Once upon a time there were people who – seriously – thought the internet would be a bastion of communication and that comments under works and articles would lead to a powerful new field of discourse. Recently, this idea has surfaced again, as has the suggestion that “don’t read the comments” is somehow a statement of tolerance, as if to suggest that by not reading them we are accepting the idea that they are going to be full of hate, and we’re okay with that. It’s not that we’re okay with it, but that there’s no other way it can be, and it’s got nothing to do with how polite we are so much as the limits on human communication capabilities.
Work with me here.
For the main chunk of our one-million-years-ish of being humans, we existed in relatively small tribal groups, like less than a hundred. Our communication abilities were designed to work in our tribe, and anyone who was outside our tribe and over the hill was anathema. Not only did we not talk to them, but we were able to see them as the Other so much we could crack their heads open with stones and dance on the pink goo within. And with sound reason: they said things we couldn’t understand like river runs fast all year when we knew river froze solid every year, duh, dude, do you even weather?
Even as we built up written language and increased travel and communication our cultures have remained fairly insular in so far as what words mean. There is only so far we can stretch our mind to be able to communicate with other people. We can imagine how someone might come to a certain viewpoint, but not fast enough to talk to them. We agree on the meaning of lots of words but we just can’t always work across cultures. Different words mean different things to different people, even if they are both using English. Indeed, sometimes we deliberately changed the meanings of words to raise up cultural and political barriers.
And the thing is, we tend to see culture first before we see content. Before we can evaluate if river runs quickly all year we ask ourselves, did people from south say that, or someone we can trust? It’s an instinctual thing and it runs into the kind of words we use, making those words mean different things and make our underlying beliefs shift.
And over the history of humanity only two things have really challenged this idea. The first is the printing press, the second the internet. Gutenberg’s press appeared in the 15th century but it wasn’t until like the 18th century – in the age of enlightenment – that books were travelling all over the world and people were reading things completely outside their culture. And that’s right about the time people started burning books, too. Because they encountered views that broke their minds and were better off being destroyed.
The internet has in many ways encountered the same problem. The sudden rise of total communication has forced us to encounter minds we simply aren’t evolved to easily comprehend, let alone communicate with. Some of them we consider so anathema we want to take out of circulation. Others we simply block from our community or our exposure. I’m not saying blocking people on Twitter is the same as burning a book, but I do think they are driven by the same sensation, by people encountering thoughts so poisonous to them they had to be shut away, and the reason those thoughts are so poisonous is they come from a completely different culture.
To some people, gay sex is what happens when sailors rape people, because that’s what they were taught in their culture. And unless they educate themselves, they’ll always have that context. To find a milder example, the shouting match I had on facebook the other day was because people could see something as being racially insensitive but didn’t recognize it as racism because to them, racism meant shouting about killing all the Jews. To put it another way: almost all arguments on the internet are definitional arguments, all that changes is how long it takes you to realize this.
But in a comments thread you can’t sit down with each person and work out where your cultural word definition issues are occurring, because they don’t allow for that. And we do not have the mental capacity to constantly adjust for cultures we can’t see while having the kind of conversations that take place on comment threads. The thing about the internet is everyone is in there, and they all come from different valleys, so the odds of having any kind of useful, productive, interesting conversation are infinitesimally small, because nobody is speaking the same language. Whereas in real life, we have throughout our lives created natural villages of shared values and common social, political, economic and educational understandings that mean we rarely have to adjust our language at all.
And it’s this phenomenon that has made the world seem so much more divided since the net arrived. As much as we believe in universal fraternity of our species, we’ve spent our entire evolutionary history living in tiny valleys and not having the ability (regardless of how much we might want to) to talk to people in the next valley. The net throws all these people together, and in the Babel, all we can do is talk in memes and try to rally around flags as much as possible, to get our valleys back. It’s interesting how political they’ve become – it was the same way with the enlightenment, and may be a feature of humanity too.
I’m not saying we can’t talk on the internet, or that it won’t bring people together. Indeed, what it can do is help you see people who live in your valley even though you’re millions of miles apart. But it is important to understand the limitations of the medium, and how it differs from real life. There are a lot of weird weird valleys out there and you’re just not going to be able to understand how they talk, and they won’t be able to understand you. And there is limited value in exposing your mind to that, in an arena that isn’t helping cross-valley communication.
And that’s why we say: don’t read the comments. Except on my blog, of course.