By JOHN MARTIN
To cure their social trauma, Americans must learn to hear each other's "stories." This prescription was offered by Martin F. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, as he delivered the fourth annual Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture.
The lecture - part of a series devoted, according to Dr. Billington, to "issues that affect American values, self-perceptions and, ultimately, the long-term health of American democracy" - was delivered at the Library on April 18.
America's "shock to the system," Dr. Marty said, is "very widely chronicled and is apparent to anyone alert to cultural change in the nation. The potential disruption to the way we carry on politics, argue, discuss, regard each other across the boundaries of the subcommunities that make up the larger society are all part of the trauma."
If, Dr. Marty continued, Justice Felix Frankfurter was correct in his famous observation that "we live by symbols," then the story - a kind of symbol that we use to understand ourselves and our role in society - must be used to remedy the ailing body politic.
Religions, nations and individuals all create tales based on their experiences. But, according to Dr. Marty, the ones that interest people the most are those that affect them most directly. For example, "If your child burns his hand, it causes you more pain than something awful that happens in India. You may care what happens in India, but your child causes you more real pain." This trait, which he called "proximal identification," "is not always pretty," he added, "but it's a profound human impulse, and we should probably make the best of anything that close to us."
This natural tendency of peoples and groups to focus on, and therefore enshrine, those stories that best express their history, interests and aspirations, has produced two conflicting yet equally dangerous cultural trends: totalism and tribalism.
"Totalism" describes the phenomenon of a citizenry united behind a single ideology or creed, like the Soviet Union's ideological homogeneity for seven decades under the Communist Party. It may also explain today's nostalgia for the relatively homogeneous, and arguably mythic, Christian America of the 1950s. Totalism appeals to us, Dr. Marty ventured, because it answers the "human hunger for wholeness."
"Tribalism," by contrast, refers to the ethos of subjugated groups that promote their agendas before the common good and, ultimately, in opposition to commonality of any kind. Dr. Marty recognized that tribes, as close-knit communities that give meaning to the lives of their participants, can be positive forces. He also acknowledged the work of revisionist scholars who, in restoring the lost history of women, African Americans and Native Americans, "have enriched knowledge of our nation's past." Tribalism, however, even when it arises from a legitimate sense of oppression and injustice, only repeats the age-old tragedy of Isaac and Ismael who, "after failing to find how they can coexist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb," retreated in panic once more to their respective caves.
Whereas totalism seeks to dominate by expansion, tribalism lives in self-imposed isolation. Both genres are "exclusive and thus make it impossible for us to reach across the boundaries of subcommunity."
Dr. Marty concluded by expressing his hope that through a general show of affection, a society that is a community of communities, such as that envisioned by James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and other early observers of American democracy, could be built. Explicit in the definition of affection, notes Dr. Marty, "is the notion of a middle distance."
To achieve this subtle but important change in temperament, people should replace argument with narrative and learn to acquiesce in, if not to entirely accept, each other's stories.
"The potential of the enriching character of stories belongs very much to our human story... If America moves beyond this trauma, it will be when we again begin to hear each other's stories and begin to get some elements of the common story."
John Martin is a copyright examiner in the Visual Arts Section of the Copyright Office.