Looking Past the Other in Digital Communication
When reading articles via the internet, it’s probably a good idea to just steer clear of the comments section. This is especially true when reading something that is related to issues of equity or accessibility for all. Trolling in the form of racist, sexist, and other fear-fueled rants can seem like the dominant mode of communication of many participants in this space. It can seem as if individuals are talking over and past one another, and communication is not founded on true dialogue.
Dialogue, Paulo Freire asserts, is an “existential necessity” that is inherently a vital part of learning (1968, p. 89). The act of participating in dialogue is an indicator of humility and the willingness to learn. It can provide participants the opportunity to recognize one another, the essential elect of identity development and respect. The willingness to think outside bias, to critically examine our biases, is at the heart of learning about the other and ourselves. It is our responsibility to one another (Buber, 1937). This may seem frightening, because it essentially places us in the unknown, the uncomfortable place of not being able too easily categorize and identify others. This identification makes life very simple. However, being uncomfortable is the only way we truly grow. The old saying reminds us that moss does not grow on a rolling stone. Stasis equates to a stillness that is not unlike death.
Margaret Wheatley expresses the significance of being uncomfortable: “We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we’re creative” (2002, p. 37). This discovery can help give meaning to our lives and enrich those with whom we interact. Basically, we learn more about ourselves through others. It sounds simple…and it is…if we are ready to be uncomfortable.
Byung-Chul Han’s most recent English translations, The Agony of Eros (2017a) and In the Swarm (2017b), both discuss the absolute need for our encounter with the other. He warns that the digital medium of expression “is taking us farther and farther away from the other” (2017b, p. 24). Our ability or inability to articulate ourselves is exacerbated in the digital medium, and “nonverbal forms of expression such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language” are lost almost completely (2017b, p. 21). Our inability to plan for this learning leaves us with no “other” with which we may view new perspectives and understandings of the world.The visual images are constructed for us to see ourselves (or our closest analogue), thereby making everything the same. This massive normalization ends the need for an other, and it destroys the possibility for imagination or fantasy (2017a). We must be able to perceive through another viewpoint, one that is truly the opposite of the one we hold, so that we may engage in thinking that is infinitely more complex.
Without confrontation with the other, we are doomed to live empty lives, lonely and incomplete. There is a small piece of a recent poem by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (that is part of his series of poems that begin with a line from Osip Mandelstam, The Easements) that reads:
“as I’ve found in the stars
no friend, the lake
no brother, the current
no story to live with.”
I don’t know why my thinking takes this path, but it reminds me of the other as being the source of desire, the source of a true narrative. Without the necessary encounter with the other that produces co-constructed knowledge for the benefit of both participants, our individual life stories are stillborn (Han 2017b).
Perhaps comments and social media posts are not really avenues for actual discussion. If that’s the case, I don’t understand the necessity of providing a vehicle for reader voice if it isn’t to inspire dialogue.
Note- The article that prompted this brief line of though is located here. The comments section yielded some replies that were blatantly racist and sadly myopic.
Some Works Mentioned