Michael Meade, the mythologist, is one of the truly gifted story tellers in America today. Maybe it’s his Irish chromosomes, but when he tells a story everyone, from young to old, sits spellbound.
And there is a particular refrain that appears like a leitmotif in many of his stories. Michael will be recounting some incident when he will say: “Then the people, that is, some of the people, began to say this, and they began to say that . . .”
He is not fond of saying “the people” without immediately adding a significant little nuance, “that is, some of the people.”
I bring this up because today we live in a world wherein many people claim to be speaking for “the people.” In truth, all of us have that constant temptation, which we often publicly act out, of precisely thinking we are speaking for “the people” in some form or fashion.
How frequent is the phrase: “The people are saying this! The people are angry! Youth feel this way! Women feel that way! Men think like that! The people don’t want that anymore! The people are leaving the church for this reason! Adults only learn by this method of education!”
Rarely, most rarely, when we hear these phrases, or speak them, are they immediately qualified with the nuance: “that is, some of the people are saying these things, and some of the people are learning in this fashion, and some of the people are feeling like that.”
Recently at a church conference I was attending, there was an open forum. Anyone could go up to a microphone and, for three minutes, give a little editorial on some issue that she or he felt some passion on.
There wasn’t a Michael Meade in the bunch. Speaker after speaker left no doubt that he or she was speaking for “the people.”
One speaker told us that youth (by her insinuation, all of them) felt that the church today had sold itself out to the secular world and that it is because of this that youth are disillusioned with it.
Another speaker told us that people (by her submission, all of them) no longer attend church functions because the church did not use adult methods of education and that adults (all adults) learn only by a certain methodology.
Another person went to the microphone and told us that youth (again, supposedly all of them) were totally disillusioned with the church’s stance on sex outside of marriage and until the church woke up to this and responded more positively youth would not be much in sympathy or attendance.
And so the editorials went on. Never did any of these speakers intimate, even vaguely, that perhaps he or she was speaking for only some of the people.
I kept hearing Michael Meade as each one spoke his or her piece, however sincere, and every time someone said, “youth feel this way, people think that way, adults learn this way,” I inwardly added to myself: “yes, some youth feel this way; yes, some people think that way; and yes, some adults learn like that.”
Perhaps, this example is unfair, but I use it because it is so typical. All of us—conservatives, liberals, feminists, anti-feminists, social justice advocates, adult educators, pedagogues, androgogues—alike, especially if we have a passion for truth, tend to have and give the impression that we, and we alone, are truly feeling what the people are feeling; that we, and only we, are truly hearing what the people are saying; that we, and only we, are truly understanding what the people are struggling with; and that we, and only we, are truly speaking for the people.
But that is a fault both in modesty and truth. Simply put, there is not one thing in the whole world that all of the people feel and think the same about and it is selfrighteous, self-deceptive, and highly irritating to everyone around us when we do not make real allowances for that in our language and judgments.
I recall a psychologist who once taught me, telling our class: “Never, never, presume that anyone feels or thinks exactly as you do! That is a cardinal mistake and you will begin to be much more helpful to people when you learn that.”
Had he taken the microphone that night, at that open forum, I suspect that his editorial would have constantly qualified itself with the phrase: “And the people, that is, some of the people, feel this, and they say that, and they learn in this fashion.”
So this is my little editorial and I suspect that when it appears the people, that is, some of the people, will think it says something of importance. Conversely, I suspect, the people, that is, some of the people, will consider it a piece of self-contradictory and self-righteous tripe.
Hence, I ask you, the people, that is, some of the people, to bear with me and forgive me this little affront. After all, this is what people today are feeling!