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How We Reached the Point Where We Can’t Hear Each Other

“People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

— Robert Bonfiglio, quoted in Nathan Heller, “The Big Easy,” The New Yorker May 30, 2016

If you think a tweet of a 140 characters can go any distance toward explaining how, quoting the words on the latest issue of The Atlantic — “How American Politics Went Insane” — then you are unfortunately already deep within that insanity.

As the Dude of The Big Lebowski would say –“You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous” and we will need to fight a cultural ADHD to pursue the thread. Of the narrative, formerly a case, a brief, an argument, an exposition, a disquisition. Now no more than a narrative, a story told.

Let’s imagine that one reflects on one’s experiences and learns something from them. Let’s also imagine that one’s experiences do not narrow one’s views, are not entrapping but rather openings from your life to the lives of others.

For instance, I am born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth (I wasn’t) and go on to experience a life that wealth and social standing allows me. I reason that circumstances have much to do with the meanings and values we accrue. I could, however, be obtuse to the circumstances of those not so fortunate and decry their ill-bred manners, their lazy, moocher ways, their failure to start a business and become Winners. Clearly, while our life experiences are our bridge to our fellow humans that bridge to others may be shut down by such experiences.

Reflection goes beyond the personal opinions already shaped to fulfill your image of yourself. Your thoughtful reflection extends to the measurements others have taken in regard to the experience you yourself are encountering. A now mostly discarded view of the process of education envisions it as a pursuit of what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” We are now on a pursuit of what most enables us to make hi-tech advances and promote investment opportunities. Educating yourself beyond the walls of your own experiences is now an almost forgotten mission of education.

Because no one before 2010 had a Smartphone or before the 1980’s a PC those voices of a bygone age now appear irrelevant. They are outside the infosphere bubble we now find ourselves. And so reflections taking us outside our own opinions are confined to the present moment more fixedly than ever before in human history. History, in fact, is analog and therefore as dead as a land line home phone.

The compendiums and vade mecums of prior thought were produced and curated by specialists in this or that particular branch of knowledge ostensibly because they were best able to do so but also because they owned the means of production. The transference of human reflections within writing, editorial, publishing, reviewing and critiquing walls enabled and supported a shared sense of society. It seems redundant to say a “shared sense of society” but we now live within a sense of society in which a sharing of anything is not required. As Dominic Pettman puts it: “a society without the social.”

Not going so far as to say as Margaret Thatcher did that there is no such thing as society, we have adhered to that view but under the clever title “social media.” Whatever society is, it is to be found online, on various social media sites. Here the media, which is by definition an exchange with others, is restricted to a communicating to others like you. You unfriend others. It is also a restriction of what one communicates because “social” refers to personal experiences, photographed or videoed.

The intent of a past analog world to put us all on the same page so we could all direct ourselves in common to our common, societal problems is something now disseminated into an infinitude of self-designed enclaves. We have connectivity between the like-minded, or opinionated, but not conjunction which Bifo Berardi defines “as a way of becoming other.” (And: Phenomenology of the End, 2015)

If you want to reflect beyond the entrapment of your own personal experiences and the personal opinions derived from such, you are desiring something that has been superseded.

If you want not to be the blind man who feels the tail of an elephant and pronounces the elephant to be shaped like a snake, you are hoping for a door that leads out of the room of your own limited experience.

Unfortunately, there is no longer any need to leave that room because cyberspace has designed the whole world to be your room. You can blog, tweet, text. Video, emoji your reflections online without any intent to augment social knowledge or understanding or to encounter a counter-punch that will cause you to adjust your views.

 

Dialectic is dead but also dialogue. Voicing is all that occurs. You can expect that when one voicing meets another coming through the rye and both are impervious to critique, both tattooed with the imprimatur of Personal Opinion, there will be heat, no light.

 

It seems counter intuitive to believe that with all the continuous unrolling of personal experiences on Facebook, for example, that the bonds of society would not grow and strengthen, that the result would be we could face the offline world, the real Society we are in, and carry on and support intelligent, critical discourse.

 

The opposite has occurred. The proof is in a replay of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. The coup de grace is Donald Trump as the possible future president of the U.S. Clearly, instead of nurturing the skills of societal discourse, of turning all eyes to the same page, what “social media” has done is to create a “selfie” driven populace, adrift on islands of fantastical self-empowerment in an ocean of reality we fail to see.

The Britannica (think of the famous 1911 edition with contributions from Kropotkin, Swinburne, Rossetti, Bertrand Russell, John Muir, T.H. Huxley, among others) replaced by Wikipedia, a consensus determined resource on any subject doesn’t seem to be an event that somehow in the future will turn into a good thing. And while it is clear that most communication in the “public” sphere is via Facebook, its citizenry object to serious, especially, political entries; long essays that could find a place somewhere in the world of print are shunned.

We also now have a 140 character shackle on language policed, not curated, whatever that word now means, by Twitter. This is like reducing discourse to a “Tony has a pony” reader level, a level that will soon create an audience at that level, if not already in existence. That candidates for the presidency transmit their “platforms” via tweets is something that would amaze the ordinary Martian, a declined humanity having gone passed that shock of recognizing its own decline.

So, if personal experiences comprise our life-worlds but also act as a prison house, which we can only escape through seeking, and engaging reflections outside our own, we are now in that precarious place wherein the outside has been brought inside, brought into our personal, opinionated space.

The public discourse has been brought into a fraudulent “social media” while the best that has been thought and said goes no further than what you personally have thought and said. A glance at any hashtag exchange on Twitter will reveal the brilliance here.

The platform leading to the outside now leads you back to yourself. Going about “The Great Outdoors” with a selfie stick is not mere picture taking; it is an ontological enterprise. You have a being-in-the-world with your being at center stage and the world outside of you a mere backdrop.

Even if we now had a preferred media that took us outside the limitations of our own preferences, our own opinions, our own “Likes,” we would yet be facing a situation in which authorities and rules of judgment that we recognize superior to our own self-authorizations have been slipping away faster than apps are being marketed for Smartphones.

We exist now within narratives, not impeccable logics and sound proofs, air-tight arguments or binding adjudications. For reasons too elaborate to condense, we have accepted Nietzsche’s view of reason as a pawn of power and have retreated to our own personal reasoning.

This retreat to personal arbitration of all matters is expressed in the politics of identity, a politics concerned with the full emancipation of the individual not as defined within any cultural, religious, historical, or anthropological notion of the individual, but defined by each and every variety of individual. It is as if the individual is a knowledge within itself.

Thus, we find that presidential candidates, Hillary and Trump, position themselves on LGBT rights more emphatically than on global warming. Hillary is not reluctant to claim her sex as an argument for election. And in spite of how beneficial a Sanders’ presidency would be to those without stock dividends, his failure to reach people of color proved to be his Achilles heel. This politics of identity has become a lightning rod for those who privilege a white identity. Trump followers do not like political correctness, which they see as a way to keep them from voicing the anger and hatred they have for all the ethnic, racial, religious, and gender differences that are foreign and alien to them. When Trump bashes Mexicans, Muslims and women, he is betting that a backlash against the politics of identity will win him the presidency. Thus far, it has won him the Republican primary.

We are more intent on searching out every form of individual difference than on getting everyone on the same page for the sake of communal action.

Out of many, one, is now a kind of “allyship” in which each supports the difference of the other without presuming an eventual solidarity based on common bonds. Politically, this is a strange and difficult mindset out of which to form a society, or carry on the work of Congress.

Education is also in a special dilemma considering the mission here is get a student to put his or her personal opinions and preferences and different experiences out of sight and attend to a rationally validated collective representation of a subject.

Nathan Heller points out that elite colleges find that the cultivation of the individual is not an easy matter when students will not leave their personal “experiential authority” at the door. (“The Big Easy,” The New Yorker May 30, 2016) One is not reading to extract eternal verities, the Enlightenment dream, or to deconstruct the pretenses of those same verities. In the climate that Heller describes, no content can be permitted to transgress the personally defined identity of the reader or listener.

An Oberlin student who Heller describes as “a trans man …educated in Mexico, walks with crutches, and suffers from A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder …lately on suicide watch” objected to a discussion of Antigone without a trigger warning, i.e., characters in the play committed suicide. Identity-based oppression is responded to with a theory of intersectionality, which contends, “who knows what it means to live at an intersection better than the person there?” Thus, personal experiential authority now contends with a pedagogic tradition of minimizing the effects of personal experiential authority on objective, rational reflection.

Education attempts to respect individual arrangements of the results of critical thinking but not allow those arrangements to taint the process of critical thinking. This long standing agreement is no longer in effect. We have reached the point where we cannot engage in any way what may “trigger” our personal dislike or what may upset a private space we have self-designed.  Long standing notions of both education and society are dissolving.

We now listen to our own voices and our clones in “social” media, a pathological condition that undermines much needed social and political communication and interrelationships. The way out, as with all pathologies, is to first recognize the condition, observe the point we have reached and reorient our compass.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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