Polarisation & the Creation of Enemies

 “I hate you”.

With a self-righteous, self-inflated indignation (and, in a matter of seconds) you’ve found the Tom to your Jerry, the Moriarty to your Holmes, the Lex Luthor to your Superman.

You wrote something. Someone replied. Now you’re angry. This is a small microcosm of human behaviour that scales up.

When we feel self-justified, we dig your heals in. We puff ourselves up, and maybe even right then, pride kicks in a little bit. We hold our ground, convinced above and beyond all things – that we are right and they (whoever they are) – they are, well… just wrong.

At this point, I’m not going to get into the nuance and subtleties of whatever the important discussion was; whatever it was – I’m sure it was very important… but it’s usually at this point where it all starts.

We begin mentally preparing a case for the defence; a watertight argument to prove that other person wrong. We create and personify a foe to do battle with and are ardent that this injustice needs to be dealt with. Head on.

Now before you do that, before your case for the defence becomes a truly ‘offensive’ one. Pause. Put the kettle on, make a cuppa and let’s talk this through.

Perhaps there are lessons we can learn here amongst the relatively trivial, that can be carried out to the wider world. God knows these days we need all the help we can get right?

So I say this, not out of patronisation, but more that I have been that person who fires off a reply way before I’m ready to. I’ve posted replies, that then generate responses, that then cause me greater problems and with each iteration my blood boils, each word fuelling my own sense of frustration.

I’ve been the person who’s gotten an email and then spent the next two hours carefully crafting a reply, all the while internally I’m festering and fuming – which ultimately and mostly only really affects me. It’s actually me who loses and suffers for that.

So, out of that place, here are a few observations – perhaps more out of my own experience more than anything else, but nevertheless maybe there are some things that are common to all of us.

Digital communications aren’t like human conversations.

Digital communication are notes left on a wall, they are small bursts of information stuck onto the wild frontier of the digital ether and in some way they are as disposable as post-it notes but ironically they also do seem to a lifespan longer that that.

I had a friend who once wrote an email out to a group of people about some stuff. Not long after that, someone had managed to get a copy of that email, misunderstood it and taken it out of context – so they wrote an article in a publication. That itself caused a mini-storm around that and years later that same article caused a much bigger storm on a much bigger stage which of course then also had to be dealt with.

Misunderstandings aren’t a digital problem, they are human ones.

I’m of the opinion that ‘the internet’ (that’s what people usually call it when there is a lack of understanding) isn’t an evil or a bad thing. Neither is it totally good or pure. It’s neutral. I call it the “Goody Proctor Syndrome”. Yes there are awful cases of trolling but also it’s been at the centre of much good and social advancement. It’s usage and misuse however really lie in the heart of its’s master. Namely us.

Like alcohol, technology reveals our characters.

If someone is an optimist, they’ll post quotes from Martin Luther King, Mamma T, etc – if they are angry, similarly then that same venom oozes out.

Digital communication reveals the kind of people we are.

Digital communication is in some ways a fallacy, as we live in world that some are defining as a post-digital age. However you define it, whatever terms you use – ‘digital’ isn’t some other place like in a Tron movie. It is something that very much influences and shapes our lives in our present situations – it’s not separate and other-worldly. Digital or perhaps more accurately ‘electronic communication’ is very much a part of how we do modern living. So if you text or use email you are part of the same forces as when people use Facebook or Instagram, part of the same limitations around distanced or faceless communication.

The big problem here is that, at some level, we expect digital conversations to operate like ‘normal human ones’ (whatever those are). At some deeper level – we feel they should operate by the same rules. But they don’t.

So we need to accept the limitations that we currently have, yet at the same time advance our understanding and behaviour when we used them.
Polarisation creates a bigger human interaction gap.

When we polarise our interactions we place ourselves at one end of a continuum or conversation and the other person at the other end.

Your opposite number now exists as a dot on a horizon at the polar opposite other end of your viewpoints. A dot that barely resembles any thing, let alone another human being. In fact, they are so far removed that the only way to communicate is to shout. Or to throw things at them. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words, shouldn’t – but do actually hurt me.

In digital and electronic communication there is a human and social distance and gap, that we need to be aware of and one which we need to learn how to better traverse, but – we only learn by learning to close that gap.

So easily do we forget that the point of communication is relationship.

Communication without relationship is like shouting on a street corner. It’s more a declaration of your own view points – in some ways, regardless of whether or not any one replies or is even actually listening.

I was once part of a crowd watching some street preachers. The way the communicated was full of judgement and distance. There was no intention of conversation at all, so it was no real surprise that the more they passionately declared their opinions, the more angry the gathered crowd got; this culminated in the Police being called and ultimately those preachers being arrested and charged at court for civil unrest.

Communication without relationship is an agenda and agendas exists in the physical human world as much as in any digital one; perhaps at this point, our own frustrations kick in – as we realise we do actually have an agenda and maybe our intensions weren’t as pure as we thought or had hoped; so when our agendas rub up against other people’s – we get stalemate.

Like in a relationship, if two people have agendas then it’s difficult to get any agreement or compromise. Placing others at the end of those conversational gaps, introduces conversational interference and distortion – it increases the distance and abstracts what we say so we don’t see the subtleties or the context.

Like two people shouting at each other across a field, we get increasingly annoyed as the other person mishears and misread us.

The simple answer? Find ways to help close the gap. Find any way to close the gap!

Digital hasn’t made us lazy. We were lazy already.

Words have power, words are emotive, but none of us are as eloquent as we think we are. We write and communicate out of flawed, broken and incomplete human natures.

We ourselves have flaws and it seems obvious that, despite our best intentions effective communication and conversation will always be limited – it’s an on-going series of nuanced-back-and-forth rallies between two distinct separate groups. A rally that needs constant clarification and repositioning – some thing we are subtlety and subconsciously always doing when we are trying to make ourselves known face-to-face but something we fail to do as successfully through emails and messaging. Of course I’m not saying these things are bad, just that they are less effective in communication – I much prefer being able to converse with someone face to face, to read the nuances in the voice, their eyes, their general body language. Find me a place where two people are open and I can be in a conversation for hours.

These kinds of gaps can be bridged if enough effort is applied.

However, that will only happen if we can accept the medium’s limitations and that we not only have a responsibility for our part in those conversational gaps but we can play a part in closing those gaps from the other side by an active engagement, listening and an open mind…

That of course will not be a perfect solution but making some some effort will go towards shortening the distance. Physical bridges can cross over huge ravines, waters and spaces – but they are built one piece at a time. It just requires a little more effort from us (and sometimes a little restraint); Remember – comment is free, but conversation will always cost us something.

Whenever it’s my birthday and people post a greeting on my Facebook wall – I make sure every one of them has a personal reply from me. That’s my way of seeing and accepting what digital is bad at, but it’s also my way of working with what I’ve got and valuing the efforts made my other people.

Creating an enemy through polarisation is easier and more convenient than trying to engage in some sort of actual conversation or dialogue. There’s no need to listen or compromise.

That’s fine if that’s where you want to leave it but it’s a more mature stance to at least try to talk. To both listen and be listened to. So choose peace rather than polarisation. You might learn some thing, the other person might learn something. Hell. We all might learn something.

1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

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