The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
Whether in the form of a large marketing campaign or a simple conversation among friends, communicating effectively is an important part of our lives. As important as it may be, there are times when we can’t seem to resonate with another person or group of people.
There is a broad sweeping philosophical and fundamental divide in humanity which affects our ability to communicate and find common ground with others of the opposite outlook. These two camps are Primitivism and Classicism, terms which might be familiar from artistic movements. Since art is a reflection of culture, these outlooks have existed throughout history in many forms. Obviously, there are many ways of viewing the world and many philosophically nuanced viewpoints but they can all be boiled down to some version of these two general outlooks.
This divided outlook is the underlying premise for art movements, philosophical ideas, political theories, religions, cultural trends and fashion movements. The outcomes of this inherent division can create distrust, communication breakdown, strife and even war. This may seem simplistic or “black and white” but sometimes the most profound ideas are the simplest. Understanding this underlying divide between people can help us better our communication and find common ground with others with which we might find ourselves in opposition.
Where are these two viewpoints emanating from?
Those on the Classicist side largely place the human animal on a pedestal as a pinnacle outcome in the natural world. They tend to regard the human animal as triumphant and perfect. People of this persuasion tend to respect notions of beauty, achievement, merit, physical prowess, individualism, objectivism and the like. In an artistic analogy, this is the painter who paints the accurate representation of a horse that looks stunningly like the subject. Not only does it look masterfully lifelike, it goes beyond to show what a photograph couldn’t. It is not only a celebration of the subject but a showcase of the masterful skill the trained artist possesses. An artist like John Singer Sargent tends to sum up this sort of artistic outlook. His work transcends the masterful representation of the subject itself to showcase the beauty of what man can create.
On the other side is the notion of Primitivism. This view largely distrusts humanity and removes it from any sort of pedestal. It showcases the individual as always being in a state of sin against the likes of nature, other individuals, culture/society, a god, etc. In this outlook the human animal is fallible and cruel at worst and tolerable at best. This view holds that we should always be striving to do the opposite of what is required to be human. Everything the individual might do is suspect because it is coming from a place of greed or self-centeredness. Concepts that bubble up and hold the most weight in this paradigm include humbleness, modesty, passivism, counter culturism, altruism, cultural nostalgia (the good old days), etc.
In the art world this tends to be seen in more “primitive” artistic depictions: the painter who paints a picture of a horse produces a quirky, more “naïve” and abstract impression of his/her subject. The painting becomes a celebration of the artist’s humbleness and simplicity. An artist such as Henri Rousseau showcases a lot of these qualities in his work. But do not be fooled, this is not simply the battle between abstraction and realism. There are artists of both types that function in all genres that would have been fashionable during their time.
These two paradigms are often in direct opposition to each other in society and culture around us. Some familiar examples include: treehuggers vs. corporate zombies, punk vs. glam rock, folk vs. pop, beatniks vs. squares, collectivists vs. individualist, marxists vs capitalists, democrats vs. republicans, Urban Outfitters vs. Ralph Lauren and even Christians vs. Romans. There are so many permeations it can become hard to distinguish at times.
We all tend toward one realm or the other in our lives. Each of us is of course a mixture of the two in many respects but deep down, at the end of the day, I believe we have a tendency toward one outlook or the other. We can see this in the objects we buy, the brands we like, the marketing we respond to, the political messages we prefer, the fashion we wear, the social-cultural movements we are a part of and the individuals we gravitate towards, as being more “like us”.
We then tend to intuitively spot out the other camp and generally hold some level of distrust for those “unlike us.” This is commonly seen in our cultural grouping. It’s common here in San Francisco when looking at the phenomenon of the Mission hipster vs. the Marina kid. Both sides are a night and day difference from one another. The Mission hipster is a Primitivist while the Marina kids are Classicists. Strangely enough it is the Mission set that has more disdain for the group that lives in the Marina then the other way around. This is because their philosophical outlooks on life are diametrically opposed.
Classicists and Primitivists might initially mistrust each other but we all communicate, work, play and live among each other. As we look to be better communicators at work or sell to each other through markets, it can be important to understand where the other person might be coming from. Why can’t I seem to get through to that damn “environmentalist” over in the human factors group or why don’t those stupid “squares” on the executive board see why cleaner technology is better for the world?
We each deal with these divisions daily and throw our hands in the air with frustration. If we can understand that we might be dealing with an individual, a colleague, boss, group or target market with a fundamentally different outlook, we can then begin to reframe our communications in a way that will resonate. This is a point where we can begin to build a bridge based on understanding. Through better understanding we can develop a communication style that does not alienate others. At the end of the day, better communication can help us all get along a little better.