Babel and Babble
One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is found in the first book of Genesis. It recounts the legend of the Tower of Babel. For despite the fact that historically a high tower may indeed have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, its story and myth have become a symbol and moral lesson for humanity.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Bible, Genesis 11:1-91
Many years ago, when we first learned about social media, it seemed to offer the potential to link people across distances and cultures. We hoped and believed that through it humanity would be helped to overcome differences and prejudices and find a commonality and unity. It seemed logical. Yet, as it has turned out, that internet connectivity has a dark side that gives voice to our more base instincts. Gossip, malicious rumors, lies, misinformation, and violence now permeate online information and communications. It is as if a force of gravity rules the human mind causing it to fall lower and lower, and our negative tendencies manifest themselves ever more strongly. Presently, many websites have become repositories of negativity. As the Great Master once said, referring to the period of World War II when hate and violence manifested worldwide, “the weak side of human nature takes the upper hand.”
Individual mind is Kal on a small scale. It is Kal’s agent, attached to every soul to keep it out from the eye focus and keep it entangled in this world. No individual is at peace with himself and no one is happy. In ignorance, doubt, and fear, men go about. When such is the case of the individual, the case of groups of such individuals and nations cannot be expected to be any better. The world is a plaything of Kal. Both the parties in this war profess to be Christians, and Christians are killing Christians for transitory things of this dirty material world. When art flourishes, luxuries come in its train, and the weak side of human nature takes the upper hand. Forces of evil are let loose and war is the ultimate outward expression. In spite of the development of science, the world is ignorant of the value of the human form. It does not know that it is the residence of our Creator. In this form we have the opportunity to meet him and end our woes and wanderings.2
So what is this weak side of human nature? Perhaps it is the tendency to become confused and frightened by the unknown, to reject it and distance oneself from it – creating a safe space for oneself, a vantage point from where to view everything outside ourselves as “other” and worthy of suspicion. And so, with social media, we tend to form subgroups – narrow allegiances of race, religion, color, ideology, and nationality – and try to dominate or ostracize our neighbors. People see each other competitively, rather than realizing we are all members of one human family. Hazur Maharaj Ji, in his satsangs, often quoted Guru Nanak, who said that the Sant Mat teachings are meant for all the four castes which extend to all of humanity, as being worthy of his universal teachings. These are the fundamental teachings that underpin all religion and spirituality, of love for one another.
Pope Francis recently wrote about the failure of social media to bring humanity together as one:
Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity; instead, it tends to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable.
The flood of information at our fingertips does not make for greater wisdom. Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet nor is it a mass of unverified data. That is not the way to grow in the encounter with truth. ... We fail to keep our attention focused, to penetrate to the heart of matters, and to recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives. Freedom thus becomes an illusion that we are peddled, easily confused with the ability to navigate the internet. The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters. 3
The situation is reminiscent of the legend of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. According to the story, human beings until that time spoke one language, and they decided to build a tower that would enable them to ascend to the heavens. It was a story of hubris, of pride, of trying to usurp God’s role as the Lord over all, and his power. But, as we read in the Bible:
When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly,…; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, ‘confusion’.4
In Judaism, rabbinic literature offers many accounts of why the people decided to build the Tower. According to one midrash (commentary), the builders of the Tower said:
He (God) has no right to choose the upper regions for himself, and assign us the lower regions. Come, let us exchange, so that we take the upper regions and he takes the lower regions.5
And so, when trying to find a common cause in building the Tower, the people ended up creating doubt and confusion and came into increasing conflict. Perhaps the story is telling us that God, knowing the human tendency to negativity and conflict, was trying to prevent the unleashing of our destructive impulses by keeping us apart. This is a direct parallel to the situation resulting with social media. What was conceived as a way to break down barriers became the means of strengthening divisions, as people tended to create loyalties and adopt compartmentalized thinking.
A novel published in 1996, Babel Tower, by the English writer A.S. Byatt, raises the question of “whether language can be shared, or, if that turns out to be illusory, how individuals, in talking to each other, fail to understand each other.”6 And this is our situation today. We think we share the same language, but we always misunderstand and misinterpret each other. All our talk is simply babble. We find causes for conflict rather than harmony. We get caught in the “worldwide web of maya” – the web of illusion and delusion.
We have to reject the illusory promise that technology and social media can become a means of creating an overarching society that all can subscribe to. Instead, we have to seek out a platform of love, acceptance, mutual respect, and support, based on human-to-human interpersonal relations. We can find the strength to do so, and rise above our divisions, when we tune in to our common, universal human spirit. That is the only true and timeless reality, through which we can hear the Lord’s message of love. It is the timeless creative power of God that reverberates within all humanity, within all creation. When we experience that oneness, the unity of God within ourselves, we will find harmony in our common human relationships and with the world around us.
- Bible, King James Version
- Spiritual Gems, letter 116
- Pope Francis, Encyclical Release of 3 October 2020, Fratelli Tutti
- Wikipedia, entry “Tower of Babel”
- Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 38:7; Midrash Tanchuma Buber, ch. Noah: 27 (www.Sefaria.org)
- Wikipedia, entry “Tower of Babel”: discussion of A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower