9 HIGH AND LOW CONTEXT
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #9
HIGH AND LOW CONTEXT
FINDING MEANING IN OUR WORLDS
One of the most striking things about human beings is the way we try to find and/or create meaning in our worlds. The very act of naming, for example, is a way of giving meaning and order. Thus, paradoxically, the diagnosis that "life is absurd" is an attempt to impose some meaning by naming it "absurd". And so we develop customs, rituals, symbols, myths, a whole web of meaning-evoking, meaning-giving and meaning-maintaining structures. Without these structures life would be unbearable. Imagine, for example, what it would be like if you could find no meaning whatsoever in your relationships or work.
At their best, such structures are experienced as relative and facilitative instruments of our encounters with the Ultimate - the Real, the Good, the True, the One, the Great Mystery. They also facilitate life-giving encounters with other people and enable us to deal creatively with the events and things that are part and parcel of daily living. Too often, however, those structures become ends in themselves and we treat them as if they were the Ultimate. In this way they can obstruct rather than facilitate life-giving encounters with other people, events and things. The relative is absolutised and the means can subvert the ends.
WE LIVE WITHIN A CERTAIN CONTEXT
Those structures and, more particularly, the meanings they bear and/or evoke, provide a context for our lives. Thus, in Australia if we are introduced to someone, it is our custom to extend the right hand in a ritual grasping of the other’s right hand. We call it a "handshake" (appropriately enough!). This is a little ritual that eases the way in our social interactions. Its origin seems to be in the intention to show the other that we carry no weapon. Other societies have different rituals to achieve the same end - eg, rubbing noses. None of us can claim that our ritual is the right ritual.
These things are for the most part more or less arbitrary, necessary fictions if you like, or, as Ernest Becker says, "vital lies". (You will see just how "vital" if you, for example, mess around with a handshake.) Other fictions and "vital lies" that help make up the context of our lives include money, religious rituals, table manners, dress codes, implicit and explicit rules of the road, ways of addressing certain people, our national flag, celebrating birthdays with a cake and candles, and so on.
Some societies are high context and others are low context. In a high context society, much is taken for granted, many structures are universally accepted by the group. In a low context society much less is taken for granted, fewer structures are universally accepted by the group. Typically, for example, Asian societies are more or less high context. A huge amount is taken for granted. The Catholic Church used to be, throughout the world, a high context society and its liturgy, in particular, was pre-eminently a place of high context.
Typically, societies in the so-called New World - such as in Australia - are more or less low context. Relatively little is taken for granted. For example, in Australia we have nothing like the immensely complex and sophisticated patterns of custom and ritual that you will find in Japan. The Catholic Church, while it remains high context in some parts of the world, has, for the most part, moved significantly towards being a low context society. This is particularly evident in the liturgy.
THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS
Neither high nor low context is simply good or bad. There is both good and bad news in both of them. Like life itself, the main issue is how we respond to the context within which we find ourselves. The good news of high context is that:
it saves us making many trivial decisions;
it therefore releases a lot of energy, time and talent for the main tasks;
communication tends to be efficient because the context already says much;
roles tend to be clear;
group projects and team efforts tend to be practicable and effective;
it tends to promote a shared and coherent moral vision.
power and authority are backed by the institutional structures and the traditions, and this can facilitate efficient decision-making and institutional focus.
The bad news of high context is that:
it does not allow us to make a lot of those decisions that involve originality and foster a sense of individuality;
the group dominates the individual, systems and institutions tend to be maintained at the expense of individuals;
a lot of immoral, destructive and incompetent behaviour can be hidden by uncritical acceptance of "the system";
the creative talent of individuals can be lost to the group because excessive attention is paid to maintaining "the tradition";
serious change is extremely difficult to promote.
The good news of low context is that
it allows for great flexibility, adaptability and originality;
it can thus release an enormous amount of creative energy and initiative;
change is much more easily promoted;
the opportunities for the individual to develop and express his or her individuality can be significantly enhanced.
The bad news of low context is that
it tends towards individualism at the expense of the group;
it takes significantly more energy to go on living in it because we are constantly inventing life, as it were. Enormous amounts of time, talent and energy go into creating structures and making decisions that are taken for granted in high context situations;
communication tends to be inefficient and even problematic because the shared world of meaning has diminished, the context says little that is clear;
roles can become easily confused;
it tends to resist a shared and coherent moral vision;
it can leave many feeling impotent and anxious, without a clear sense of purpose or role;
it is fertile ground for fundamentalisms and authoritarian solutions of one kind or another, efforts to rein life in and "restore order" by artificially and wilfully imposing high context (eg Adolf Hitler);
power and authority depend largely on the credibility of the person, the systems and organisational structures having diminished credibility; this tends to place people and relationships under extra pressure;
it can at times paralyse decision-making processes because every individual expects to be part of the process and expects the outcome to embody his or her point of view.
TEXTS FOR REFLECTION
1. "Let me read with open eyes the book my days are writing -- and learn." (Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, Trans. Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, 131)
2. Truly religious people, however, have learned how to live with this uncertainty in the light of their faith that everything - even darkness - has a divine meaning, a holy purpose, a mysterious design. Therefore, the first premise in the art of living is to be able to live with one's problems, not to see them as problems to be solved, but as mysteries to be lived. As long as we are anxious, agitated, perturbed about our problems, we prove that we have not yet learned the fundamentals of the art of religious living." (Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, 1964, 14)
3. "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I do not do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1958, 83)
4.. "'The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out; for if you want the kernel you must break the shell.' And therefore, if you want to discover nature's nakedness, you must destroy its symbols and the farther you get in, the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers all things up into himself, there you must stay." (Meister Eckhart in R. Blakeney, Meister Eckhart, Harper Torchbooks, 1949, 148)
5. In the time of St Paul, the Christian community in Corinth would have been very low context. This is the advice he gave them: "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (1 Cor 13:4ff)
SUGGESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Name some of the structures - symbols, rituals, myths - that give meaning to your life.
Reflect on an experience of significant change in your life, noting the differences it made to your daily experience.
Describe in your own words a high context situation you have experienced. Reflect on advantages and disadvantages.
Describe in your own words a low context situation you have experienced. Reflect on advantages and disadvantages.
What happens in celebration of the liturgy in a low context? What is it like?
What could it mean to say the Church has moved from high context towards low context? Reflect on the implications.
What do you think Merton is saying in his prayer? (cf #2 above)
What might be the special import of St Paul’s instruction on love for us today? (cf #4 above)
In what sense might a low context situation be more helpful in assisting us to find our true identity?
Is it possible that a high context might lead the Church to forget its true identity? Why? Why not?