Sunday, November 1, 2009

You are the message

The philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is arguably most famous for stating that the "medium is the message" (in Understanding media, 1964), meaning that no extension of ourselves is ever neutral. Of course, he was specifically referring to physical media – like the light bulbs, clothing and the television – but I would like to suggest that this is as true of our actions as it is of the tools we use to carry out our actions. Our whole being as a projection of ourselves sends out a message. We say something whether we speak or not.

I believe that if we measured the truth of our actions by their consistency with the words we speak, we would often discover some alarming discrepancies. In our everyday reality the message of our words is easily disrupted or misinterpreted because they don't match our actions. I remember a few years ago seeing a television commercial in which an Italian couple was arguing. The woman would say something like "Tua madre è una cuoca cattiva" (Your mother is a terrible cook) whilst throwing a vase full of flowers at her boyfriend. The subtitle would then appear, reading "I love you." The exaggerated incongruity  and absurdity of the whole scene makes it pretty funny, but I wonder if it is not entirely implausible. How many abusive relationships exist because of the detachment between words and deeds? How much hurt do we cause when we say something we mean, but then don't do what we mean to do?

Oddly enough, the primary role of confession in Christianity is not to spend ages beating ourselves up for our inability to live out the truth, but to simply admit that we have not let the message become incarnate in us. Confession is the acceptance of grace, not the denial of it. The word confess literally means to agree, or to say with. It is the admission of truth, whether the truth is comfortable or not. It is equivalent of the Koine Greek word exomologeo, which literally means, to speak out the word or to let the inside be made evident outside. Now, the point I really want to make here is that often the best way to confess – and get the word out – is to live it out. Speak only when your words can match your actions. 

I remember hearing of two friends who had this massive argument. A couple of days later, to say sorry, the one guy went to his friend's house at some crazy hour in the morning, and (without telling his friend about it) began to mow his front lawn. He didn't say sorry ever, at least not with his mouth. But he lived out his apology. This, I suppose, is what we mean when we say that actions speak louder than words, and what St. Francis of Assisi might have meant when he told his friends to "preach always, and only if necessary, use words."


  1. How strange... My first visit to your blog and it's about a philosopher I just read. I think your extension into the actions of man definitely echo's something of what McLuhan is saying. Especially if you take into consideration that what we perceive as real and what actually is, often don't add up. He says that we live mythically and integrally but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-eclectic age. I don't necessarily agree that what he calls "pre-eclectic" was ever UN-mythical, but I'm going to take a slight leap of logic and suggest that he's onto something in that we think in a different way than how we actually live. I agree that this can be problematic. Also: if MAN is the medium, "No medium has its meaning in existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media" kinda has a nice ring to it!

  2. wasn't the man, who mowed his friend's lawn, rich mullins?