TED Talks are Church

The fake news outlet The Onion has been satirizing TED talks lately. Their most recent effort is here.

Sometimes, I wish I could live in an alternate universe of satire instead of the real world, if only for just a day. Things would be more fun that way. Imagine Stephen Colbert doing his bit as NBC’s lead broadcaster, or if President Barack Obama actually wrote an article titled, “This May Not Be The Ideal Time Politically, But It’s Time To Talk Reparations.” Some people fantasize about their lives being a musical. I’d like to live in a satire.

What’s great about satire is that it cuts to the core of all of our human silliness. A talented satirist can use exaggeration or irony to reveal flawed reasoning or weird cultural assumptions. The Onion article that I linked above, for example, shows the absurdity of the notion that President Obama is racially divisive by imagining a scenario in which the president, against all pragmatic political advice, casually suggests that the government take “several billion dollars from white people and give it to blacks.” That’s the sort of thing you might imagine the president is doing if you were basing your opinion solely on voices from the right-wing who claim that the President is racially divisive. The reality is that our current racial division is the result of formerly underground racists–aided and abetted by dog-whistling politicians and pundits–coming out of the woodwork in response to the election of a black president. Satire plays on the contradictions between perception and reality as a means of indirect truth-telling.

Satire can do a really nice job of bringing social and cultural conventions to light as well. Preachers are pretty easy to satirize because the structure and style of sermons usually follows very predictable conventions. People know what you’re talking about if you say someone “sounds like a preacher.” The opening scene to a Christmas-themed episode of The Boondocks features a little girl named Jazmine leading a service in the call and response style of the black church tradition. But instead of riffing on some sort of biblical theme, she’s preaching about Santa Clause. Shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons have pulled off equally effective satires of white church traditions.

The Onion’s satire shows that, in so far as they both follow predictable conventions, TED talks are a lot like church. At TED Talks, the lighting and stage always looks the same. A particular “order of service” is followed. And the speakers tend to use a lot of similar rhetorical conventions. The Onion’s parodies replace the sort of content you’d expect from a TED talk with nonsense, and in so doing they reveal the “liturgy” of a TED talks conference.

I like to point out that there isn’t much of a difference between religion and other  forms of human ritual making, and I think that the Onion’s satires of TED talks serve to bolster that point. Religious services and TED talks are two expressions of a larger phenomenon. In my view, what separates religious services from other ritual gatherings of people is that, with religion, the reason for gathering is of heightened importance.  Ritual gatherings, whether they be in the context of TED talks, a gathering of Marines, or a Kiwanis meeting, happen because the attendees all have a shared concern. When religious gatherings happen, that shared concern is really, really important or, more accurately, sacred. In other contexts the shared concern that allows ritual to happen may not be quite as important. I imagine these various sorts of shared concerns as falling on a spectrum of sacrality/importance.

So, in my way of thinking there isn’t much of a difference between modes of ritual or meaning-making that are labeled religious vs. secular. They’re both expressions of the same human needs.

In other words, TED talks are church.


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