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Monday, February 13, 2012

Low-Context Society

I have been studying the concepts of High-Context and Low-Context societies, particularly as these concepts apply to Amish culture in the USA. To give you a taste of what it is:
A high-context society is one in which people are highly involved with one another. Awareness of situations, experience, activity, and one's social standing is keenly developed. Information is widely shared. Simple messages with deep meaning flow freely. There are many levels of communication - overt and covert, implicit and explicit signs, symbols, and body gestures, and things one may or may not talk about. Members are sensitive to a screening process that distinguishes outsiders from insiders.
The models created to explain nature are rooted in culture - are very much a part of life - but are unavailable for analysis, except under very special circumstances. The nonverbal, or unstated, realms of culture are extremely important as conveyors of information. High-context cultures are integrated, for members are skilled in thinking comprehensively according to a system of the common good. Loyalties are concrete and individuals work together to settle their problems. If one person has a problem, others are expected to know what is bothering him.
Amish Society,  Hostetler, John A.,
The Johns Hopkins University Press, Third Edition

It is my feeling that our modern society is low-context. Many of the characteristics as pertaining to high-context are obviously applicable to our society, but it strikes me that they are used by sub-groups, be they corporations, cliques, political parties, or gangs; the screening process which distinguishes insiders from outsiders does not exist for society as a whole... although arguably it does in restricted ranges, and  possibly extensively, such as before the Civil Rights Era, but the process is not embraced as a defining aspect of the society.
High-context society or low-context society share these mechanisms, yet they apply them with differing range and extension and force.

Take, for example, the statement that in a high-context society, "Information is widely shared". One would think that, with the 24/7 manic news cycle and Tweets and Facebook, this would be a fair description of our modern society. Yet the next sentence throws such an assumption into doubt, "Simple messages with deep meaning flow freely."
There is no deep meaning in the limited scope of a Tweet. There may, indeed, be considerable wit, irony, or satire, but meaning strikes me as being a bit more than these artifices. Meaning - even though riddled with wit and wisdom - yet is more than the sum of such technical parts.

I read the Sunday New York Times this morning, and came across an article about the Washington Post in the Sunday Business Section:
...Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of the Washington Post... wanted to know how... The Post was covering the 2012 election and what might be improved. [He was informed that the] paper... needed to strike a better balance between the ferocious 24/7 news cycle and more ambitious longer-term projects...
A "ferocious 24/7 news cycle"... What are we to make of that? One would think we have the most highly informed population in the history of mankind. What are the outcomes from such enormous heaps of information?

I am perplexed. The more we are made aware, the more tenuous our lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness are.
Oddly enough, I think the 24/7 cycle is due to cable TV and the Internet, and McLuhan probably had already observed that once you create a "Medium", that medium must be filled with messages:  The Media Abhor a Vacuum.

But, does it draw us closer together?

We seem to rely exclusively on written language: religious books, laws, even our parenting requires Dr. Spock to write a book, and his example followed by many others.
Everything is verbal, using the fungible currency of thought which language gives us.
It seems to me that we are living lives of "Do as I say... not as I do."  If we even expect children to turn a blind eye to our crimes - great and small - by emphasizing that they should hear our commands and obey them, rather than ordering their lives according to what we do, we are reflecting a low-contextuality, which will destroy itself.

It will destroy itself because it is built upon the Morality of language...  and skill in language. We know that language skills and oratorical expertise do not "translate" easily into morality.
We ignore the difficult, long-term investment in goodness, and settle for talking about what is proper:  we talk the talk,  but hesitate to walk the walk.

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