“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
Everyone knows that social media is a heady mix of preaching to the choir, general disagreements, hardcore trolling and cats—lots of cats. And while we can easily ignore trolls, nod our heads in agreement with our fellow choir members, and enjoy an endless variety of cats, I think there is something missing that is hurting our chances for a real dialogue on things that matter.
I’m not talking about the easy variety of kindness that naturally springs forth from us when we are engaged with a like-minded person or member of “The Tribe,” but kindness that is called into existence when there is seemingly no reason for it.
No reason, that is, except for the fact that we’re all sharing a planet and we’re all made out of star stuff and we all have a well of common experience that should summon at least a small amount of empathy for each other.
We find those reasons infinitely ignorable though, don’t we?
Even though we’re happy to “like” posts about Mr. Rogers, the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa; even though we love stories about heroes who go beyond themselves to benefit others; even though we teach our children about basic respect for other living beings; even though we espouse the values of equality, love, social justice, and fairness; and even though we all want the best for our friends and family—we still can’t seem to get it together enough to approach each other as non-strangers on a plane of empathy, kindness, and basic understanding.
It should be pretty simple, and yet…
On three separate occasions in the last week, I have seen earnest, although dissenting, commenters get shut down so violently and so quickly (by my fellow “liberals”) that it shook me.
These commenters were not brash, rude or otherwise unpleasant. They did not use hate speech or engage in personal attacks. Hell, they weren’t even being passive/aggressive. They may have lacked insight or been ignorant of some facts, but they weren’t people who were out taking their venom for a joyride. They simply had a different opinion and they expressed it in the way they knew how.
They were, in the words of one of my favorite quotes: “doing the best they could with the tools that were available to them.”
And I thought they were doing pretty damned good, especially considering they were in an unfriendly environment. Others, however, felt the need to bring the dogma hammer down on these unfortunate travelers, effectively ending any chances at a rational discussion of the issue at hand and causing the conversation to devolve in to hurt feelings and name calling. Pity.
It is seldom that we get the chance, in this world of talking heads where volume is often valued over intelligence, to engage with someone who holds radically different ideas from our own and feel that we have a small chance of understanding each other. And it’s a shame that we have devalued these engagements to the point that our national dialogue sounds like a poorly supervised class of second graders instead of a country full of smart people who disagree. But we have and it does.
Worst thing to realize? I have been part of the problem.
I used to be and, however inadvertently, continue to be guilty of these previously mentioned things myself. I’m better than I was, but it’s a long road and I’m a slow walker. “At least I’m on the road…” I tell myself, and I keep trying to put one foot in front of the other; progress coming only incrementally and not without sustained effort on my part, but I am trying.
Because of this, I have changed the nature of things that I share on social media and I carefully consider what effect sharing something might have on the people who are friends and followers. I have focused on stories, videos, and photos that highlight our humanity and our capacity for love instead of our baser instincts toward violence, fear, and the mistreatment of others.
I try to only comment when my voice will add something positive to a discussion. I have steered clear of things that are meant to excite powerful emotions and have replaced them with things that promote powerful understanding. You may still disagree with them, but they are less polarizing, I think, and we stand a better chance on seeing eye to eye when we aren’t all pumped up on righteous adrenaline.
Am I editing myself?
Yes, constantly. All the small, rage-filled, petty, snarky, jaded, and cynical bits still constantly compete for space in my brain. I’m just trying to have a gap between thinking and clicking that is wide enough to allow me to pause and reflect on what kind of ripples I will be sending out into the world with my actions (or reactions).
Isn’t this a little like “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?”
Sort of, but not really. Although this may be good advice, more often than not I think it results in a person being silent but maintaining an attitude of superiority. It is egocentric and it stops one from continuing to listen actively. What I’m talking about is a real questioning of myself that doesn’t preclude the notion that I may be wrong or misguided.
Even if I continue to believe my position to be right in this way, I still can show empathy to the other person and seek to have an understanding of their position without personally judging them. And that, I think, is all that is necessary to for things to improve.
We have some really tough things to talk about right now.
I mean, we are coming off of one of the worst months in recent history. Shit is going down and we need to talk about it—all of it. Ferguson, Isis, rape culture, white privilege, Israel, economic disparity and the list goes on and on.
But I can’t simply shout it out to the choir or whistle past the graveyard by posting more cute cat videos. I need to have the hard conversations with people I disagree with if I’m to be of any real service and, in order to do that, I have to keep evolving the way I speak, the way I think, and how I relate to the act of engaging with another person.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jessica Sandhu/ Editor: Catherine Monkman