December 18, 2012

How To Understand Your Neighbor

I have a hard time believing anyone is evil. I guess, I’m just a very understanding person. When I see someone acting stupid or doing something violent, my reaction is normally one of concern rather than outrage. My modus operandi is to ask, Why? How? Under what circumstances? I want to absorb the person and the total context of his or her life. I want to walk in their shoes and their feet, I want to embody their flesh, see through their eyes, deal with their genetic configuration and personal history. Then I want to do a dissociated analysis of their life, rendering it against myriad different logical and philosophical frameworks. Only then, after having done all of this, will I feel qualified to offer a statement of opinion grounded in any sort of legitimacy. And, even then, as someone educated by gnostic theologians, I’m skeptical of my own humble (but entitled) opinion. Perhaps I’m 99.9% certain I’m right. But the remaining 0.1% still remains a mystery, and for whatever reason, this small mystery seems more intriguing and complex than my rational understanding of anything at all.

This is a lonely way of dealing with the world. It might even stem from a sort of sociopathy, a kind of cold autism void of typical human empathy. For example, I say, “Fascism.” You say, “evil.” I say: Let’s go back to the beginning. What is human nature? What economic, social, technological realities informed these movements? What historical currents were impressed on the world at this time? This kind of analytical response to something deemed so horrific is at best anti-social and at worst a death sentence. For we humans don’t care that much for detached analytical or philosophical responses. We care about socially appropriate responses.

We privilege the social over the analytical by default. This means that when we talk of matters of good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable, smart and dumb, we’re essentially having a conversation informed by identity instead of reason. This isn’t a necessarily bad thing. But it’s important to realize what we’re doing. When you talk about economic recovery do you download all the government budgets and argue with Excel open about how best to balance the budget? Or do you wax philosophical about the social issues without fully considering the real world economic situation and operational logistics of these programs? When you talk about gay marriage or gun laws, do you debate with passion or emotion? Or do you read the current legislation, state by state, discuss them civilly, and think about the actual steps and logistical (and cultural) hurdles of amending those laws? Most of us, not all, but most approach these topics warmly, with our hearts and through the social norms embedded in our local community. Not as abstract, third-party onlookers. That’s why we call it social media. Not intelligent or analytical media. Besides, who can connect with others about abstract concepts like equations or operational blueprints? We want to talk about social, cultural things.

Perhaps the problem we face today is the proliferation of too many different social communities who are so different they can no longer find common ground or speak in a common tongue. A local community in New England can hardly interface with a local community in Utah. This isn’t because one is dumb and the other is smart (IQ levels are pretty close across the country, though cultural education differs), not because one is evil and the other good, but because our social, psychological, economic, cultural, and even geographical worlds are so different that we are essentially talking to each other in different languages. And to make matters worse, we are constantly interacting and misunderstanding each other because the worlds incredible connectedness.

You don’t even need to study new media to understand this fragmentation and natural polarization of America. Just look at the English language. There are about one million English words now, with new words being invented constantly. However, most people know on average only about 50,000 – 75,000 words and have a speaking vocabulary of around 5,000 words. What we have today in America is a mass language, and various population segments each with their own unique vocabularies and lexical repertoires. The language of a rural farming population is much different from that of a big town in Florida that loves high school soccer; the language of the psychiatrist, that of the lawyer, that of the plumber, that of the movie star, are all different sub-languages. Everyone has a specialized version of English and even within our 5,000-word speaking vocabularies, “gun” or “wimp ” in rural Alaska  means something entirely different from what it does to a suburban kid in Chevy Chase, MD. This fragmentation of English and language is not a new phenomena. It has existed for as long as language itself has, for language is always growing. However, just consider that in 1963 major metropolitan cities typically had only four television channels (CBS, NBC, ABC, and a nonprofit station of some sort). Today, there are hundreds of channels, millions of websites, all of which install particular linguistic and visual repertoires in people. And we’re all chatting (or yelling) at each other through the web.

This can all be boiled down to a simple message: If your favorite show is 30 Rock, you read Thought Catalog, and you wear jeans and a t-shirt at work while you stare a computer screen all day, you are quite likely to have a very different 5,000-word speaking vocabulary from someone whose favorite show is South Park, favorite site is Bleacher Report, and wears a uniform all day while they operate heavy machinery. Consequently, when you debate about gun control or gay marriage or the band Muse, you are going have a hard time communicating with each other, because you are speaking in different tongues, with different cultural and social registers and different spiritual concerns.The gulf between you, I humbly suggest, is not because one person is evil or one person is dumb; we’re all actually trying to be good and everyone is smart at something. It’s simply because we are different — and it is the task of the liberal to understand, respect, cherish, and most importantly learn from our differences.TC mark