Sometimes, a book you haven’t thought about in years catches your attention when you’re scanning your shelves, and just about demands to be re-read. That happened to me a few days ago when I was looking for something else entirely (which I did not find, and now cannot remember what it was), and I glanced my copy of Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. I must have read this years ago, when I was preparing a presentation that eventually turned into the essay I contributed to this book. (Another far-too-expensive book, although now that it’s in paperback, it is within the range of those who must work for a living.) I was writing in the aftermath of the Windsor Report, critiquing more its failure as a piece of public theology than its specific content or the conclusions it draws about human sexuality.
To be honest, I am bored with talk of human sexuality, whether it occurs in the churches or not. I am very happy now that a number of the United States (including the one in which I was born, and several of the ones in which I have lived) have passed laws which allow people eligible to marry to do so with whomever they choose who is also eligible to marry. I’m pleased that others are on their way to doing so. I will be happiest when we stop talking about “same sex marriage” and we just call it . . . marriage. Because, it seems to me, it is more the commitments made and the responsibilities undertaken by the parties involved are what make the relationship a marriage. What is concealed in the underwear of, or what goes on in the bedroom between two adults who have made public promises to join their lives together, is (for anybody past puberty, anyway) of little interest–and really, not the business of anyone who is not an immediate party to the relationship.
My interest in the discussion was less its content, and more its conduct. I don’t think I quoted Postman in the final published paper, but his work formed a sort of backdrop to my thinking on not only this topic, but to the way people interact in various contexts. Postman devised the term semantic environment to describe these contexts. Although they may overlap, semantic environments have three elements by which each can be identified. In order of importance, they are:
A semantic environment is much like a game, because the purpose of the environment (when talk is neither crazy nor stupid) is served by the relationships between the players, and the content of their speech-actions. For example, in ice hockey (a game I love when the Buffalo Sabres are playing well–which means not as much as you’d think) there are certain positions that need to be played (relationship), and the actions (content) of each need to contribute to the purposes of getting a puck down the ice into the net that is defended by the opposing team. This requires, among other positions, a goaltender, defensemen, wingers. And each must perform the functions on the team appropriate to the position assigned. You’ll never hear the stats on a goalie include how many goals he’s scored. Well, except for odd instances–and then, it’s usually better for the other team than yours. That’s not the job of the guy between the pipes. In a sane game environment, each player is judged on how well he has done the work he’s supposed to do. And you don’t have a lot of what Postman calls “pollution”–stuff that doesn’t belong there and can’t be assimilated in a sensible way into the hockey-game semantic environment. You can have octopi, but not a quarterback. Octopi can be absorbed, in a limited way, into the totality of the game. Quarterbacks make no sense.
Although it would be a very short book if it could be reduced this far, Postman differentiates crazy and stupid talk in the following ways:
Talk is stupid when it does not work. Talk is crazy when, in working, it creates and sustains an irrational purpose. (Postman, ‘Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk’, p. 78)
You might even say that stupid talk is a question of individual error, while crazy talk is a question of collective error. (Postman, ‘Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk’, pp. 82-83)
“Stupid talk”, in the language of a hockey game, is (as indicated above) the error of an individual whose actions don’t serve the aims of the game. That’s fairly easy to contain. Bench the guy, send in a replacement. If it happens again, send him down to the minors. Too often, his career ends.
The perpetrators of “stupid talk” are generally not the people who control the semantic environment (even if they are highly paid athletes). They are the people who either don’t understand the environment and the relations which govern appropriate speech/action (content), or who (if they do understand) choose, for one reason or another, to speak/act against it.
“Crazy talk” is a bigger, more collective thing. And much more dangerous. It is effective at reaching its goals. But those goals are often irrational and inhumane. I can think of no concrete sporting equivalent to crazy talk. If the IOC organized the next Games with the intention of annihilating the athletes and those who travelled with them, the volunteers, media teams, and spectators–that would be crazy talk. Crazy talk happens. It’s rare on a large, visible international scale, but it happens. Genocide, the 9/11 attacks–those are examples of large-scale, successful crazy talk.
Crazy talk happens on a smaller scale almost every day, in all kinds of situations. And the sane people in the room, because they don’t understand how crazy the crazy talk is, end up engaging in stupid talk. They cannot reach their own goals–no matter how reasonable or humane–because the semantic environment is set up not to be reasonable or humane.
Crazy talk–large scale or small–requires that someone who has control over a semantic environment. Whether it’s in a government (or quasi-government) situation, or a religious (or quasi-religious) situation, a school, a workplace, someone has set an agenda that is irrational. And they’ve made it look rational, and convinced everyone that it is. This can almost never be done in a completely above-board way, but it frequently has the appearance (at first) of being for the good of all concerned.
Religious environments are rarely free of this. I started my first interest in religious control at about age 17, when the whole Jonestown debacle was unfolding. I preached on the Sunday after the Heaven’s Gate ate the poisoned pudding. A suicide cult can only exist when a charismatic leader commandeers the semantic environment for irrational purposes.
Religious organizations, even when they aren’t at this level of irrationality, are easily taken into the path of crazy talk. When I worked for the Historically Important Diocese, there were tensions in my immediate work team. Our line manager called a meeting which he claimed was meant to “clear the air” and resolve tensions. It was nothing of the sort. It was to show exactly how the members of the team ranked in his estimation, by allowing the most-treasured to say their piece uninterrupted and unrebutted (and allowed to leave as soon as this had happened). The next most valued person (whose inability to convey information accurately, or to meet a deadline, or even keep a program to a timetable) was allowed to speak uninterrupted, but some small amount of conversation followed. Then it was my turn, and I could not speak without interruption, correction, and belittlement. What was promised in the semantic sub-environment was not the real purpose of the meeting. And, although I had prepared what I wanted to say, it could not be made to work in the meeting-as-the-Boss-had-designed-it. What should have been intelligent, reasoned, effective talk was turned into Stupid Talk because it took me too long to figure out that the semantic environment was not what I thought it was.
And then, to confuse the situation even more, the manager (an ordained person) required us to close the meeting by saying the Grace. Once prayer is introduced into the context of Crazy Talk, things get really messed. It’s been five years. I still can’t say that prayer without throwing up in my mouth a little.
For about 10 years, I’ve been referring back to Rowan Williams’ essay “On Theological Integrity”, which appears in this book. In both the essay I wrote on the Windsor Report, and in my most recent essay in the Anglican Theological Review, I’ve summarized the criteria for theological integrity Williams sets out, as follows:
1. It does not conceal its true agenda, but rather truly talks about what it says it is talking about.
2. It is open to genuine response from the concerned parties, rather than a prescribed or predetermined one.
3. It declines to take ‘God’s view’ or claim to have a total perspective.
4. It provides an imaginative resource for confronting the entire range of human complexity.
Indeed, this is exactly the opposite of crazy talk. Integrity and craziness can’t cohabit.
And churches–whether in the worship setting, community life, or as employing institutions–should have a lot more integrity than craziness.