It’s time to learn how to communicate (our democracy depends on it)

Photo by Samuel Yoo Photo by Samuel Yoo

My 21-year-old self was wrong about a lot of things: Malibu rum and orange juice is not, in fact, a tasty beverage. Having sex in your boyfriend’s twin-sized bed while his roommate sleeps on the other side of the room? Poor taste, to say the least. Also, it is possible to wake up in the morning without a pit in your chest (that pit has a name — clinical depression — and there is medication that can help).

But about at least one thing, I was totally right: We, as human beings, need to come up with much better ways of communicating with each other.

In a Literature of Community class during my senior year of college, my favorite professor forced us to use new-fangled tools like listservs to communicate in between classes; for our final project, we each had to build a website representing our beliefs about community. I argued that real community couldn’t exist online (I was wrong about that, though I still maintain the strongest ones usually have some sort of offline component). I also argued that the internet was helping us to communicate faster, sure — but what we really needed was innovation that would help us communicate more effectively.

Almost 20 years later, that innovation is still lacking. And now our democracy is at stake.

Photo by Anne Worner Photo by Anne Worner

New touch pads on Macbooks — whee! I can use an emoji more easily on my laptop! My phone gets slimmer; it can store more photos, music, stuff.

Innovation in communication = faster, shinier, and niftier toys. What about better connection between humans?

I still have the following experience: I sit in a room full of people at work and we have a conversation; later, it turns out that each of us has taken something different away from it. We were together, but were we really connected?

Several years ago, part of my extended family imploded at Thanksgiving because of years of terrible miscommunication.

Part of the reason my bond to Jordan is so strong is that communicating with him has always been easeful and drama-free. We just get each other. That is an oasis in this world, where it feels so easy to be misunderstood at every turn.

Much has been written and opined in the wake of the latest election about the gaps that exist between the Americans who voted for Clinton and those who voted for Trump. Many in my circle have promoted the idea of “listening tours”: Let’s listen more. Let’s be radically open to those with drastically different life experiences than our own. Let’s build an empathy bridge.

Yes, sure — let’s. But how? And is it really possible?

I read something recently (I can’t find the link) that the majority of what we perceive externally (a scene playing out on a street corner, for example) comes from internal stimuli (our own minds), not external ones (actual sensory input). In other words, in case there’s any doubt in your mind, rest assured that reality truly is subjective. So how do we reach out across our subjective experiences to create common meaning, let alone understanding?

This need for true innovation in communication isn’t just a call to media makers to design creative new shows or campaigns or listening tours. It’s a call for those folks to get together with brain scientists, behavioral change experts, psychologists and all other relevant, interdisciplinary experts to really look at the underlying issues and the most audacious ways we might begin to address them.

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If our media is any kind of an indicator or mirror of how we communicate, it’s clear: We are fucked. And it’s not just the shouting matches between pundits, and the gross stereotypes that get celebrated. It’s not just the way in which sensational bullshit gets airtime when issues affecting people’s lives get stubbornly ignored. It’s not just how we’re all glued to our phones, engrossed in these depicted realities rather than engaging in the world right around us.

It’s that suddenly everything seems like a show, where our role is to watch, rather than act, and we don’t know how to create connections between our isolated realities. I may think the main story in the news is Aleppo. A friend is outraged about global warming. None of us can read every news story, but instead of using social media or other formats (like, actual conversation) to build shared understanding, we take turns announcing what’s important to an audience that never asked. We don’t know how to talk so other people will listen, or to listen when they talk. At worst, we mimic the pundits, shouting at each other, mocking those who don’t share our outrage.

I choose to believe change is possible, but I do NOT believe it will be easy. We need dramatically new media options and culture changes that promote:

  • Listening to opposing points of view without losing your shit,
  • Constructive, respectful debate, including an ability to express concern without attacking, and
  • Some sort of shared agreement on what constitutes fact versus opinion, so that we can begin to rebuild some form of common reality, even as we respectfully disagree on many things.

This last one’s a doozy.  And the whole thing is a tall (towering, extraordinary) order. But with all the effort we put into innovating on so many other fronts — surely, we can make progress on this one. Surely, if this election has taught us nothing else, it’s that the very future of our ability to function as a democracy depends on it.

3 thoughts on “It’s time to learn how to communicate (our democracy depends on it)

  1. Here’s your article on the nature of reality:
    Also, I would contend that there are many points and opinions out in the great wide world that don’t deserve the ink spilled writing them or the breath used to utter them. The points should not be considered or pondered and then given a thoughtful response designed to provoke thought. No person’s humanity should ever be called into question. It’s not a matter for debate. No person’s worth should be diminished because of who she is. It’s not a matter for debate.
    Sure, we can debate whether the path to a more prosperous tomorrow is to leave the maximum capital in the taxpayer’s pocket or tax all to provide the maximum benefit for all.
    But fundamentally, sometimes people just need to hear that they’re wrong. And it’s not just important to the person that is hearing it, it’s important to the person saying it. Now is the time to stand for what is right without hesitation.


    • Emily – thanks for the link!
      I agree that hate speech isn’t covered by free speech and doesn’t deserve an earnest, respectful response that in essence normalizes the hate speech.
      That said, if all we do is say "you’re wrong" to the people who express hate, where does that ultimately get us? Is there a communication strategy for changing their minds? Or is it just about wresting power away and hoping they never wrest it back?


  2. First, it’s about more than hate speech. The insidiousness of discrimination that has roots as deep as America itself means that in order to root it out takes fortitude. It rests within all of us. I am not immune from it, which means the first person that I must identify as being in the wrong is myself and my own thoughts. And that’s not a pleasant process, but it’s a necessary one.
    Second, there’s a fundamental assumption that you’re making that I think is flawed. Is assumes that individuals can and will examine their own thoughts and opinions. While there are people out there that may engage in this self-examination, these people already have and will continue to undergo that process. These are not people that are so insulated from skepticism that any stray "news" item lodges as a truth.
    Speaking of which, it doesn’t matter how many pieces of truth or number of facts you bring to the discussion when somebody already has "information" that confirms their own bias that’s fabricated. It goes like this, "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SQUIRRELS ON MARS?!?!" You reply, "There’s no evidence of any life on Mars, much less a complex organism like that of a squirrel." They reply, "THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO THINK!!" You can point to dozens of scholarly articles about Mars, but in the end, they already believe that there are squirrels on Mars and nothing will dislodge that disinformation.
    So fundamentally, there’s really nothing to be done except perhaps require that sites that proclaim themselves to be news have requirements placed on their fact-checking and all else be clearly labeled as entertainment. In giant letters. Sort of like the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. One may still choose to smoke, but at least one was warned of the hazards.
    I, for one, will not be listening to arguments for discrimination at all as though there’s an ounce of validity. There are some times when getting along for the greater good is not warranted, and I believe that this is one of those times.


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