It is clear that the quality of public discourse in modern Western society has withered on the vine. Both the very existence and celebration of a speech such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” simply shows up this fact all the more painfully. Any attempt to woo and win a protagonist has been buried under an avalanche of slur, toxic hate and, yes, memes. The best way to put forth your argument is no longer to actually have an argument but, thanks to the combination of viral media and the need to belittle your opponent, to dismiss them with a virtual flourish. Hey presto, the hard work is actually done for you, and the matter is settled.
Which, of course, it is not. The worrying trend in Western culture today is that the middle ground is being vacated as groups draw up battle lines in order to fire shots across what is quickly becoming no-man’s land. To impugn someone’s motives, to question their intelligence, to denigrate their looks, to hyperbolically equate them to some 20th century dictator (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, choose your poison), is seen as enough to win the day. It also has the bonus of getting a laugh, or more to the point, a sneer. It does not augur well for the future of our increasingly mosaic society, in which any monolithic understanding of who we are, what we are here for, and how we might decide the best way forward, has fallen away.
This is most apparent in King’s speech. It’s a happy accident that we still have it, just over fifty years later. King was urged to recount it, having already deliver it once, by confidants sharing the stage at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in the summer of 1963. That it is a mere fifty years since he said it, demonstrates just how far the public discourse has sunk in the ensuing decades.
There is much to say about – most of it having been said by others better than I – but what strikes me most about it, is the assumed level of communal understanding it holds. King’s dream is not just any old dream. It is a dream that is thick with biblical analogy, metaphor and method. He is not some bloke standing on the steps of a political institution, he is a prophet standing outside the modern day temple and calling people to live up to what they have inscribed on stone in that very place. In other words, he is calling people to what they know, to what they assume, to what they have at the basis of their lives, but which they are, yet, being disobedient to. He calls them, from a sense of grace and urgency, yes, even the racists, and a sense that this is an opportunity to truly be a united states. Have a listen to the speech again. I dare you to remain unaffected.
Could such a speech be given, never mind gain traction, in our culture today? I doubt it. For a start, who would give enough time to listen? We are so distracted and distractible. Our desire to be the first to video it, capture it on our iPhones, tweet it, blog it, Youtube it, download it, would enervate its very power. Those who attended that speech did not need to realign themselves to “be in the moment”, as if their own significance were attached to their attendance (how SO unlike today!). I suggest that they realised their insignificance in the light of it – how it humbled them and subsumed them into something far greater than they.
Secondly, the speech would be impossible today, because it is impossible to imagine anyone appealing to a common bedrock belief in the way King did. There is no grand narrative that can so capture a people today, like the biblical narrative did, even such a short time ago in the West. The recent lament that there was no “vision” announced by either leader in the Australian election is not one likely to be corrected any time soon, when there are so many competing, and opposing, visions out there. To state “a vision” immediately alienates a large percent of the population.
Thirdly, the fact that the speech is Youtubed and downloaded so often all these years later, bears witness to its logic, coherence and breathtaking intellectual depth. It is memorable not because of how many Youtube hits it has had, rather it has so many Youtube hits because it is memorable. Case in point: Last night I delivered a tutorial at a theological institution to a group of bright, well educated, well thought out students on the challenges facing the Christian at the back end of modernity. I asked the room “Can anyone give me the name of the protest movement that took the world by storm a couple of years ago, and can anyone tell me what it was about?” No one. No one could remember its name (Occupy) and no one, more tellingly, could focus on what it was about (remember the 1% sign?) Not to matter, I had to look it up as well! Yet it is probably one of the most well documented movements in history, given the accessibility, universality and viral nature of communications technology in the early 21st century.
Which, if nothing else, tells us something about the ephemeral and fractured nature of how our culture operates at the level of its public discourse. The Occupy movement had good aims, but found itself overwhelmed by a mish-mash of minor interest groups who saw it as an opportunity to, literally, beat their own drum, juggle their own hoops and ride around on their own unicycles. The present of the mainstream media drew those starved of the oxygen of publicity like an Apple launch draws an IT crowd. The sheer philosophical purity and gravitas of King’s protest march would have seen such interlopers slide off it as if it were Teflon.
My guess is that the culture, stripped of its foundations and searching for meaning, is in such a level of disenchantment – meaning it is looking for something to re-enchant it – that it will grasp at something – anything – that looks to give it a focus and reason for being. The signs are not good, however, if the world of political memes is any gauge. Where today are the safe places of discourse, the equivalent of the coffee houses of the 17th century where ideas are thrashed out and differences discussed? They are becoming rarer and rarer in a world in which, once you buy a book from Amazon, your world view is confirmed by the six books it suggests you read by others who bought the same book you did. Perhaps Amazon needs a re-centring program that proffers texts that disagree with your preferred tome, if for nothing else, to maintain a healthy ph level in the water in which we all swim.