In his essay On Communication, David Bohm describes “the problem of communication” like this:
People living in different nations, with different economic and political systems, are hardly able to talk to each other without fighting. And within any single nation, different social classes and economic and political groups are caught in a similar pattern of inability to understand each other. Indeed, even within each limited group, people are talking of a “generation gap,” which is such that older and younger members do not communicate, except perhaps in a superficial way. Moreover, in schools and universities, students tend to feel that their teachers are overwhelming them with a flood of information which they suspect is irrelevant to actual life. And what appears on the radio and television, as well as in the newspapers and magazines, is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.
In this text I try to clarify and deepen the understanding on what this problem of communication is like, what causes it and what can be done with it. I will hopefully achieve increased understanding concerning the most acute problem of our time.
The problem of communication can be understood as the structural misunderstanding in the contemporary society that is the result of fragmentation of thought and the domination of mental representations.
The fragmentation of thought manifests itself in four fields:
1) obscurity of language: “This is a problem that must be tackled.”
2) division of the whole: “We will win this war.”
3) pursuit of specialization: “They are the experts, they know best.”
4) refusal to generalize: “These are two different things.”
In everyday language fragmentation is seen in the way concepts are used as though they are independent from their social, political and economical context. Examples of such concepts are unemployment, the powers of the president, low voting activity and environmental problems: none of these cannot really be viewed separate from the complete structure of the society. Fragmentation, however, enables this through specialized understanding: it allows functioning even without the whole picture of the various systems such as society, economy or culture. This understanding leads to treating problems as technical rather than political or communicative.
Division of the whole refers to the aspirations towards splitting human systems such as nation states, political unions and religions into separate fragments. This is evident in celebrations of independence and victory in a war. This division emerges from the fragmentation of language, in which the concepts of us and them refer to communities produced by the cultural and social imagination rather than to any observable communities.
The pursuit of specialization in all fields – be it scientific or social – is evident in the contemporary society, and can also be seen in the way specialization and focusing on niches is valued in everyday discourses in economy and politics. An example of such a discourse is one concerning political systems: specialization in the use of power is seen as necessary component of a functional political system, which results in the division of political labor to different ministries. Big companies also seek to focus their operations and externalize functions that are seen as “not our core know-how”.
Refusal to generalize comes up in situations where analogies and similarities are found. For example: Finnish education model can be seen unfit for the USA because “Finland is such a small country”. However, about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland. This refusal is also seen in how problems in developing countries are treated as special while the same issues have to be solved by all societies (as famously noted by Herbert Spencer).
The domination of mental representations means that models, theories, cultural structures and interpretative explanations get definitive power over individual thought. Examples of such structures are nations, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Homo economicus. In this process, theories and models are accepted uncritically based on the authority of the scientific or cultural canon. The domination of representation is related to Weber’s concept of iron cage, but also to the everyday “box” that restricts creative thinking. Critical theory seeks to overcome this box by creating critical explanations that have the ability to deconstruct mental structures.
So, what is the solution to the problem of communication that I have described above?
It is not just being an active listener – this actually means nothing without new mental structures that are able to handle and incorporate new information effectively. To build these new structures, an inner play – a theater or a story of the mind – should be formed that allows different characters to emerge with their own voices and points of view. Examples of these characters can be God (the source of all things moral and good), the hero, the sidekick, the teacher and the critic/archenemy. Instead of blindly obeying any of these voices, one should learn to watch the play silently, see how it develops after plot twists (such as after new information has emerged) and eventually find the path of action that fits best to the situation. New information from books or magazines can be imagined as the lines of the teacher who simply doesn’t give up his efforts. Later on also new events in the process of life are included in the play. For example when challenges arise, God asks in a sneering tone: “Did you really think it was going to be that easy?”
The skill of inner play takes time to develop, and the process can seem slow in the beginning when nothing seems to emerge or when one character (such as the unsparing critic) dominates the scene. However, eventually it will result in good and justified decisions that take the whole into account, as well as mental balance. Forming the inner play also paves the way for social change, since each individual can treat other people’s opinions as openly as the various characters inside the mind.
Interestingly, a play includes all the characteristics of Bohm dialogue: the stage is the empty space, characters are the people each of which have their own plays going on, and the plot has all the twists: the enthusiasm, the hubris, the failure, the recovery and the success.
We are actually constantly surrounded with theater terms, when we talk of personal tragedies, note how someone is a drama queen, resent the political spectacle or talk about a football game being quite a show. Maybe it is time we recognize theater as a deeper structure of the reality. After all, isn’t all this just a divine comedy?