Monday, August 15, 2011
The Orality of Morality
So, I didn't really plan to keep going on the topic of morality, it just came up in online discussion, first about McLuhan and Morality, and then on The Medium of Morality, where I wrote about morality viewed as a medium. And based on a comment on that post left by Mike Plugh, I figured just a bit more elaboration would be worthwhile here, so here's just one more post on the subject.
While considering morality as a medium in and of itself, we can also talk about morality as it relates to the medium of writing, and the medium of speech. Language, which exists primarily as speech, is the basis of morality as a medium (just as it's the basis of writing, printing, radio, etc.), and for the vast majority of human history, language exists only in spoken form, which is why I have give this post the title of The Orality of Morality.
In oral cultures, morality does not exist in the form of written rules, it is not codified in that sort of permanent form, nor is it expressed in abstract formulations such as laws. Rather, morality is established informally, by norms that are unspoken but known, understood, and for the most part accepted within the culture (where the population is small and pressure to conform is high). When morality is expressed, it is expressed in the form of narrative, as myths and parables, which are recited and performed as ritual drama. Because there is no fixed text, variation and multiformity is the rule, so that flexibility and change comes easily. This means that a culture's morality can easily adapt to changing circumstances.
When writing is introduced into a culture, and eventually there's a written document that serves as the basis of morality, the flexibility of oral tradition is lost, and ideas take hold along the lines of literal interpretation, letter of the law, original intent, orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and an either/or approach that introduces the possibility of heresy, not to mention conversion, in regard to religious morality.
An emphasis on interpretation of texts, which is always required but not always highlighted, allows for a retrieval of some aspects of orality, the restoration of dialogue and flexibility. This introduces a new problem, however, as time passes and the text becomes less and less relevant to the contemporary situation, requiring greater and greater interpretative leaps, both to understand the meaning of the text, and to make it relevant. A further problem is introduced as the interpretations are turned into fixed texts themselves, and therefore replace flexibility with new rigidities.
At a certain point, the distance between a long tradition of interpretation and the original text prompt some adherents to call for a return to the original text. But a return to the original text can only result in new interpretations. This has the effect of wiping away interpretations that no longer seem relevant, allowing for new interpretations not limited by earlier ones and therefore better able to speak to the present day, simplifying a system that may seem to have grown overly complex, and restoring some bit of flexibility to the system.
And then the cycle begins anew. As literates, we are able to articulate, analyze, and think abstractly about morality, and this has truly led to evolution and progress in respect to morality, but not without cost. The price we pay is that loss of flexibility, of concrete grounding, of the dialogic quality of response, which Martin Buber noted is the basis of responsibility. The loss is so very deep and significant that we keep trying to restore it, or compensate for it, trying to find a way back to the orality of morality.