If we were playing a game of word-association, and I said to you the name "Marshall McLuhan," you might look at me blankly, or, if you had managed to retain the right bits of trivial information, you might say, "The medium is the message," or you might say, "global village."
McLuhan was a Canadian and a communications philosopher who wrote a great deal about the impact of mass communications upon human culture. He was perhaps most famous for coining those two related phrases. The theme of both is that the manner of communications affects the culture as much as or even more than than the content of those communications. For example, televising a global event such as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics creates a situation in which wide swaths of humanity experiences the same content more or less simultaneously, regardless of how far the communications must travel.
At no time in human history but within the span of current lifetimes has that been true, and it affects us in ways we don't necessarily recognize.
Among those effects is one of the most obvious: Events that once occurred very far away now seem to occur in our living rooms. That makes it more difficult for us to separate our societal norms from those that may be operating in the far-off place.
About six months ago, on this blog, I wrote to endorse a U.S. boycott of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in protest of Russia's galling, backward, anti-humanitarian policies regarding what it refers to as "gay propaganda."
In that post, I wrote:
I am ordinarily in the camp of those who think that sports ought to be about sports. I don't particularly care what sports figures have to say about politics or social issues, at least not any more than any other person. Having a particular talent for sport doesn't qualify someone especially for political wisdom any more than my in-depth knowledge of trademark law qualifies me to dance a ballet. Even though the Olympic movement is, on some level, about peace and international cooperation through athletic excellence, it is mostly about competition among individuals and nations on athletic fields. Those fields are hardly surrogates for battlefields; furthermore, the Olympic movement has coincided with the bloodiest period in human history, so it cannot be said that the Olympics themselves have been particularly effectual at peacemaking. So a large part of me says that we should spare ourselves the high-minded geopolitics and leave diplomacy to diplomats instead of defensemen and downhill skiers.As a side note: One thing that may be animating the heart of the Russian government against homosexuals is the perceived need in Russia to increase the birth rate. The Soviet Union was once home to more than 300 million people. Russia's population is less than half of that. The theory, apparently, is that making it legally and socially acceptable for people to live as homosexuals tends to remove people from the reproductive pool who would otherwise be in it. If you can stomach the essential sociopathy of that concept, it does make some sense. If we can put enough pressure on gay-oriented people to suppress their innate nature, they might do so long enough to reproduce. ("Do it for Mother Russia!") But it exacts a terrible toll.
The history of the Olympic movement does involve politics and social justice. During apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympics even though it promised to send both black and white athletes. The IOC was one of the first international organizations to impose sanctions for that horrible policy. Afghanistan, Rhodesia, and Germany all have faced exclusion from the Games as a result of human rights violations.
It is inescapable that sexual identity and orientation are core parts of a person's humanity. A person is about more than his or her sex and preferences for sex partners, but those things color the world for all of us, blinding us to some stimuli and sensitizing us to others. Factors that are essential to our individual humanity are essential to our freedom. We cannot be free if we cannot first be.
I do not pretend to know what animates the heart of the Russian government against homosexuals, but I know that at best it is a misguided policy, and at worst it is a malicious persecution of "otherness" for the sake of purity. Would we attend an Olympics in a nation that prosecuted blackness as a crime? Would we send our athletes to compete in a nation that kept women enslaved? Would we support the global showcase of a city where religious minorities were banned on pain of prison?
I'd like to think we wouldn't do any of those things. I'm nearly certain that the IOC wouldn't force us to make that choice.
I have less influence on these matters than I would like. The U.S. is not boycotting, of course. But the outcry has not gone entirely unheard; we are sending several prominent gay athletes as official members of the delegation to the games, and several long-time corporate Olympics sponsors, such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola, have toned down their use of Olympics insignia in their advertising, at least in the U.S.
And when the Olympics get under way later this week, I won't be a part of the global village. I'm tuning out.