Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Communications Out, Captain

For a bit of late night R&R, I've just been watching an episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation, called "Damok". (For those who have never watched Star Trek, try to suspend the comedic thoughts in your head about "Beam me up Scotty", or "Klingons on the Starboard Bow" - it's a lot more thought provoking than that!).

"Damok" is the story of the struggle to communicate between two cultures - the Federation (represented by the Philosopher-Captain Picard) and the "Children of Damok". At first, the Federation think that the new race they are encountering speak only in riddles...a mixture of proper names and places. Without boring you with the whole tale (which you can watch at your leisure), Captain Picard eventually works out that the 'Children of Damok' communicate what they want to say only by using metaphors and allusions to shared stories. In our context, for example, if I wanted to communicate that I was feeling lost and lonely without my lover, I might say "Juliet on the Balcony". If I was feeling victorious, I might say "William after Hastings". (On the other hand if I was feeling worn out and defeated, I might say "Harold after Hastings"). Do you see what I mean?

However, the problem of communication by this method is compounded when the person you are trying to communicate with doesn't share your culture, and your stories. Someone who has never read Shakespeare, or heard of the Battle of Hastings, will not understand what you are trying to communicate.

This episode struck me as very profound. All our communication is ultimately based on what we have in common. Unless we share language, knowledge, and culture with another person, communication is very difficult.

I am reminded of my early days of working in the YMCA in South London, 20 years ago. I was working on the Reception desk, giving out keys and mail to residents of the hostel. One chap, a recent asylum seeker, with only a little English approached the counter and put his hand out for his key, saying,
"Room 413" (or whatever room was his). I thought he was being rather rude, and so replied, "Room 413 what? He looked very puzzled, and simply repeated his request,
"Room 413".
"Say please", said I.
"Oh," he said, looking embarrassed, "413 please".
I figured at that moment that I had scored a little victory for English politeness....until, after he had gone, a long serving receptionist who was also on duty said to me,
"Did you realise that there is no word in his language for 'please'? Where he comes from, you simply state your need, and either receive it or not depending on the person you are speaking to".

I learned an important lesson then. It is no good trying to communicate with someone else about any important subject unless you have some common experience on which to build (language, culture, custom).

Watching tonight's Star Trek episode brought that issue back home to me again. And I reflected how so many of the problems around the world, and within the Church, are based on the false premis that everyone else surely thinks like we do. That is why violence between people of different cultures is so prevelant. And I think it may be a significant reasons why the Anglican communion is tearing itself apart at the moment over homosexuality and women bishops.

When I listen to some of the invective being hurled around, I womder whether people on either side of these debates (and the more serious wars around the world) have ever really tried to understand why the 'other side' thinks as they do. Until all sides in all conflicts - secular, religious, or anglican - have taken time to truly hear and understand what the other side is saying, there can surely never be peace.

And the Communications will always be out, Captain.

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