Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for April 2017

The Sea of Hype

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hype (informal) noun 1. extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. 2. deception carried out for the sake of publicity. Origin 1920s (originally in the sense ‘shortchange, cheat,’ or ‘person who cheats, etc’): of unknown origin.

Last night as I was watching a current affairs program on one of the commercial television channels, I was struck by how many commercial breaks there were. It seemed as though the pattern was that the announcer would say a few intriguing words about a news story that would be coming up in just a few minutes, then two or three commercial messages would come on, followed by a brief news story, half of which had already been given in the “preview” to the story, after which two or three more commercial messages would follow. Most of the featured stories consisted of politicians delivering sound bites, about which one conservative and one liberal panel member made a partisan pronouncement. What struck me in particular about this format was that the entire program from beginning to end consisted of almost nothing but hype—extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. The commercial messages were, of course, promoting products or services. The politicians were promoting a political agenda. The commentators were trying to persuade the viewer that the agenda being promoted by the politician was either just exactly what the country needs right now or would be a complete disaster for all concerned.

What is missing in hype, it hardly needs to be said, is a careful weighing of evidence and an impartial assessment of the evidence considered. Advertising agencies are paid handsomely, not to offer an impartial assessment of a product based on scientific tests but to convince the viewer that this product is preferable to similar products made by a competing company. Political campaigning is all about making the case that a particular candidate is the best person for the job and will do the most for the citizens—all citizens, not just those who vote for the candidate making the pitch. Rarely these days is a politician not campaigning. When elected and “serving,” a politician must keep an eye on the next election, which requires persuading the voting public that the policy the politician is advocating is one that will benefit the voters. The partisan commentators who participate in panels on news analysis programs continue to carry out the endeavor of persuading, an endeavor that nearly always involves at least some degree of deception or distraction or oversimplification.

What struck me as I was watching the current affairs program last night was not just that this program was mostly hype but that almost everything one is exposed to all day long is hype. Hype is the very fabric of modern culture. (Perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps hype is the very fabric of being human. Not knowing whether that is the so, let me focus only on modern culture.) To change the metaphor, hype is the very sea in which we swim.

While reflecting on the ubiquity of hype, I was reminded of a conversation I had decades ago with a friend who had just returned to Montreal from seven years of living in a Buddhist forest monastery in Thailand. He reported that as he walked along the streets of the city he felt as though everything was reaching out and trying to grab his arm to get his attention. In every shop window, on every lamppost, in every Metro station, at every bus stop there were posters advertising goods and services, every one of which he had learned he could live without. He reported finding it an exhausting experience to take even a short walk in the city, such was the feeling of being assaulted from all sides by persuaders. After a few months, he noticed himself growing used to it, and we had a conversation about how unfortunate it is that we who live in contemporary society simply grow used to all the hype rather than feeling outraged by it. Being outraged by something that one is for the most part powerless to change, we concluded, is probably even more detrimental to one’s well-being than being slowly poisoned by omnipresent hype.

I was surprised to learn in consulting several dictionaries that the origin of the word “hype” is unknown. I had always assumed that it was an abbreviation of the rhetorical term “hyperbole,” which according to Wikipedia comes from the Greek ὑπέρ (hupér, “above”) and βάλλω (bállō, “I throw”). The article goes on to say:

In poetry and oratory, it emphasizes, evokes strong feelings, and creates strong impressions. As a figure of speech, it is usually not meant to be taken literally.

As a rhetorical device, I am quite fond of hyperbole or overstatement. A good deal of humor employs it. A bit of hyperbole adds spice to conversation. Like spice, it is best used sparingly, not as the main ingredient. (An exception to this rule, of course, is green chile in New Mexican cuisine.) I am concerned that the hype to which most of us are exposed these days has become the main ingredient of the main course and that as a result our minds are not receiving proper nourishment.

Fortunately, it is possible to find respite from the pervasiveness of hype, even in the United States, the country that hardly any politician can resist calling “the greatest country in the history of the world.” (Why limit oneself to just the world? Why not say it’s the greatest country in the history of the Milky Way?) One can watch PBS or listen to NPR to get some hype-reduced nutrition. One can read any number of works of fiction or non-fiction. One can have conversations with carefully selected friends in some non-commercial setting, such as a home or a relatively remote rural natural setting.

Now that I think of it, I suspect some version of hype may have been difficult to avoid during most of human history. In ancient Buddhist texts, written long before electronic technology overwhelmed us all, followers of the Buddha are advised to seek isolation (viveka), that being described as a place far enough away from a populated area that one can no longer hear the sound of people’s voices. Presumably the chattering of birds and chipmunks and the occasional roaring of lions does less to undermine one’s concentration than exposure to human verbiage. I am not convinced, however, that birdsong is entirely free from hype, especially during the mating season. Be that as it may, the hyperbole that the flora and fauna broadcast to draw attention to themselves does not irritate most human beings as much as the hype put out by our own species.

Speaking only for myself—Heaven forfend that I would try to persuade anyone else to have the same taste as I— on most days I had rather listen to a male finch trying to attract a mate with his elaborate arrangement of notes than to a politician trying to attract my vote or to a pharmaceutical company trying to convince me that its product is the best remedy for moderate to severe jangled nerves caused by overexposure to hype.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 12:13

Posted in Social analysis

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“Nothing can convict me of sin but the evidence in my own heart. From this evidence there is no escape.”—Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748 – February 27, 1830)

A term often used in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is “convinced Friend,” which is explained on the Quaker Jane website as “someone who experienced a convincement (either quickly or evolving over time) and chose in adulthood to join a Friends Meeting.” A convincement, in Quaker terminology, is what others might call a conversion experience or metanoia (μετάνοια), a sudden or gradual transformative experience that results in a change in the direction of one’s life. A convincement, however, is more than that. It is also a feeling that one has been convicted, as of a crime, and that one is therefore a convict, imprisoned for the time being. This recognition of one’s shortcomings, one’s failure to live according to one’s highest ideals, often results in one’s being less prone to the negative judgment of others for their shortcomings, as is expressed beautifully in the poem of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) entitled “Forgiveness”:

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

It would be difficult for me to point to any one experience in my life as a convincement, but early in adulthood a number of circumstances led to important changes in direction and alterations in perspective. A chance encounter with a collection of writings by the Stoics had an immediate effect on me, not so much one of making me change direction but of realizing that others had already said better what I was struggling to say about my outlook on the world. Not long after that, in the early months of 1967, I happened to attend two reading groups at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Golden, Colorado, one that was reading Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates and another that was reading several Buddhist writings. Reflecting on those readings had the effect of making me decide that I had completely lost all sense of belonging in the United States—there was hardly anything about the direction the country was taking on those days that seemed reasonable or moral to me—and that realization led to buying a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Oddly enough, I was convinced in those days that I was a Communist, and Winnipeg was a place with a number of Communist bookstores and members of various Canadian Communist parties. It took relatively little exposure to those people to make me realize I was not one of them after all. Fortunately, during those early days in Canada I also came into contact with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Despite a lifelong aversion to any kind of religion, and perhaps especially to anything Christian, I found myself so moved by the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the decency of Friends that I began to think it might be time to reconsider my antipathy. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship for several months, I was both impressed by the quality of what was said when Quakers rose to give testimony in meetings and resistant to the notion that these communications were from where Quakers officially said they were from: Spirit. Whenever I heard an inspirational message in meeting for worship, a little voice in my head would say something like “That’s John speaking his own carefully reasoned ideas. It’s not Spirit talking.” I am not sure why it was so important to me to make that distinction in those days, but with time that little voice stopped insisting on saying that sort of thing. Perhaps a factor in my little inner voice’s change of diction was the fact that in those days I wrote fiction or poetry nearly every day, and many times would look at what I had written and would ask myself “Where did that come from? My muse? My unconscious? Reasoning? Spirit? Or does it really matter where it comes from? There it is.”

In those early days in Canada I was in danger of being overwhelmed by my anger with the United States and that country’s seemingly insatiable craving for enemies to blame and countries to invade. On a visit to a bookstore in Lethbridge, Alberta, I stumbled upon a copy of Edward Conze’s little tome on Buddhist meditation, which reminded me of how well I had responded to the Buddhist readings in the Unitarian-Universalist church in Colorado. I bought the book and hit upon a description there of a contemplative practice aimed at cultivating friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), and it was immediately clear to me that that was what I had to do. I had to change my attitude, quit being angry with perceived enemies, begin finding something to love and respect in everyone, and that practice was just the tool I needed to do the job that needed to be done. Fifty years on, I still do that exercise regularly. Practice, I have come to notice, does not necessarily make perfect, but it can at least make a little better.

Now in the early years of my eighth decade as a human being on the planet Earth, I am still not entirely comfortable with such concepts as sin or evil. Those are not categories that readily come to mind as I look at the external world or at the internal mindscape. What does come to mind is some notion that “things ain’t what they spose to be” and that ameliorative measures could be taken. As Hicks said so well, from the evidence of one’s own heart there is no escape. It is that evidence that convicts. And once convicted, one has no choice but to reform.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 12:55

Posted in Quakerism

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