For several years now I’ve been threatening to write about a concept I was introduced to in college by one of my favorite professors, Gene Fitzgerald, which he called “The Rainbow of Texts”. It was one of those mind-blowing concepts that is fairly simple on the surface but keeps getting deeper the longer I think about it. And I’ve thought about it for a long time.
I took my second year of Russian Language concurrently with a Russian History course from Professor Gene Fitzgerald. It was around the time Russia started to open up in the 1990’s, and I thought there was going to be a lot of opportunities there. However, I didn’t take into account my terrible ear for language. I did learn a lot of things that tangentially helped out a lot through my life, so don’t let anyone tell you a liberal arts education is only good for waiting tables.
The core thesis of the two-semester Russian History class was that we are all surrounded by a rainbow of texts that acts as a filter in how we perceive the information around us, as well as how we express ourselves. These texts are everything we take in through media, experiences, and interactions. Everything is a text and it colors the texts we take in and alters them as we experience them. Dr. Fitzgerald pointed out that two people who shared a great many texts could communicate much better than those with fewer texts in common. To better understand and communicate with Russians, you didn’t just need to know the language, but also their texts, such as history, art, and literature. We were required to read some of the near-universal Russian texts, such as Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, Zamyatin’s “We”, and of course, “Eugene Onegin” by Pushkin.
I did pretty well in that class, and I even got an A on my “Notes from Underground” paper while it was still in rough-draft form. It was probably the first paper I really enjoyed writing and put my feet on a compositional path, which I shirk to this very day. It did get me seriously considering my methods of communication. I had always felt like I was speaking my own language, and I started to see that in effect, we all are. The people with whom I connect most easily are people that understand the pop culture references and in-jokes that I continually reference. I worked with a guy about my age for a couple months at a tech place. We didn’t have a lot in common and at one point I showed him the Star Wars fan film “Troops“. He sat through it patiently without much of a reaction. At the end he asked me why the guy wore that mask the whole time. It turns out he doesn’t really go to movies and had never seen Star Wars, or even seen enough related Star Wars stuff to recognize the references in the video. In the end we found common ground in fishing and technology and became friends, but it was really an eye-opener to how different we can be, even in the same communities.
One day, while helping with a wheel throwing pottery class, I passed a couple students on the first day. The beginners get a demo and then are turned loose to suffer on their own for a bit before we start stepping in and helping correct the problems. These two students were throwing at wheels facing each other and the boy was doing pretty well, and the girl was starting to really get frustrated. I heard her ask the boy across from her, “Have you had this class before?” He simply said “No”, without really looking up from what he was doing. I saw her face fall at this and could feel the heartbreak of “why can’t I get this?” I backpedaled a couple steps and said to the boy, “Did you have a throwing class in High School?” He said he did, and the girl started to get a little angry. She said, “That’s just what I asked you and you said no!” I stepped in a little and asked the guy if he was majoring in science, and he confessed to being an engineering student of some flavor. I told the girl that she’d asked a specific question with the tag “this class”, which he responded in the negative. She thought it was a little pedantic, and I tried to explain that his answer wasn’t a personal affront or some sort of trickery, but was a reaction to an absolute that scientists tend to evaluate without thinking. I don’t think she really bought it, but it lives on in my personal rainbow as a prime example.
The big drawback is now I tend to evaluate, and often over-clarify, my meanings. People ask me questions and are met with a blank terminator-like stare half the time as my brain scrolls down the list of responses, evaluating and choosing what is actually being asked, and how the response will be taken. I’ve been told this is off-putting and makes me look like I’m practicing a lie. I’ve often had my meanings misinterpreted, and on several occasions mistaken someone else’s intentions. One time in high school I asked a pair of girls if they were going to the game on Friday. It was a common social pleasantry that I had adopted to fill conversational voids while trying to masquerade as a human. One girl answered that they had a Laurel’s (LDS young women’s group) activity that they were going to. She added, “Do you want to come?” I laughed, thinking it was just an attempt at humor, and not realizing it was a date activity and I was being asked out. In fact I didn’t know about my faux-pas for a couple classes until I ran into the other girl alone and she gave me an earful. I did manage seek out the girl I’d hurt to apologize and accept the invitation in a sheepish manner. Up until that point I’d really not had a text in my rainbow that covered the possibility of me personally getting asked out on a date.
This topic of understanding has been really on my mind lately as I’ve been experiencing the seeming splintering of online society into tiny, vocal, like-minded groups that form their internet tribes. A post on a social media site that gets opposition from adversarial groups seems to have no real communication and lots of hurt. This is responded to by counter attacks and escalation. Doxxing and character assassination seem to be seen as valid responses. Very little actual communication takes place. When one party tries to reach out and explain their position the effort seldom seems to be accepted as genuine and nobody seems to find a commonality in the texts. I believe I frequently see both sides are more in line than not, but the language each side is using doesn’t have the commonality needed for a meeting of minds. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and I know that, once again, I don’t have any answers. But I do think we need to take some time in attempting to understand each other rather than just refuting and rearming.
The Russians have a saying: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
And then where will our rainbows be?