5: On Silence
I’m a talker. I’m the guy in the office who some people see coming and close their doors because they don’t want to have a conversation. Busy people, who don’t have time for extended chit-chat. People who want to be able to go home at five. I understand and am not offended. It annoys some people, but I’m a talker and I guess I don’t see a problem with that.
These days, everyone, even in a crowd, is plugged into their own private universe on the internet, so being “a talker” is actually a problem all over, with many people. If you try talking to people, making that annoying noise that breaks their bubble, they often get annoyed. Or worse, they just tune you out. Hello darkness, my old friend.
It’s August outside as I’m writing this. It’s generally a good writing month for me because I hunker down indoors, bothered by the way summer has overstayed its welcome and devolved into a season of limp, curling leaves, unending heat and humidity, and large, nasty looking spiders which have come down out of the treetops to spread big webs across the garden and hang their eggsacks…
It’s also a season of quiet, as most sane people go to the beach and the cicadas have all finished and died. Sometimes it’s too quiet. It feels a bit like the life has been sucked out of everything.
So I write. I do “communications” for a living, which essentially means public writing, or what we used to call, back in the “quaint” old world of newspapers, “journalism.” However, what I do resembles traditional journalism about as much as an ATV or a carbon-framed mountain bike resembles a sleigh. Our methods, equipment and appearances have changed , though some of our purposes (riding around the countryside, reporting on new revelations) remain the same. I’ve had to morph too. As a result of my occupation, I’ve been “playing” (really exploring, examining, trying out…) with social media a little longer than many adults. Some thoughts have emerged.
I’ve been on Facebook longer than almost all of my adult friends, but unlike them, I’ve never primarily been interested in it as pure social entertainment – the digital watercooler conversation that it’s commonly used as. In fact, I’ve been using it as a kind of “human subjects research project” (unsanctioned by any academic body – see my “disclosure statement” here) to test the limits of what you can or cannot say to people in the brave new digital age. Why? Because I’m professionally and personally interested in such things. As I’m sure you’ve realized, I’m a bit of a nerd.
The main way I transgress from the established social norms is that I say a whole lot more, both in terms of quantity of content and in terms of frankness, than most people today think is okay to “share” (or “force on”) with others. I generally put up 3-7 – averaging 5 – posts a day, most of them news articles or columns that I have a comment to make about. Sometimes it’s a long, extended comment – what popularly we call a “rant.” A lot of it is politics, but I also favor large-topic social news that strikes me as something important and also something that would be interesting to get the opinions of others on.
I started doing this initially to test two things. First, I was curious what topics got the most traction – what topics drew comments or “likes.” No mystery is left for me there anymore – people overwhelmingly like 1) animals, cute or abused, mainly because they are better creatures than humans in everyone’s mind and cheer us up with their humanity; and 2) outrage -- at other humans (see #1).
The second thing I wanted to test is more interesting (to me): what are the limits today on how much you can share with others? For a long time, my general sense has been that people are increasingly disinterested in, annoyed by and even frightened by other people “oversharing” (notice that this is a relatively new word in our vocabulary).
I started with some pieces of common wisdom in my culture about sharing information: I have been told, for example, that arguing about politics in the lunchroom is “impolite” (though we all live amongst others who have radically differing thoughts on political matters that they feel free to discuss assertively with like-minded friends) so we must not discuss that. I’ve been told that explaining some fascinating new piece of information to acquaintances is “boring” (people don’t like being given too much information or being forced to think about something new), so please stick to simple things and meaningless pleasantries. To do otherwise makes people feel bad for being bored and not wanting to listen. I’ve been told that showing baby or dog or car or nature pictures to other people is impolite unless you are sure that the other person has a dog or car or baby themselves and shares the same level of interest in this subject as you do, so please only talk to your own tribe about personal interests. Parents should only have personal conversations with other parents, cat owners only with other cat owners, cooks only with other “foodies,” because you shouldn’t assume everyone likes to eat. To do otherwise forces people to consider that there are diverse groups of people in the world, some of whom are passionately interested in things that the listener is not. (To sum this up: unless you have something simple and sweet and harmless to say, please shut up and keep out of the public airspace. But, to misquote Popeye the Sailorman, I yam what I yam and I cansk be no more.)
My general takeaway from this common wisdom was that most people are really annoyed by most other people and would prefer to avoid thinking about them, and certainly don’t want to hear about any part of the world that they don’t already know about or other people’s interests in those things and their thoughts. The words and thoughts of others are, in our current age, always potentially upsetting because they threaten to pierce a very comfortable cocoon. Since this isn’t news to me, as I’m sure it isn’t news to you…
So, my initial “hypothesis” in my Facebook “experiment” was that my “oversharing” would result in a massive dropoff in my “friends” and my “likes.” Curiously, this isn’t exactly what has happened. Instead, what happened was more… muted.
My massive amount of frankly political posting (and other commentary) has not resulted in anyone (other than my own children) “unfriending” me in the decade or so that I’ve been doing this, but this is perhaps because people who “friended” me in the first place know what kind of asshole I am in advance, and are good at using Facebook’s tools to silence/ignore what I post. Or maybe I’ve driven them off Facebook… I have no hard data, but I don’t think so.
What I suspect has happened is that most people don’t read my posts or those of anybody else very often unless they are directly “tagged,” which makes the post directly personal to them. Otherwise, they ignore the social media stream, though they do stay on Facebook because, in the abstract, they want to stay connected and seem “sociable.” Of my hundred or so friends, only a handful post regularly. I’m guessing wildly, but I think most people feel too “shy” to share much, though who knows how many lurk and read. They have “silenced” themselves. As I said, we live in a culture that really discourages speaking out in all kinds of ways.
Since people seemed unwilling to “unfriend” me for my opinionated sharing, but showed instead profound quietude, the “experiment” changed. I started to grow interested not just in simply what turned people off, but in whether or not it was possible to get them to engage. As we all know, we live in highly divisive political times. Is it possible to get people to talk/argue/discuss political issues, especially when they disagree with the person proposing the topic?
What I found here probably won’t surprise you either. I do have a few friends who post regularly, and a few of those regularly “engage” with what I put up. I know by their posts that not all my friends agree with me politically, by any means. But those who respond to my posts are, with really rare exceptions, the ones that do. When my views are almost exactly like their views, they chime in because I’m their tribe -- I’ve echoed their thoughts and made them feel better about having them. This kind of friendship feels fine to me, but it’s actually not what I’ve looking for…
Actually, I somewhat hunger for engagement, which requires argument, which actually requires some difference of perspective or ideology to be meaningful. I often post pointed comments to Facebook thinking that I would enjoy a good argument – perhaps even an argument I’ll lose. Academically, I was trained in dialectic, and I find that having someone disagree with me and propose counterpoints either helps me develop my thinking in reaction, or points out their own better arguments or errors or omissions I may have made. Some intellectual competition is involved, but I rarely post something provocative with the idea of winning or convincing a friend with different views that they are wrong (because I know, duh, that this generally is impossible to do). I seek argument because working against someone’s counterpoint helps me understand the issue itself and thus myself a little better.
But, sadly, I find few people are willing to respond. As a corollary to the “common wisdom about “sharing” I mentioned earlier, it’s a modern standard to see people who argue with you as “tiresome” and “annoying.” “What do you hope to accomplish? You’re not going to change anyone’s mind,” people say. “What is the point?” Well, as I’ve said, the point is to expose both me and the other person to opposing viewpoints. “Tiresome.” “Boring.” “Egocentric.” “Mean.” These words are, I suspect, what most people think of that – because, occasionally, that’s what I hear, and, as they say in polling, every actual response reflects a thousand silent attitudes. Generally though, no one says anything because… well, that would be “picking a fight” or arguing with me. Arguing, I have been told, stresses people out, even those who are merely lurking and eavesdropping on the argument. Don’t offer any viewpoint that you might have to defend – let silence reign because other people do not want to be disturbed.
(I’m not going to go into it much here, but notice that this fear of engagement is a fear of stress, and is exactly what lies at the heart of the current “trigger warnings” controversy going on right now on college campuses. It started -- legitimately, I think -- because women who had been the victims of rape and veterans who were victims of war violence couldn’t handle the stress of having their trauma relived in the classroom. But one person’s exposure to IEDs is another person’s exposure to any idea that makes them -- even slightly -- examine their belief systems critically. We live in an age where mental challenges are considered pain, and, since we all have different “sensitivities,” all pains are deemed equal. There is some interesting trenchant commentary here about this.)
Once or twice, friends have said that my purpose is to win and to bully other people to accept my way of thinking , but actually it’s not. I do want other people to notice my thoughts though, and respond to them with thoughts of their own. But when people, a very few people, do argue with me, it’s clear that they don’t think I’m really interested in sincere argument (what we used to call ‘dialogue’) because their responses are generally just short expressions of defiance: “Bullshit.” “Nope.” “Disagree.” Or, occasionally something they consider to be a knockout blow like: “Idiot.”
One or two friends have argued substantial points with me in earnest on a few topics over the years, putting forth conflicting evidence and developing contradicting arguments and a reasoned, back-and-forth discussion has ensued (which I enjoyed), but these moments are really, really rare. Even in most of those discussions, the argument hasn’t been sustainable, as soon the friend will say “we have to agree to disagree” and try to bring an abrupt end to the conversation. My interpretation of this is that if they can’t win, they are not interested in continuing and the discussion is deemed “a waste of time.” I can see pretty clearly when this goes on that trying to respond to another person’s opposing point-of-view is tiring, even painful for my friends, though, weirdly, I don’t feel that way.
So to summarize what I have been saying so far, my social media experiment has shown me that being vocal about one’s cultural/political thoughts and ideas, while certainly culturally frowned upon, is not so socially taboo that it brings ostracism (and drives away friends), but actual engagement with people who are not in complete ideological synch is so rare as to be extinct. What we are afraid of is not exposure to forceful viewpoints but of internal struggle, which comes from considering such a viewpoint and measuring our own against it. More than anything else, we want to keep our own perspective on reality untouched, untraumatized, unchallenged.
We’re all in our own little echo chambers – our “cones of silence” – when it comes to actual meaningful interchange, whether we want to be or not. We are willing to admit that others who are different from us are out there, but heaven forbid our minds try interbreeding with them.
If this is the state of affairs (my experiment’s results are, I acknowledge extremely qualitative/subjective rather than quantitative/data-based)… then, why? No, I don’t have an answer and can’t think of a way to get one, unless someone would really engage with me… But sticking with my leaps of intuition, my guess is that virtually no one these days is accustomed to actively engaging their worldview with the worldview of anyone else – we’ve dropped the habit of human interaction and become cozy with the neat simplicity of thinking what we think. As Sartre argued, confronting the possibility that our own thinking is just a construct, and perhaps a weak one at that, is uncomfortable, even disorienting – it can cause existential crisis. We are used to being left alone inside our own heads and would like to keep it that way, thank you.
Has it always been that way? I don’t think so. In the community I grew up in, people would have long conversations (and arguments, friendly and otherwise) with their friends over coffee, at parties and at casual dinners and the family dinner table was also often a place for discussion and argument. I had the sense growing up that my father (in particular) was training me in adult conversation and argument. On the other hand, the community I grew up in (a college town) was far from an ordinary American community, and I have no data to draw on to show that this was a cultural norm. I was brought up to engage with other people and to examine life that way, but perhaps the rest of America has always hated that – I don’t know.
I do know though that that is the way that is now. Silence may not be total, but in the sphere of engagement, of sharing conflicting ideas with others… as they say now, crickets. I guess the majority likes it that way, and what the public wants in contemporary America, the public gets… But I’m going to object and say I find it disturbingly claustrophobic. In the close, hot room of your own head, it’s always August, humid and muted. Spiders spin and everything starts to die.
Like many things I ruminate over in these essays, I'm not sure there's really any point in saying all this. For the most part, we’ve told ourselves that we’ve got a comfortable place in the room of our own thoughts, with the air conditioning controlling the climate and only musak versions of the songs of our childhood disturbing the silence. Listen to that enough though, it all becomes gentle white noise, really more silent than death. Silence. Death. But it’s all good. Peaceful. Soothing. Soon it will be winter.
I hate this. Is that what we really want? Think about it. C’mon, let’s fight.