Life in the Global Village

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
July 29, 2017

In my July 9th bulletin article, entitled “Electric Man,” I commented on the insights of the late Professor Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher.  McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” and he called the electronic world a “global village.”  He died in 1980.  But to me, he’s a 21st century thinker.  His attention to media as “extensions of man” – and to electronic media as “extensions of man’s central nervous system” – has been remarkably prescient.  As electric media eliminate time and space as a factor in human relations, we all come together “at the speed of light.”   This creates what McLuhan called “the global village.” In a 1977 interview, entitled “Violence as a Quest for Identity,” with Mike McManus on TV Ontario, we hear a prophet foretelling today’s globally divisive and tenuous situation. 

McLuhan said that theologians haven’t seriously considered the effects of electric media on the Church – nor on the rest of the world.  We hear many assessments about today’s violent and divided world. Religious and secular commentators often diagnose today’s problems in terms of this or that “identity group,” lining up good guys against bad, blue against red, like opposing pieces on a chessboard.  But in an electric world, is this wise?  For example, a public figure recently said that America’s violence problem comes from a “cowboy” mentality. But to the cowboy who hears this online, “Them’s fightin’ words.”  It’s doubtful that this will be an occasion of penitence.  It’s not a case of Nathan accusing David: “You’re the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)  It’s accusing an “identity” – not a sinner, not a person.   Indeed, social injustices abound and are tributary to many acts of violence.  Some groups have a track record of hatred. But the healing balm cannot be applied by electronically ripping an identity.  Electric media are bad venues for addressing social problems.

“Identity” issues are indeed a cause of social injustice and violence, which is precisely why we shouldn’t blame an “identity group” – like cowboys or whoever – in an electric world.  It’s a direct hit on a sore spot, like stealing a security blanket from a child.  And because the “cowboy” (a metaphor for any identity group) cannot respond to an electronic accusation, he feels cornered.  Like a rattlesnake, he feels a need to strike – but where?  The accusation came from an electronic angel.  The “cowboy” feels indicted, not repentant.   A person whose identity is challenged in a rapidly changing and confusing world will react strongly – and in some cases violently – to being singled out by a discarnate voice “on the air.”  As a disclaimer, I’m not a cowboy, I don’t ride a horse, and I don’t like baked beans.

Violence is an Actual Sin.  An “identity crisis” is an effect of Original Sin.  In the words of Walker Percy, we’re all “Lost in the Cosmos.”  We’re all asking, “Who am I?”  “What is my place in the world?”  Social identity questions are more acute in the electric age.  Why?  Electronic media bring people – and groups – closer together.  There’s no privacy.  In close quarters (virturally), people become more impatient and abrasive with each other.  Nothing is as disconcerting as intimacy because it makes us confront ourselves – our identities.  “Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities,” he said.   Furthermore, this is exacerbated because, with electric media, things change at “the speed of light.”   “But in our time,” McLuhan says, “when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light.  There is little time to get accustomed to anything.”  Pope Francis touched on this in his environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si”, when he wrote about the “rapidification” of life due to technology.  When things change quickly, people become more possessive of their identities.  Sometimes they retreat into “secure” identity groups, seeking distinction from the world around them.  McManus asked McLuhan, “But why is that?   Because of the nature of man?”  For Catholics, the short answer is obvious:  we live in a fallen world.   But there is hope.  As St. Paul said, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

Are we, as a Church, acknowledging this basic truth of the Gospel, that is, the reality of sin and grace?  Some people assume that, as the world becomes “smaller,” there will be a Disney World effect.  Everyone will become one, big, diverse, happy, global family.  “It’s a Small World After All.”   But as McLuhan said, “There’s no evidence of that in any situation that we’ve ever heard of.”  We must not be naïve.  “Village people aren’t that much in love with each other.”  In an electronic “global village,” moralizing about this or that “group” – cowboys or whoever – will add to the contention, like an in-law moralizing about your relatives at a family reunion.  It’s like the old joke:  “What’s difference between in-laws and outlaws?  Outlaws are ‘Wanted.’”  As Catholics, what are we to do?  Before answering that, we need to process another question, “What are we dealing with?” 

And so, I share with you an edited transcript of McLuhan’s TV interview. His assessments are poignant.  I encourage all to read them reflectively and serenely, in hopes of getting some insight into “what we’re dealing with.”  To see our fallen world, like our sins, as it is – not as we wish it were – comes from the Holy Spirit’s “Gift of Knowledge,” from which we receive the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  The “Gift of Wisdom” will help us be peacemakers.  The Consoler comes to our aid when the truth troubles us.  This interview should convince us that the forgiveness of sins, repentance and purity of heart are more important than ever.  Our “quest for identity” must be in the Person of Jesus Christ.  “It is only in the mystery of the Word made Flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 22).


Mike McManus interviews Marshall McLuhan on TV Ontario, 1977  “Violence as a Quest for Identity”

McManus:  Way back in the early fifties you predicted that the world was be- coming a “global village.”  McLuhan: We are going back into the bicameral mind that is tribal, collective, without any individual consciousness.  McManus: But, it seems, Dr. McLuhan, that this tribal world is not friendly.  McLuhan: Oh no, tribal people, one of their main kinds of sport is sort of a butchering each other. It is a full-time sport in tribal societies.  McManus:  But, I had some idea as we got global and tribal we were going to become…a….  McLuhan:  The closer you get together, the more you like each other?  McManus: Yea.   McLuhan: There’s no evidence of that in any situation that we’ve ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savagely impatient with each other.   McManus:  But why is that?   Because of the nature of man?   McLuhan: His tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people aren’t that much in love with each other.  And the global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.  …………  McManus: Is this distancing going to be a pattern right around the world?  McLuhan: Apparently, separatisms are very frequent all over the globe at the present time. Every country in the world is loaded with regionalistic, nationalistic little groups.  McManus: …….. [D]o you define it as the quest for identity?  McLuhan:  Yes, all forms of violence are a quest for identity. When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity…you’re a nobody. Therefore, you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody. And so you become very violent.  And so, identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you? Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers – these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.  McManus: And all this is somehow an effect of the electronic age?  McLuhan:  Oh no, but people in all times have been this way.  But in our time, when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light. There is little time to get accustomed to anything.  One of the big violence makers of our century has been radio.  Hitler was entirely a radio man – and a tribal man. McManus:  And what does television do to that tribal man?   McLuhan: Well, I don’t think Hitler would have lasted long on TV. Like Senator Joe McCarthy, he would have looked foolish. [McCarthy] was a very hot character and like Nixon, he made a very bad image on television. He was far too hot a character – [he would have been] much better on radio or on the movies, not bad on the movies, which would take quite hot characters.  But Nixon was hopeless on TV.  McManus: The investigations now of the CIA, the FBI and even our own, God forbid, RCMP, has this anything to do with the electronic age?  McLuhan: Well yes, because we now have the means to keep everybody under surveillance.  No matter what part of the world they are in, we can put them under surveillance. This has become one of the main occupations of mankind, just watching other people and keeping a record of their goings on.  McManus: And invading privacy.  McLuhan:  Invading privacy, in fact, just ignoring it. Everybody has become porous. They’ve got the light and the message to go right through us.  By the way, at this moment, we are on the air.   And on the air we do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on TV, you don’t have a physical body.  You’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. And this I think this has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their private identity. ….. Everybody tends to merge his identity with other people at the speed of light. It’s called being mass man. By the way, one of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia.  And so, revivals on all hands and in every phase of life today…. revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything… we live by the revival. It tells us who we are… or were.

The full interview can be watched on YouTube.