by Seth Nightengale
Our culture is in a crisis of communication. Not from a lack thereof, but from an excess. We are engaging in behavior without precedent in previous generations. The free exchange of ideas, thanks to the struggle and invention of our forebears, is virtually instantaneous and unencumbered by material conditions. In the modern age, mud is thrown across the world, and returned in exponential volume within seconds. It is strikingly apparent that the nature of communication has changed dramatically, and not entirely for the better. But while it is tempting to point to a specific event, such as the recent presidential election, or to blame specific cultural figures for a devolution of civility, such diagnoses fall short of the mark. In a society so highly individualized, because each of us take up arms first as individuals, there is ultimately no one to blame but ourselves, yet no one to fix it but “we” together.
This is the first time in our history that mankind possesses such powerful tools in conjunction with such universality. Even one of the greatest liberating inventions in our history, the printing press, required a great deal of human capital to access and operate. Before its invention, text was so valuable, so rare, that entire civilizations were erased from the human consciousness by the humble flame: volumes of history, literature, art, and human experience yielding to simple combustion. Ideas then, as they are now, were valuable–but they were never mundane. Once, we were limited by a great many things: geography, technology, and culture, but in the modern age we have overcome and subjugated all such archaic impediments. The average person, especially in the Millennial and Z generations, reads through hundreds of tweets a day, on topics ranging from sports, to HBO shows, to politics, posted by anyone from President Trump to anonymous meme accounts (both of which offer very little in the realm of intellectual stimulation or refinement).
Humans rely upon the “I” to “You” relationship to define themselves. We cannot know ourselves or the world around us except by virtue of the context others provide. I am constantly using others to know who I am, and therefore who I am not. As I come to know you, I come to know myself. Therefore, our interactions with one another and our consumption of the media are vital not only to our societal future, but also to our individual health. We rely on one another deeply.
Yet, we are changing in many ways that are critically undermining this connection. We constantly filter the I to You relationship through layer upon layer of medium, until it is so diluted or deformed we no longer recognize each other. I no longer sit with you in conversation, where we can communicate through a multitude of mediums: spoken language, body language, social mores, and other non-verbal mechanisms. Instead, I trade “You” for “your account”: a mere headshot and perhaps a few lines of a biography. I do not interact with You, but instead with who I think You are. I can mull over every word that infuriated me, assigning the most depraved intent to your account, and take as much time as I need to write the most seething response I can muster with the pattering justice of my fingertips. In the online competition to land the hardest blow and dehumanize the opponent, we lose sight of human connection. We stop viewing people as human beings with an inherent dignity, and suddenly find ourselves treating family members and friends like objects to be defeated and disposed of in the name of something as ridiculous as the current enviro-spiritual trend in sustainability.
The system of communal mores is quite perverted as well. What one gains in sycophantic elation from a “like” on a piteously rabid comment, one loses in the human art of conversation. Among the greatest of Middle America’s blessings is its culture of conversation. The art is subtle, but it takes a great amount of practice, and an even greater amount of faith in others. Something as simple as a smile, a nod, and a “Howarya” is daunting to those unfamiliar with the practice, but it is a bedrock of Middle America’s reputation for hospitality. It combines the physical, the empathetic, and the communal into an interaction that many raised in metropolitan areas find utterly alien.
For years, scholars have catalogued the decline of mediating institutions, still somewhat coherent in the United States. What I fear is that the “I” to “You” relationship is suffering the same fate, as evidenced in our political climate. In our alienation from one another, it is easy to replace all that makes life beautiful and meaningful with the soft blue glow of crisis filling our pocket. We may now primarily concern ourselves, not with those we hold in our arms and love deeply, but instead with what we hold in our fingertips and revile. The libertine nature of the modern individualist paradise threatens our health in that it destroys the ties that bind, down even to the smallest degree. The “small platoons” of civic life are hurting, and so are You and I. It’s going to take a little more than denouncing racism online or getting in a twitter feud with a friend over the morality of punching Nazis to save our children’s future. It’s well past time for us to act human again.
We must begin to think seriously about ideas and people. The energy expended in sending “you’re racist” responses to every one of the President’s tweets could probably solve the opioid epidemic if directed towards a constructive pursuit, but we will never know. Constant media hysteria has enough reprehensible effects to fill entire volumes, but among its principle evils is its apparent end of portraying those we love but disagree with as monsters intent on the desecration of all that is holy and beloved. One of the most profound aspects of the human experience is its sheer abundance of variation, and we become a great danger to one another when we contract tunnel vision.
Those who care about politics, myself included, have a proclivity to see the entire world as dependent on their heroic deliverance. Unfortunately, the multitudes of life are often muted by human obsessions. A dedicated concert pianist, for example, may experience the world through the lens of music, noticing similarities between sounds on the street and the movements of their favorite work. Likewise for those enmeshed in politics. However, the pianist’s panic is in the chaos of colliding melodies, but the politician’s lies in the threat of tyranny and suffering. The proposed remedy to many of our artificial anxieties is typically republican. “Go make a difference!” say both the optimists and cynics in unison. “Start a campaign! Get a Doctorate! Run a Nonprofit!” Our anxieties are often answered with the emphatic “DREAM BIG” one tells children. Some say that perhaps the best way to save ourselves is to stop. The cliché of “unplugging” is ubiquitous, yet it is evidently unable to make much of a difference. I believe it is missing a key element of the equation.
It is quite insufficient to tell humans, descendants of Homo habilis, that they must simply stop. We cannot stop worrying, watching, and trying to fix. However, we can refuse to waste ourselves. We can refuse to be stolen by the synthetic hysteria. We can refuse to treat others as objects to be hammered down in the pursuit of justice. While few among us will achieve fame that spans generations, all of us can strive to live deeply. We can all be responsible members of families, communities, and friendships. If we can orient ourselves based on these relationships and obligations, we’ll be much less likely to find ourselves swimming in anxiety, consumed with resentment for one another.