have used the example of the Lindbergs because in many respects they seem to me like good, honorable people, people who believed in doing the right thing. Their story was much more complex than I have time to outline here, but it is still one I don't understand. There are other, similar stories that I also don't understand-all of which lead me to wonder if we really can listen to ourselves. Can we cut through the cacophony of sounds, the collage of images, and the reams of printed words, with which we are assailed each day. Can we cut through the opinions and prejudices of the people we meet and associate with? My personal answer is: maybe.