Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kumbaya, Namaste and Lerner

What was happening in the Middle East in 1958 when Daniel Lerner wrote Modernizing Styles of Life: A Theory? A quick check of the topic on Google and you get the picture. Revolution and assassinations in Iraq, fears the chaos would spread to Lebanon and Jordan, U.S. and British troop movements, concern about the Soviet influence and, of course, oil.

Fast forward 55 years and it doesn't seem much has changed. I would think by now, if Lerner's theory of modernization is correct, our collective empathy would have resulted in world peace. Namaste.

Lerner uses the term "psychic mobility" to describe the path to the future where modernization (read westernization) helps us experience and understand the lives of others. Mass media is the tool that helps us spread the word and teach others how to behave and how to participate. Once the world has made the shift to the modern global village, (read western), we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

You can probably tell there was a great of deal eye-rolling going on when I read this chapter.

Certainly, Lerner would find evidence supporting his theory in the use of Twitter as a tool used by activists who drove the Arab Spring movements in Egypt and Tunisia. In an article in Wired, correspondent Sam Gustin says social media provided a spark for the match.

"Did social media like Facebook and Twitter cause the revolution? No. But these tools did speed up the process by helping to organize the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanize international support," writes Gustin.

Yet, even with the help of today's powerful tools of mass communication, we are far from the global understanding Lerner envisioned. Part of the reason may be that Lerner's view of modernization is just too parochial. It suggests the American model is the best one and that American communication systems are the best route to spreading modernization around the globe.

Clearly, the complexity of world politics belie Lerner's views. And modernization doesn't necessarily mean we all need to live in the same village and speak the same language. Mass communication gives us access to new ideas. But that doesn't mean western culture can be or should be the answer.

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