Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Shouting Matches

"A Grassy Field"
- along a wilderness trail -

It appears as if Twitter has become a preferred venue for waging a presidential election campaign.  Yesterday as Donald Trump issued one of his signature, vitriolic Tweets about the “terrorist act” in Orlando, I paid particular attention to the almost immediate knee-jerk reaction this tweet elicited from the American public. Some people agreed with Trump others were diametrically opposed; but the thing I noticed most as I followed the thread of all those Twitter responses, was that no one was actually talking with one another. The whole event was just one big shouting match.

Back several years ago as the social media was just beginning to evolve, I had great hopes about what this new digital age might be able to offer to the citizens of the world – a new opportunity in which people everywhere had access to a platform where we could all dialogue with one another as we met together on venues like Facebook, Twitter or Google. I have since come to abandon that hope. In fact, I now wonder if genuine dialogue has been squashed by the technology of this digital age when our culture wars and disagreements have become more pronounced and more hostile than ever?

I vividly remember a trip we took to Greece some years ago where we visited the ancient Agora located in the center of Athens. In the fifth century BC, the Agora was a public marketplace where merchants from around the region would come to sell their wares; but the Agora was far more than a place for of buying and selling. It was also a place where people gathered to meet one another for a for a lively exchange of ideas.

Many different philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and religious authorities would come into the Agora to publicly engage in a dialogue with each other. They had many different points of view but their dialogue was always respectful. They not only spoke their minds but they also listened to one another. They didn’t always agree and sometimes they even had to agree to disagree. It was in and through this kind of respectful dialogue that greater truth and deeper wisdom emerged.

When I think of what is happening in our own times, I almost never witness people engaging in a genuine dialogue with one another and this is especially true in digital platforms like Twitter or Facebook.  All I ever see and hear are shouting matches and strident voices as people hurl insults against one another sure that their way of thinking is the one way and the only way.

I am reminded of something Wendell Berry once said:

‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy
or for a panic in a burning nightclub
appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings.
A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking,
kindness, neighborliness and peace.

As I see it, if dialogue is dead in this digital age of advanced communication, then we have become little more than a bunch of barbarian gangs with each of us feuding over our own special interests, and we are not a civilization that can long endure.

Yesterday, after following an endless thread of all those nasty tweets in that online shouting match, I came across a line from one of my favorite “Rumi” poems:

Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field,
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about ideas.
Even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense

Instead of shouting at each other, maybe we all need to unplug and just sit next to each other for a while in a grassy field beyond ideas of right and wrong where even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.

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