Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In Other Words: Ideas Should Challenge and Open Our Eyes


I was mortified.

My parents and I sat in the principal’s office. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was just reading a book - One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. My mother was upset with the language in the book. My father was uncomfortable sitting there. It was probably because he was a master of colorful language. He drew from a rich palette of language choices. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t like some of those colors.


So there we sat. Me looking down. Dad shifting in the chair. Mom pointing that finger at the principal. The principal nodding. I was assigned another book, but I read Ken Kesey’s book anyway. Why? Because once something is forbidden, it becomes desirable. It was a sad story but the “language” was appropriate because it expressed the anger and frustration of the characters. The novel explored life in a mental institution but became a metaphor for society. It challenged the current thinking.

Now I could never figure out what exactly tripped this series of events that landed us in the office, but I learned that ideas were dangerous. And if ideas in books were dangerous enough to prompt a visit to the principal’s office then I wanted to know more. I wasn’t rebellious, just curious. I was fourteen, eager to learn but not always eager to be taught.

I will never know what prompted my parents to challenge the school.  Maybe my parents did not want to lose control of their child or maybe they weren't ready for their child to be an independent thinker or maybe they weren’t ready to let go or maybe they wanted to protect. I will never know. Maybe they didn’t want to give up their perceived control. Maybe they didn’t want to admit that they were wrong. Whatever it was, my parents were not ready for this particular challenge.


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Stravinsky debuted his The Rite of Spring in 1913 in Paris - and it was disastrous. The audience was not prepared to be so challenged. The ballet storyline, the dancing, and the music was like nothing they had seen or heard. Here was the problem: the piece was a challenge to traditionalists but it was something exciting for modernists. Some in the audience loudly voiced their displeasure during the performance which lead to a near riot between the factions. Police arrived and removed some patrons and it was even rumored that fruits and vegetables were thrown. But the performance never stopped while two worlds collided.

New York Times headline, 1913

At the time, The Rite of Spring was considered a disaster. But when it was performed a year later, it was met with high critical acclaim and audience satisfaction. Today it is considered an important moment in the development of music. Why? Attitudes changed. Audiences were ready for the challenge. And that’s good news because it’s dynamic music.

Galileo was jailed for challenging authority. The sun was the center of the universe, he claimed. Scientists of the time pretty much accepted this but the Pope did not.  It took 400 years to apologize. But the idea could not be jailed.

Remember Jimi Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock? With the help of electronics, Hendrix was able to suggest the actual battle as well as intense emotions. It was also a social commentary that things were not as they appeared. At the time, the powerful piece was either reviled or revered. A lot like Stravinsky’s piece.

Does your luggage have wheels? This simple idea was invented by Bernard D. Sadow around 1970 and refined by Robert Plath in the1980s. But here’s the interesting part. This invention was met with resistance because it challenged the conventional wisdom of travel. Men were reluctant to adopt it because you carried your bags. Now wheels are pretty universal and we wonder how we ever travelled without them. Every new idea is met with some resistance.


 Recently, a school in Mississippi pulled the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird from its reading list because some of the language made some people uncomfortable. You read the novel in school and that rich Southern prose slowly reveals a culture of simultaneous beauty and ugliness and builds a universal theme of acceptance and rejection and challenges racism in the country. The discomfort is revealing.  Banning the book will only bring a lot of attention as well as new readers to the book. Ideas cannot be banned.

We can look at all of these events and wonder what all the ruckus was all about. The music is beautiful, the science makes sense, traveling is a bit more convenient, and stories are often sad and beautiful and challenging. Banning a book or jailing a person or fighting over music will not kill an idea. It cannot destroy our creative nature or our need to question or our desire to modify and improve what we have.

They may not always admit it, but people want to be challenged - they just don’t want to be wrong, especially publicly.  We seek new forms of entertainment, foods, places, music, artists, writers, and activities. It is our nature to grow through personal challenge and stimulation, to experiment, to expand the horizon because we sense that to stay the same is to become stagnant.

We live in a time when Venn diagrams are beginning to collide and overlap. We will be challenged by books, ideas, inventions, and social changes and we should be challenged. That’s how even greater ideas come to be. We cannot control people. People will resist change and people will be open to change. We are a contradiction. But change is going to happen. But if we loosen that grip a little bit, more of the world will open up to us.

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