As I See It: In the Land Of Lost Listeners
April 24, 2017 Victor Rozek
“I should sell my tongue and buy a thousand ears.” – Rumi
Rumi would not do well on social media. Not much listening going on there. We are a culture of speakers. From the advent of email through the current suite of thumb-enabled apps, all are designed to amplify the mouth. From sea to shining sea, we have become one long declarative sentence fragment.
Let’s face it: Most of us speak because we want to be heard. Only a priest in a confessional begins a conversation in anticipation of listening to someone blather on about their dysfunctions. But that’s the beauty of social media: it allows us to blather on about our dysfunctions without any prompting. And, without the need for forgiveness.
Impulsive thoughts and volatile feelings can be shared without the obligation of listening to anybody else’s thoughts and feelings. Free speech is all well and good, but there’s a petulant power in ignoring other people’s free speech. Dismiss it as fake news. I am peevish, hear me roar.
Like little Caesars (the guys, not the pizzas), we issue definitive statements with imperial finality. Mere mortals may reply at their own risk. Distance, and especially anonymity, has an emboldening effect that activates the less judicious aspects of communication. Declarations are posted, without discussion, and what dialogue does exist often devolves into insult and accusation. Sort of like a family gathering at Thanksgiving.
We are becoming a nation of people who don’t listen, because we don’t have to. And because expecting to find meaning on the Internet is like looking for virtue in Vegas. Besides, algorithms make sure we can live in a bubble of our choosing. Unwelcome ideas are kept at arm’s length, and if one should sneak through the protective force field of preference, they can be hurled back into the ether with nothing more than an emphatic poke of the Delete key.
It’s impossible to gauge the full impact of countless one-sided communications, except perhaps as a colossal exercise in self-gratification. The illusion is that posting implies people are actually listening. When posts become as ubiquitous as snowflakes, however, each may in fact be slightly different, but after a while they all pretty much begin to look the same.
One of the limitations of social media is that words only comprise a paltry 7 percent of a communication – which explains the popularity of videos. Body language at 55 percent, and voice tonality at 38 percent provide the rest. We get a lot more information through our senses than we realize. And we miss a lot more when our senses aren’t engaged. I know this because it’s not unusual for people to take my sophisticated attempts at sarcasm seriously. (See, that was an example and you almost missed it.) But in my own defense when they asked an ailing British thespian if dying was hard, he said: “Dying is easy, comedy is difficult.”
Another peculiarity of social media is that every utterance, no matter how vapid, becomes as legitimate as any other by virtue of being posted. Which is like saying all meals are equal by virtue of being cooked.
Indiscriminate proximity doesn’t help. News, entertainment, scandal, hysteria, puppies and pussy cats coexist in awkward association, sort of like Congress where much is said, but little of value. Here’s what I learned just this morning: Martha Stewart reveals how often I should wash my sheets; Serena Williams is pregnant; Venezuela seized a GM plant; the president misplaced an aircraft carrier; there’s a purpose for that little tiny pocket in my jeans; Bill O’Reilly is an unemployed serial scumbag; and I was asked to “pray for the easy transition of a dying guinea pig.” Now, I like rodents as much as the next fellow – I happen to have a fondness for beavers – but really, I have to draw the line at prayer circles for guinea pigs.
Conversely, people who actually have something important to say based on, you know, irrelevant stuff like scholarship and expertise, are dismissed as elitists; marginalized by intelligence, disqualified by proficiency.
We may not have reached peak ignorance yet, but are hurtling toward it with alarming speed. Providentially, we were given some prophetic advice from a personage who had nothing less than a broadband connection to the BIG GUY himself. Pope John Paul II once opined: “Stupidity is also a gift from God, but one mustn’t misuse it.” Ordinarily such wisdom would be embraced by the huddled masses yearning to be bright, but the Pope is nothing if not elitist – I mean the Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted by Earl Scheib – so he can safely be ignored.
The other mass hallucination, shared by desperate people everywhere, is that if a post is “liked” or “retweeted,” that means that the person who posted it is also liked.
Maybe. But being “liked” on social media is akin to being liked by an Alzheimer’s sufferer: you get to be liked often, but it doesn’t last for long.
At our current pace one would hope we would soon run out of tedious things to post. Not so. We live in the Golden Age of over-sharing. Did you know “There is a body part we are all cleaning incorrectly?” Don’t ask. Or that “Leggings could reduce cellulite within 15 days?” If you believe that, then you probably believe that wardrobe malfunctions are accidental.
A society’s descent into minutia does not bode well for its future prospects. Just ask the Romans who are still trying to cash in on the remnants of the Empire. As David Brooks famously said about our very own social media addict-in-chief: “Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.”