What are you talking about? Not very much -- sad to say

On Books

September 13, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

What accounts for the peculiar delight of being proven wrong? Perhaps that's not a common sensation. I have done no surveys. But my own latest exemplary experience left me enchanted. Half way through a book I thought was dreadful, I was won over. The rest was not only cheering but far more revelatory, I think, than if I had begun as a believer.

The book was "The De-Voicing of Society: Why We Don't Talk to Each Other Anymore," by John L. Locke (Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $25).

Locke's central contention, detailed in the first 100 pages or so, is that "intimate talking, the social call of humans, is on the endangered behaviors list. Even when we're with friends, many of us try to avoid chatting and gossiping, disdaining these forms of verbal conduct and the people who indulge in them."

As a result, Locke argues, "many of us are beginning to develop the symptoms of an undiagnosed social condition, a kind of functional 'de-voicing,' brought on by an insufficient diet of human talking."

Nonsense! I thought. Come on! Is there something about the academic world that does this? These whining, chalk-dusted social sciences faculties! (Locke has a chair in "communication sciences" at the University of Sheffield, England, and has been director of the Neurolinguistics Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and a neurology lecturer at Harvard Medical School.)

In my experience, the precise opposite was true. Life is cluttered with chatting, glutted with gossip, beleaguered by talk - mundane and sometimes meaningful.

The early half of the book explores the non-verbal or beyond-literal content of talking. It wanders around observations and theorizing about primitive societies and the higher primates. Obviously well-read in the whole sweep of such anthropological work, Locke uses anecdotes and brief conclusionary tag-lines fluently. It all seemed too glib to me - not authoritative and certainly not persuasive.

Then, somehow, he grabbed me. Scales fell from my eyes. The cumulative prattling and preciousness that had put me off the central thesis of the work disappeared like dew in late morning.

Why? Possibly this bit:

Language, Locke writes well along in the book, "is a marvelous tool for the transmission of thought but no less valuable when it enables us to create and maintain social relationships and organize ourselves into productive groups. Peaceful groups.... Much of the world's talk is prophylactic, helping us keep from eradicating our species." An important, perhaps the most important function of language, Locke writes "is the creation of intimacy."

Ah! And then:

"We are losing our personal voices. During a period in which feelings of isolation and loneliness are on the rise, too many of us are becoming emotionally and socially mute. Just as we need to reverse rising levels of distrust by achieving greater familiarity, we are becoming increasingly still."

He cites urbanization, and the even greater isolation of suburbia ("largely devoid of meeting places"), the substitution of television, even home computers ("the burgeoning arsenal of electronic tongue depressors"), and other tools that isolate people rather than uniting them.

"Trust is in free fall," Locke insists. "The underlying problem is that we don't socialize enough to know and trust each other.... There are now fewer intimate social relationships than at any previous time in modern history. In consequence, unfamiliarity, suspiciousness, distrust, and loneliness are on the rise."

As the isolation has increased, he convincingly argues, far from healthy substitutes arise - including anthropomorphizing inanimate and animate objects. "Over 98 percent of dog owners in one study confessed that they talked to their pet; more than 80 percent said they addressed their canine 'as a person' and not 'as an animal.'... Twenty-eight percent of the respondents in the survey said they confided, in their dog."

So what's wrong with that?

Well, it is not talking. Not at all. Talking is reciprocal, mutual, dynamic. Neither dogs nor pet rocks do it - so speaking into an emptiness becomes spurious non-talk. And all the electronic substitutes and evasions vastly amplify that aloneness.

"We know what's wrong with talking," Locke declares, rhetorically. "By modern technostandards, it's inefficient. In some deeply biological sense, it is supposed to be. The inefficiency of talk is a product of its intimacy."

And his slightly purple conclusion is that "We are dying with the most toys, but perched atop our silicon silo, the view is magnificent. We can see all the way to our new lives in The Autistic Society."

Late in the book, Locke, who is nothing if not optimistic, attempts to offer antidotes and cures. His explorations range from killing your television set and all other devil's devices of electronic communication to serious efforts to reconstitute historically normal human involvements.

Finally, though, this is wistful stuff. It seems to be a lonely cry from a wilderness of resignation, coming from an altogether cheerful sort of man.

DTC But the book makes a startlingly coherent case, a powerfully convincing diagnosis of the core of today's too widespread malaise - humankind's inability to escape what Erich Fromm called "the prison of his aloneness." The failure is all the more befuddling in the face of the greatest prosperity and the most stable approximation of world peace in all history.

Perhaps the time has come to begin talking with deep seriousnes about the heart of intimacy. Locke's book is a starting point.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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