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.
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.