Resting on Our Laurels: The Laurel-Yanni Debate as Emblematic of Our Highly Divisive Times

Resting on Our Laurels: The Laurel-Yanni Debate as Emblematic of Our Highly Divisive Times

For those who are paying more attention to international news than social media—or those who are reading this long after the momentary hubbub has died down, and are searching through the cache of 24-hour media viruses like Chocolate Rain and Overly Dramatic Rodents, allow me to describe to you a seemingly trivial speck on the radar screen of cultural goings-on, which might actually have a hidden meaning and provide an explanation of our current cultural and political trajectory, and offer a solution to our present state of division.

In mid-May, 2018, a young woman posted to her Instagram account (that’s a wildly popular social media platform, for the uninitiated) a short audio clip and a poll about people’s perception of that clip.  The short clip was on a repeating loop and bore one single word that was easy to hear, but inspired varying perceptions.  Some described a deep, male voice in the clip which clearly said “Laurel”, in his best radio announcer style. Others described a gravelly female voice in the clip which clearly said “Yanni” (pronounced YANN-knee) in her best imitation of your 80 year old great aunt who’s been a chain smoker most of her life. Reminiscent of the great gold dress / blue dress meme debate of 2015, when this first came across my desk, I initially scoffed at this, thinking to myself, “Could there possibly be two words more starkly different and still come from the same audio clip?” So I suspiciously opened the post and listened for myself. Immediately, I heard a hoarse-voiced, elderly lady croaking in a moderately low pitch the neologism, “YANN-knee”, with a seemingly Midwestern accent. I could not conceive of how anyone could ever hear this as “Laurel”.  So I read an article in The Atlantic by a linguist, which I found only marginally helpful in explicating how two entirely different words and pronunciations could come from the same audio clip.[1] I even asked my wife to listen as well.  She perceived neither pronunciation at first, hearing something in-between, but gradually agreeing with me on the Yanni interpretation, before losing interest in the discussion and returning to her e-book on noted philanderer and pioneering radio disk jockey, Richard Blade.

The next day, I came across a newer article in The New York Times, that included an online tool which was developed whereby one could play the same, original clip repeatedly, but modulate the output through an on-screen, mouse manipulated slider, and hear, effectively, what the other party hears.[2]  I tried it, and immediately—without even changing the slider’s location—I heard “Laurel”, pronounced by a deep baritone male voice, like those who spent their lives in suits and ties, enjoying male privilege, and working as voice actors for advertising companies or educational outfits.  His deep, rich tones, reminded me of the voice over from elementary school film strips and 16 mm movies from the 1970s, telling me about the primary exports from the Amazon Rain Forest, and why capitalism will always win over Communism.  Remembering my statement of incredulity from the day prior, I couldn’t believe my ears!  “Where’d Aunt Margie go?!” I asked myself, proposing that she may have gone to the other room to retrieve her pack of cigarettes, or finding the pack empty, took a quick trip to the QuikTrip to pick up more Camels, or at least some Virginia Slims.  I continued to play with the slider, and Aunt Margie suddenly returned, now stronger than ever, freshly quaffed with gin and tonic, and enjoying a puff of her cancer sticks. As I moved the slider back and forth, adjusting the modulation as my curiosity moved me, I heard Don—the suave and confidently masculine voiceover actor—return from his trip to the Rainforest, only to share with Aunt Margie about his new mistress who lived on a street called “Laurel”. Aunt Margie retorted that she had been listening to that nice Greek musician who used to date her favorite evening soap opera actress, Linda Evans, but she butchered his name in the process, as if she were referring to a nanny goat.  Aunt Margie’s voice sounded a bit tinny the further to the right I moved the slider, but Yanni was still very clear. And as I moved the slider to the far left, Don’s voice was quite clear in all its traditionally masculine, martini-drinking glory, as fresh from a Madison Avenue ad agency, or a safari in Africa. But then something strange happened.  Don showed up on Aunt Margie’s side, and occasionally, Margie took a sip of Don’s martini and languished on his side of the room.  And I realized that both were always there, but depending upon which one I listened for, I heard one over the other.  If I shifted the slider to Margie’s side, irrespective of how far into her domain I was, I began to hear Don crooning, “Laurel” very clearly. And Margie’s raspy, gin-fueled and tobacco burnished “Yanni” was harder to discern.  But I listened very specifically for it, and even recited the word in my mind, I could hear it as Don’s Laurel took a momentary back seat.

I’m no scientist, but I have spent decades in a university setting, and I do understand enough about shifting human perspective to see a pattern emerging here.  And with the help of both articles I had read on the topic, it became clear to me that both of these words were always and ever present amid the data and sound waves recorded.  Neither of them ever disappeared.  The sound waves were merely sound waves.  But depending upon how your mind deciphered them, and which pulses and frequencies you were attuned to, one word emerged in your consciousness while the other retreated.  Such is the case with radio waves.  They are always there.  Millions and millions of countless impulses travel through the air every day from various sources, such as radio stations, television stations, wireless transmitters and otherwise.  But only certain of these impulses or frequencies are our particular individual devices attuned to receive or decipher into comprehensible and understandable data to which we react.  And so it is with the original recording of what evidently started its life as an instructional vocabulary clip used by an educational company for pedagogical purposes, probably to demonstrate the proper pronunciation of the word, Laurel.  By tuning out background noise, we hear handsome Don crooning “Laurel” in his three piece suit; but by tuning out the foreground noise, and only listening to the background or other peripheral frequencies, we hear Aunt Margie croaking something akin to “Yanni”, between puffs from her Newport Lites.

This discussion may seem trivial and insignificant in the midst of national and international turmoil in the form of school shootings nearly every month (even one in Texas as I write this), undeniable overfishing and plastic pollution of our oceans, innocent children and adults being murdered in Gaza alongside of protesters, and a shaky truce between North and South Korea, among many other truly important current events.  But this argument over Laurel or Yanni is more than a mere distraction, unlike the gustatory choices of socialite Kendall Jenner prior to her attendance of the Met Gala, or whether her half-sister Kim Kardashian’s semi-nude photo for an online magazine in 2015 actually “broke the internet” or not.

The debate over whether the actual recording empirically presents the word Laurel or the neologistic Yanni is in fact emblematic of the divisions that the United States is suffering under—and perhaps the world at large.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a folk story from the Yoruba people of Western Africa, in which the archetypal trickster figure, Eshu, indicative of his playful and pranksterish nature, walks between two friends, while wearing a hat that is colored differently on either side—deliberately stirring up trouble by causing an argument over the actual color of the hat.  The friend who sees only the black side of the hat has a different perspective from the friend who walks on the other side and only sees the red side of the hat, a difference of opinion that needlessly causes both friends—obviously unwilling to entertain the validity of the other’s individual perspective—to become bitter enemies.[3]

For many years, I have witnessed a tendency for people to dismiss the opinions and life experiences of their political adversaries as being irrelevant or unimportant. This is a common tendency, invalidating the standpoints of “the other”.  But in the past few years, leading up to the 2016 election, and in the time since then, I have seen a worsening of this, and from both sides of the political spectrum.  In recognizing this sinfulness of “both sides”, I am not purposefully detracting from the gravity of, or dismissing the very real crimes and acts of hatred carried out by certain supporters of a major political party, which include running over protesters with cars, pointing semi-automatic weapons at Jewish synagogues, and all manner of bullying of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.  But the vast majority of people on either end of the political spectrum are not engaging in this kind of lawless and despicable behavior.  Yet, there are people on both sides who are in fact rejecting the validity of the life experiences and socio-political and economic realities of people who support either major party or platform, with the result being that the other side is demonized as if they have no right to their opinions and neither do they have any reason to exist.

I do, however, see a lot that the proponents of these two sides of the larger discussion have in common.  And much of this they will never realize.  And so they fail to recognize the inherent humanity in the other, no less the validity of their lived experiences or the kernel of truth in their viewpoints, regardless of the shortcomings of their arguments.  And I often see each side twisting words of the other side, ignoring the central points and harping on minor points of verbiage or peripheral aspects of presentation, and dismissing anything helpful that could serve to unite or cause reconciliation.

Of the many things that I see in common, is that people have a need to feel proud of their identities. People don’t want to feel as if their heritage or their identity, either chosen or inherited, is invalid or deprecated. And all too often they see in the arguments of the other, a pointed disregard for their need for pride.  LGBTQ+ folk often feel that social and religious conservatives do not honor their right to exist and to love those whom they choose to love.  And we see people of a more conservative mindset feeling reviled and bullied for holding more conservative social and moral standpoints, and choosing to teach their children a certain conservative theological doctrine.  People of Hispanic descent, or those immigrating from Latin American countries feel the need to preserve their heritage and celebrate and promote their culture.  People of Anglo descent, hailing from Southern regions of the United States feel as if their entire heritage is being equated with slavery and racism, and being personally and individually blamed for the historical plight of African Americans.[4]  Military veterans and active duty personnel alike want to feel as if they are valued for their service and their contributions to defending our nation; not to be labeled wholesale as baby-killers or murderers and tools of global imperialism.  Catholics, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, people from the Coasts, people from Middle America; people from larger, liberal, urban areas; and people from less populated and largely rural areas; people that own and live around guns and gun culture; people who have never held a gun and reject gun culture—all of these people have a need to affirm their identity and their choices and to feel pride in who they are, and to not have others seek to invalidate their lived experiences and cultural expressions.

At the core of nearly every culture, we are taught to seek justice. We are taught to desire peace.  We are taught that equal treatment under the law is an individual human right and a just end.  And every one of us believes that we, individually, deserve these things; and we at least pay lip service to the fact that others deserve them, too.  Now, we may differ as to how to bring these things about.  We may have different feelings about amnesty and permissiveness in the face of legalism, about individualism versus collective identity, about authoritarianism versus libertarianism, but we all seek to be honored and respected and understood—and to have our voices heard.  We all seek to preserve the cultures and traditions we grew up with.  None of us likes when our long-held mores and values and icons are exposed to the vicissitudes of historical revisionism or deconstruction and reconsideration, leaving us in a limbo of cognitive dissonance.  None of us likes when our core values and identity are exposed to criticism, and it takes a very wise and self-aware person to be truly open to this kind of criticism. But it needs to be conveyed in a way that seeks growth, progress, and reconciliation; not the wholesale tearing down and deconstruction of a culture’s or a people’s identity. There needs to be a sensitivity to what is lost when we tear down an idol or an icon for their fatal flaws and human shortcomings.  When we criticize or tear down a Gandhi or a Mother Theresa or a Martin Luther King for their flawed and frail humanity, we need to put something up in their place, or at least come to grips with the fact that no “saint” is truly perfect.

A spirit of division has come upon our nation and between us, as Americans. Whether it is Eshu, the Trickster of the Yoruba, or the Devil of the Abrahamic Faiths, that plagues us, I cannot tell.  But plaguing us it is, and it is making us combative and irascible and even seemingly irreconcilable in our cultivated arrogance that we are naturally correct.  We would do well to show gratitude toward those on the other side of the slider, showing us how to modulate the sound that comes into our ears, and how to understand it differently.  One of the key traditions shared by the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as well as many other world religions—is that of repentance.  Even the I Ching, an ancient Chinese Confucian text, states that “the mind should be kept humble and free, so that it may remain receptive to good advice. People soon give up counseling a man who thinks that he knows everything better than anyone else.”[5]  It is this advice, from a non-Western culture, that serves as a testament to the ubiquity of such counsel.  We must all be open to revising our viewpoints and reconciling toward those who were our erstwhile adversaries.  We must be grateful to them for showing us that there is a different way to perceive or interpret the sounds that enter our earholes.

We are all Americans, whether we are native-born Americans, indigenous Americans, naturalized Americans, or aspiring Americans of any sort (documented or not). We are here for a reason and most of us want to be here; and, as such, we have a responsibility, an obligation, to work for the common good.  We are the nation that was central in defeating Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. We pulled together for that, and despite our differences—even amidst terrible prejudice and oppression of certain racial and ethnic groupings (namely Japanese-Americans and African-Americans begin with)—everyone gave selflessly and played their part.  That time, the enemy was an external one.  But this time, the enemy is within each of us, and it is much wilier.  It is very insidious and divisive.  The only way to defeat this enemy, this trickster, this devil, is to be willing to slide the modulator a little bit left or right and be willing to listen to what the other party hears.  Is it Laurel? Or is it Yanni?  It turns out that it is both.  Until we move that modulator a little bit, we are going to keep on fighting and denying each other’s personal truths and lived experiences out of our hubris, our overweening arrogance that we know everything.  And we will continue to argue over Laurel or Yanni, or whatever is the issue of the month. We can do better. We must do better.



[3] Ken Derry, in A Concise Introduction to World Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, Alan F. Segal, et al, Third Edition, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2015, p.49.

[4] Note that the cultures and economy of colonial Latin America and Caribbean as well as the Southern U.S. were built upon slavery and plantations and the subjugation of and disenfranchisement of indigenous populations.

[5] The I Ching, Translated by Richard Wilhelm, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977, Hexagram 31, pg. 123.

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