TV News in a Postmodern World

The Elevation of Experience

by Terry L. Heaton
Brooke Shields. AP Photo by Eric RisbergThe public spat between actors Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields over psychiatry and its use of drugs illustrates one of the most important aspects of the cultural shift to postmodernism: the challenge of absolutes. Both Cruise and Shields base their arguments in this matter on personal experience — something our evolving culture increasingly values. While many note that Shields' position has the weight of science behind it, her argument is personal and involves only her experience. Besides, Cruise's personal experience is that psychiatry isn't science at all. Which one is right?

Some would argue that Cruise's statements are born of religious fanaticism and not personal experience, but a peripatetic childhood of overcoming severe obstacles and being forced to become the "man" of the family at an early age suggest otherwise. Cruise dropped out of high school and a Franciscan monastery. He's self-taught and competitive. Shields is a Yale graduate. Which one is right?

Tom Cruise gets testy with Matt Lauer on The Today Show over Scientology and psychiatry. Courtesy NBC.Cruise is being positioned in the press as a quack. The "Dr. Cruise" moniker is analogous to the Holiday Inn Express ads, where being smart is the equivalent of performing surgery, protecting divers from sharks, and a whole host of other professional specialties. To hear these "experts" spout off before the punch line, the audience is free to assume they know what they're talking about. Once the ad is revealed, however, we chuckle over the absurdity of it all.

But this isn't comic relief; it's real life, and Tom Cruise is saying we need to talk about this. His experience is different than some, and his argument can't be summarily dismissed. Despite what our logical minds might tell us, something else is at work here that makes us wonder: how can someone so seemingly intelligent believe such things, and what about this matter of over-prescribing drugs? In today's world, the argument is who makes the better expert, one who has been through something, or one who studies it? Can we really be sure of anything?

Contemporary media is deeply impacted by this, because its foundation assumes an ability to "get to the truth" by examining all sides, and yet, in practice, the media ultimately falls on the side of certitude. It has no choice, for when trying to position oneself with the public as a reliable point of reference, one must assume that there are other such points. These are usually found in and through the hierarchy of education.

To the postmodern (Pomo), however, our education system is a cornerstone of the self-serving status quo, and experience is often a more reliable teacher. Hence, value is assigned in an expanding circle through the elevation of personal experience, the experiences of loved ones, the experiences of friends, the experiences of community (tribe), shared experiences, and experiences of those who've been through life's struggles. Farthest out on the circle would be those whose expertise is based on study.

This is contrary to Modern culture, and therein lies one of the great (and unreported) conflicts of our time. The idea that the amount of knowledge one possesses (or is credited with possessing) is the supreme measurement of a person's position, or potential position, is a formula that we've followed for centuries. But is it the knowledge that separates a good doctor from a bad doctor, or is it the application of that knowledge? Does it necessarily follow that a doctor with more knowledge will be a better doctor than one with less? Don't we really learn things, so that we can apply them in our lives? And what about those with certain — but not necessarily quantifiable — talents and gifts?

A friend of mine is the head of counseling at a large drug and alcohol rehab facility in the south. As insurance companies began to put the squeeze on paying for the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse in the 90s, these institutions had to comply with increasingly restrictive accreditation requirements. Threatened with losing all those patients, my friend's facility became more interested in pleasing the insurance companies than in treating the problems of alcohol and drug abuse.

This was demonstrated when the place was forced to terminate the man who had led family sessions there for over 15 years, because he didn't have a Master's degree in psychology or therapy. According to my friend, this fellow was the best in his field. He had a gift for reconciliation and was able to restore the families of thousands of suffering individuals. Insurance company rules, however, said that such a person had to meet certain academic requirements, and if the rehab facility wanted to be eligible for insurance company patients, they had to replace him with somebody more "qualified."

This is an outrage, and yet these kinds of stories are everywhere. When self-preservation becomes the dominant behavior, institutions are revealed for what they are, not what they say they are. And as Steven Covey wrote, "You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into."

The status quo would argue that the restrictions provided by accreditation are necessary to prevent the Holiday Inn Express people from getting into positions of responsibility, but this belief assumes much and most often comes from the guardians of the hierarchy — the American legal system. Academic accreditation is a buffer against lawsuits, for testifying in court on any matter that can be quantified always brings about the question, "What qualifies you...?"

Any system that follows a set of rules — whether they are good rules or bad — demands accountability in the form of expertise. This seems wise, but it often produces an assault on common sense, because no set of rules can take that which isn't quantifiable into consideration.

Is Tom Cruise an expert? Is Brooke Shields an expert? To some, yes; to others, no. But is either "yes" or "no" right?

Author, philosopher, educator and blogger Dr. David Weinberger is actively exploring the roots of knowledge. He writes that "knowledge is literally a matter of conversation. It's disagreement with people who stretch you. Knowledge is the continuing conversation, not the result of it." In this view, knowledge is ever-evolving and changing as humankind searches for truth.

In these billions of conversations, we attempt to work out what's true. But, especially as the conversation goes global and involves people with deep differences, we (= I) have no hope of ever resolving issues and creating anything like an eternal tree of knowledge. That dream of Reason is gone. (Appropriate exceptions admitted.) Instead, for the rest of our time on the planet, we will be iterating differences, hopefully on an increasing ground of commonality. But we're never going to all agree and fall silent. That's not even a desirable outcome.

This is radical thinking and brilliance itself, because it takes into account the role of experience in the production of similarities and differences. It also forecasts commonality rather than lock-step agreement, but how does one get from here to there?

Many years ago I did a research project in New Mexico that required me to meet and get to know leaders of various organizations and groups that made up the culture. The most memorable was an American Indian who — after an hour of just getting to know each other — asked me a profound question. "Where," he asked, "did you have your cross-over experience?" He asked the question, he told me, because he could tell by talking with me that I had already accepted intimate aspects of multiculturalism. He said I had either lived with or been drawn into lifestyles beyond those normally experienced by a white male.

I told him I had gone through a period in life where the black culture was more appealing to me than my roots. All of my friends at that time were black. I hung out at the black bars, listened to Lonnie Liston Smith, and played basketball regularly with my black friends. I remember one game in particular, where the crowd cheered loudly after I made a jump shot. I asked my friend Bill about it, and he said, "Look around you, man. You're the only white guy in the gym."

I also lived and worked in Hawaii for two years, something I highly recommend for white people. The culture is very different when there is no majority race. Nobody lords over anybody, and there is no entitlement to protect. There is a hidden caste system, but it's based on who got there first, not the color of skin. Prejudice is acknowledged as a part of being human. Racial humor cuts through political correctness to reveal that, despite our differences, we're all just people.

These events made up my "cross-over" experience, and it had apparently altered my perspective on a lot of things. That's what the fellow in New Mexico noticed. What I had discovered was the common ground of which Weinberger speaks, but it came through my experiences. Nothing else could have been my teacher.

Postmodernism is the "Age of Participation," and that's true on every level of life. We're finished with viewing life from a distance, and technology is providing a way for us to leapfrog the information step on the pathway of knowledge, and that has profound implications for us and for our planet.

That's because experience is a necessary step on the road to understanding. Just as knowledge becomes reality through experience, so understanding becomes reality through knowledge. And understanding precedes wisdom, something our planet desperately needs.

Reason will argue that all of this is absurd — that truth exists in absolute realities that can be dissected and studied. Everything is cause and effect, they say. There's no room for randomness or, God forbid, chaos. But this view is being challenged by not only our beliefs but also by our experiences.

Even the religion of Modernism is collapsing under the weight of personal experience. English theologian Alister McGrath told The Age that atheism has lost its cutting edge and is losing numbers, and that young Pomos think the question of God is too important to be dismissed. "Atheism seems far too cut and dried, far too certain, in an age which is very conscious of the ambiguity of life," McGrath said. The concept of a hierarchical "God, the Father" is difficult for Postmoderns, but "God, the Spirit" is readily accepted.

The real war today is between those who wish to think for themselves and those who are more comfortable with being told what to do. The longer people are exposed to computers that assist in their thinking by augmenting information and knowledge, the greater the likelihood that they will resist blind faith in the institutions of humankind. The Internet accelerates this and the architecture of the Web itself — with its deconstructive links and references — produces a thirst for knowledge through experience.

A few years ago I wrote that where the Pomo hasn't or can't experience something for himself, he will prefer the experience of a close friend, mentor, role model or relative over that which comes from the mouth of institutional expertise. That's because we've all met the exceptions to our culture's rules, the gifted whose knowledge comes from beyond that which can be taught. And when that happens, something inside us shifts, because, even if it's very small, a bit of us is drawn away from the cocoon of absolutes and a light begins to illuminate hidden corners of our being.

That curiosity will be the salvation of humankind, regardless of whether Tom or Brooke is right.