Strong Language, Vol. 3: "The Name of the Rose"

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people." "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." "Go ahead, make my day."

Great writing is everywhere. It's in the speeches that unite us, the poems that unnerve us, the movies that entertain us -- the language that changes us.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at an excerpt from Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. In this passage, the protagonist, a Franciscan monk named William of Baskerville, tells his assistant a story about Saint Francis -- the Catholic saint who gives his name to the Franciscan religious order -- and a colony of lepers. William's story, in condensed form, is below:

"For the Christian people they are the others, those who remain on the fringe of the flock. Saint Francis realized this, and his first decision was to go and live among the lepers...the flock is like a series of concentric circles, from the broadest range of the flock to its immediate surroundings. The lepers are a sign of exclusion in general. Saint Francis understood that. Francis wanted to call the outcasts, ready to revolt, to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again."

In Francis' time, the lepers were hated and feared by the dominant Christian community and they returned that hate and fear in equal measure -- but Francis, far from shunning them, chose to join their community of isolation with the hope that he could lead them out of that isolation, away from their anger and pain and back to a communal feeling of brotherhood.

Eco's book, a murder-mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century, is fabulously layered and symbolically rich, and he uses the lepers as a powerful symbol of all those who feel cast out from society -- for all those who feel, in some way, that the world is changing and they are not welcome in it. The parallels to today should be obvious -- even for those readers of this blog who might not be living through the final days of a presidential election -- and they lead us to a key communications insight:

  • Divide your audience at your peril: it is tempting, and it is easy, to cement your bond with the audience you have by tailoring your communications to appeal to them and them alone...but doing so is a, shall we say, deplorable decision to make.

To borrow from Eco, and Brother William, the entirety of your potential audience is a series of concentric circles, with your current audience closest and your hardest-to-reach audience furthest away. You can think of your external communications, if tailored solely to the audience you have, as building a wall around the circle that comprises your current audience. This is fine in the short term, in the sense that it unites this audience and draws them closer together and closer to you, but in the long term this is strategically unsound: the audience you don't have (which could be convinced to buy your product, or donate to your cause, or give your their vote) is beyond this wall of your communications -- and, even worse, this audience will rightly perceive that this is a wall of your own creation. To say it another way: this audience will feel excluded, and will identify you as the author of their exclusion.

So how do you expand your audience to the next concentric circle beyond the wall you've created? By smashing the wall down, but this is far easier said than done: you risk alienating those who you've kept secure inside your wall, and you will need to overcome the hate and fear of those outside it -- or, more likely (and often more difficult), you will need to overcome their apathy toward you and your mission. You can certainly keep your wall in place if you believe your audience is large enough -- but we can promise you, even without knowing you, that it's not. It never is. Far better to never build the wall at all, unless you have a Francis in your organization -- but that's another post for another time.

That's all for this edition of "Strong Language." In our next installment, we pursue the beauty of pure imagery down a rabbit hole of squalor and addiction -- and find a place where we can enjoy a meal with wide-open eyes.