Friday, February 26, 2021

I'll Try Not to Yuck Your Yum if You Try Not to Yuck Mine

"There are only two bad kinds of ice cream: pistachio and tutti frutti." It's one of the jokes I tell that no one thinks is particularly funny. The kids tend to take me seriously, "What's so bad about them?" And adults tend to snort in imitation of The Dude, "That's, like, just your opinion man."

It's true that those two flavors ruin ice cream for me, although if that's all there is, I'll still eat it, just not with the usual gusto. I've found many who agree with me about tutti frutti, but I often feel as if I'm all alone in my dislike of pistachio. "But that's the best flavor," they'll say or, "You don't know what you're talking about," all in the spirit of the joke, of course.

Ice cream isn't something to fight over. We've all known since we were quite young that everyone perceives flavors in a different way. What we find "yucky" others seem to find "yummy." And even as our beloved adults sometimes try to coax us with promises of bigger muscles or trick us by hiding, say, broccoli in an otherwise delicious marinara sauce, the palate doesn't want what the palate doesn't want. The same goes for all of our senses, which accounts, at least in part, for different tastes in music, color, scent, and the kind of fabric we like against our skin.

Everyone interacts with the world through our senses. We are born into a hubbub of sensation, then gradually begin to sort them out. In our culture we've settled on five senses, but people who study these things count up to 33 and, as we know, even among the commonly accepted five there is a great deal of crossover, say, between smell and taste. Some theorize that we are just one big bio-machine that exists for the purpose of processing the universe into a form our consciousness can comprehend, each of us put together differently from the start, then shaped by events and environment, into a unique interpreter of reality.

My joke entertains me because I know that children will query and adults will object. I'm setting myself up to be told I'm "wrong," even as I know I'm as right as anyone about the flavors of ice cream. When I tell my stupid joke amongst children it almost inevitably turns into a comparative conversation about our senses, with children offering up their "yucks" and "yums," agreeing and disagreeing. It's a way to talk about our similarities and differences. 

There have, however, over the years been a few instances in which the conversation turned angry. For example, one boy grew livid at another who insisted that he liked the taste of garlic on his bagel. "You don't like garlic!" he shouted. Had the emotion not been so real, I would have laughed. But it made me think about how often our inability to accept the perceptions of others, without judgement, stands at the heart of our bigotries.

Marshall McLuhan of "The medium is the message" fame asserts that the "ratio" among human senses changes depending upon the medium (or environment or tool) through which we are experiencing the world. We've all know of people, like Helen Keller, for whom the absence of one sense, leads to the enhancement of others. That would be an example of this sort of change in ratio. McLuhan, in great detail, writes about how the introduction of the phonetic alphabet turned our oral and aural sense into a visual one. Up to the adoption of the written word, we lived in a space in which our sense of hearing played a much more prominent part in our experience, something that we modern humans, steeped as we are in the visual realm of literacy, can no longer fathom. As the ratio of senses among Europeans increasingly shifted toward the visual and away from the aural over the course of centuries, we began to label those who perceived the world in preliterate ways (e.g., through the ear) as primitive or barbarian. Even the word "preliterate" contains the connotation of inferiority.

But just as there is no objective "better" or "worse" when it comes to ice cream flavors, there is no better or worse when it comes to the shape of our senses. As much as humanity gained from severing spoken words from the sounds they make with the adoption of the phonetic alphabet, we lost just as much in the process. Pre-literate humans had much better memories than modern man, for instance. Even young children were capable of quickly and easily committing epics and opuses to memory in ways that would be impossible for most of us. There is no better or worse, only different. Humans adapt to the environment or medium in which they find themselves. McLuhan's big contribution to the ongoing dialog of the world is that he sees that western culture is in the midst of another major change in sensory ratios that began with the advent of electronic media. We are now re-entering, in his view, a new era, shaped by new media, in which our sensory ratios are once more shifting toward those known by our ancestors and those few remaining people who still live as their ancestors did.

I'm not entirely sure I buy the theory, but there is no doubt that our children are growing up in a changing environment that is reshaping their senses. We often see it in the news media as "rewiring their brains," a framing that most of us read with alarm. As we wring our hands, our children, as children always do, are simply adapting and adopting. And just as we, as a culture that has spread itself in colonizing ways around the globe, came to view non-illiterate cultures as inferior, we are actively labeling ourselves as superior to whatever it is that's coming next as well. Meanwhile our children become digital natives with our without us.

Admittedly, there is a lot of conjecture in what I've written here. The science of the senses, the history of literacy, and the legacy of McLuhan's ideas can all be argued from the other side. What is not in doubt, however, is that our senses, no matter how finely honed, cannot begin to tell us the whole truth. To get at that requires bringing all of our perceptions together in cacophonous dialog in the hope that our collective consciousness can bring us closer. It's worth considering.

In the meantime, I'll try not to yuck your yum if you try not to yuck mine.


"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here. They're written using a phonetic alphabet!

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