Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twilight of vertical culture

Odd how the Universe creates moments of synchronicity. This morning I was watching a fascinating TED talk, Andrew Solomon's Love, no matter what. And then my dear friend John was in a production this evening of Twilight of the Golds. The two events cover the same general topics -- biotechnology, social and media technologies, their effects on imperfect people -- but from different angles.

The latter: a playwright asks us to consider the twin effects of abortion and biological information in the earlier age of AIDS and homophobia. The former: a NY Times journalist discusses his journey on a story of parental love for children who don't fit the norms of "vertical culture" from his own perspective as a gay parent. Their underlying assumptions are vastly different (though starting from the same place), and so where they end up is different as well.

What struck me from the Twilight of the Golds was a fundamental assumption on the straight characters (and, I think, the playwright himself) that society itself wouldn't change nearly as fast as the technology. In more specific terms: that societal homophobia and a parent's wish for making their children's lives easier than theirs, would not evolve. And yes, in the 10+ years since the play was written, most Western nations have polled consistently in favor of gay marriage and adoption rights. Ask anyone under 25 about gays and lesbians, and more often than not you'll get a shrug. Far different from the outlines of the play's characters' lives in an economically declining New York.

This is the exact journey that Mr. Solomon went through himself as he was researching his book. His thesis: that was have "horizontal" and "vertical" aspects of culture. Vertical -- what is passed down from parent to child like ethnicity, language, even religion -- certainly has an impact on what parents want for their child. But it is horizontal culture -- that which we used to define ourselves via shared communities -- that challenges us yet creates the space for what is new and different. Like the lead character from Twilight says, "That part of me, that thread of me, is woven deep into the tapestry of me. Take that threat out and the entire tapestry unravels. All you are left with is staring at the wall." Even he learns this lesson when, as a gay parent, suddenly discovers the challenge of having a possibly disabled child. Yet not so long ago, he himself would have been "diagnosed" as such.

I believe much more in Mr. Solomon's ultimate choice: the choice of love and of embracing horizontal culture. I think that's what makes our lives such colorful, interesting mosaics. I believe that technology, while certainly can be used for terrible things like eugenics (the ultimate expression of vertical culture), can also be used to expand our reach and connectivity with people we never thought possible (the celebration of horizontal culture). I think that how we make our work and our social networks and our lives so much richer: by learning to simply love what we don't necessarily understand or even wish for ourselves or our children. It's a hard, hard thing to do. But when I witness how dated the Twilight of the Golds felt as I see the progress of LGBT acceptance, of communities of deaf or blind people, or showcasing the lives of little people on television as just another source of both challenge and inspiration like anything else, I really am hopeful. Our shared experiences will come to define us more than our familiar heritage. The twilight of vertical-only culture in favor of a more nuanced, complex, and beautiful mosaic of both vertical and horizontal threads.

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