Some time ago, probably a year or more before this blog post, I was inclined to remember an anecdote about a religious sect who had sworn off publication of their ideas for fear of being entrapped by them. At the time, I was convinced that this story had been passed along via Lance Strate in his Fordham University classroom, and perhaps it was. Mainly as a result of my own sketchy memory on the details of the story, Lance did not recognize what I was looking for when I contacted him via Twitter.
In preparing a lesson for my reading course on Neil Postman and typography, I stumbled across the anecdote in what must be the most obvious of places for such a story, his best known book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” In terms of my personal attachment to the subject, there probably is no more logical place to look than one of Postman’s books, and particularly the book that speaks most loudly on the subject. The itch in the back of my mind can finally be put to rest.
I’ll reproduce the brief story here, as excerpted from Postman’s book with a few quick comments to close.
In the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, there appears a remarkable quotation attributed to Michael Welfare, one of the founders of a religious sect known as the Dunkers and a long time acquaintance of Franklin. The statement had its origins in Welfare’s complaint to Franklin that zealots of other religious persuasions were spreading lies about the Dunkers, accusing them of abominable principles to which, in fact, they were utter strangers. Franklin suggested that such abuse might be diminished if the Dunkers published the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline. Welfare replied that this course of action had been discussed among his co-religionists but had been rejected. He then explained their reasoning in the following words:
“When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors, and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual and theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.”
Franklin describes this sentiment as a singular instance in the history of mankind of modesty in a sect. Modesty is certainly the word for it, but the statement is extraordinary for other reasons, too. We have here a criticism of the epistemology of the written word worthy of Plato. Moses himself might be interested although he could hardly approve. The Dunkers came close here to formulating a commandment about religious discourse: Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print them, lest thou shall be entrapped by them for all time.
Postman intended this as a clever and compelling introduction to his writing on the history of typography in America and its role in shaping the form and direction of the colonies, not to mention the Republic which was eventually born out of their infancy. In some ways, we find ourselves in the delicate situation of the Dunkers whenever we see legal affairs reach the Supreme Court, or when Congress considers the constitutionality of particular piece of legislation. The Dunkers rejected the codification of their beliefs out of a fear that they would be trapped by them later. The Dunkers, or at least the Ephrata Cloister of which Michael Welfare was a part, are no more, however. The United States, at least for now, persists.
The Constitution, like the Bible or your high school history textbook, codifies beliefs and values on behalf of continuity and stability. Writing transformed human relationships by preserving sentiment in a static form, durable and resistant to time in many ways. Print standardized and multiplied the effects of writing. As Postman often argued, each new technology transforms in complex and unexpected ways, including both the progressive and the destructive. The tremendous body of knowledge that human beings have accumulated over the centuries since writing emerged as a dominant form (not to mention print) has advanced science and art and virtually every form of human endeavor. Simultaneously, it has made us more rigid in our ability to consider alternative viewpoints and has made us resistant to change in many ways.
The Dunkers main failure was overly simplistic thinking about the printing of their beliefs. Yes, they might be trapped by the codification of their beliefs in some way, but the real problem was the totality with which they saw the dilemma. It was either “print and be trapped” or “don’t print and be free.” In fact, as the Founders of the United States understood, putting mechanisms in place to force deliberation and to accommodate change assures that while ideas and values might become rigid and difficult to question, some ideas are worth preserving. The relative vagueness of the Founders message through time forces interpretation and debate. It forces us to question which values we continue to hold dear and which require amendment or discard. It’s not pretty and often we end up hurting as much as helping when we tinker with the foundation of our society, but the codification of the American bedrock in the Constitution (and other original documents) gives us an anchor to our historical roots. It slows or stops us when we appear to be hurtling into oblivion, and it riles us and pushes us to change when our direction becomes less true to our collective sense of who we “should be.”
In an electronic world, where information moves quickly and change occurs at a rate that human beings are likely ill-equipped to deal with, it is our great fortune that our core beliefs and values were codified in a durable medium like print and that we still have the sense to respect that property of our media heritage that we don’t just throw it all away at the slightest whim. The next time you read, see, or hear something about the death of print (be it about books or newspapers) consider that the medium is the message, and that a society that values speed, malleability, and what’s “new” also adopts a new posture towards the traditional and conservative. There is great value in the media that foster tradition and conservation, and so we ought to mourn the diminishing of print, even while celebrating the new possibilities that electronic forms promise to our humanity.